Decision to release gang leader sparks debate about corruption among judges, other officials

Dec 20, 2022 | 12 comments

Last week’s decision by a Guayaquil judge to release a criminal gang leader from prison has sparked a firestorm of charges and counter-charges about corruption within Ecuador’s justice system. Although Junior Alexander Roldán, alias “JR”, was back behind bars within hours of his release, President Guillermo Lasso, U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Michael Fitzpatrick and others are calling for a “housecleaning” of the country’s judiciary and an investigation of other government officials.

U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Michael Fitzpatrick

One National Assembly member is claiming that several fellow assemblymen have connections with drug cartels while the Interior Ministry says it is investigating candidates in the February elections who have allegedly accepted contributions from criminal gangs.

“The patience of the public is running out when judges allow dangerous criminals back on the streets,” Lasso said Friday. “It is one thing to be impartial and another to be indifferent. If the bad judges are not removed from the court they will be taken before the court of public opinion where their punishment will be much harsher.”

On Friday, Fitzpatrick said that Ecuador cannot control its crime problem until it removes judges who are influenced by drug money. “Parts of the country’s judicial system have been corrupted by criminal elements,” he said. “If Ecuador is to seriously fight the criminals it must have a strong, independent judiciary.” Last year, Fitzpatrick claimed that officers in Ecuador’s military and National Police had been bribed by criminal gangs and announced that the U.S. had cancelled more than 200 visas as a result.

Assemblyman Fernando Villavicencio, who met recently with Fitzpatrick, is asking National Assembly leadership to begin investigations not only into the judiciary but some of its own members. “There is corruption within this organization and if we cannot clean our own house, how can we clean up corruption among judges and other officials?”

Earlier in the year, Villavicencio had provided names to prosecutors of several members of the Correista UNES and indigenous Pachakutik parties who he said had ties to drug cartels.

The Ecuadorian Association of Magistrates and Judges is defending judicial decisions that have led to the release of prisoners. “Yes, there may be cases when judges have been corrupted, and they should be removed and prosecuted, but it is important that executive and legislative actors understand that that judges must follow the law no matter where it leads,” the association said. “The president and others talk about technicalities that allow prisoners to go free but some of those so-called technicalities are pillars of our justice system.”

A retired judge who asked to remain anonymous told the Ecuavisa news services that some judges may be acting under intimidation from criminal gangs. “We can talk about corruption, and I am sure there is some of that, but many judges are receiving threats on their life and the lives of their families,” he said. “There needs to be more involvement of the police and prosecutors to protect judges and other judicial officers. In the last year, four judges have been murdered. At the same time we investigate cases of corruption, let us also consider the the threats our judges face on a daily basis.”