By Liam Higgins
Today marks an anniversary that led to the bloodiest chapter in modern Ecuadorian history.
On October 25, 1922, hundreds of railroad workers gathered to protest in Durán, just east of Guayaquil. Their demand: an eight-hour work day, the right to organize labor unions, overtime pay, compensation for those injured on the job, and the establishment of workplace safety standards.
Over the next three weeks, the protests moved to Guayaquil as dozens of other labor organizations, including shipyard workers, joined the movement, demanding better pay and improved working conditions.
The protests came during a time of economic hardship for a number of Ecuador’s key industries. Following several years of strong growth following the end of World War I, the prices of some of Ecuador’s largest exports were in decline.
The price of 100 pounds of cocoa fell from 26 sucres, in January of 1920, to 5.75 sucres, in December of 1921. Prices for the Panama hats manufactured in Cuenca, dropped by 40%. Overall, revenue from all exports dropped by 45%.
According to labor leaders, business interests wanted to cushion their economic exposure by lowering workers’ pay and extending work hours.
Following protests on November 13 and 14, more than 50 labor organizations joined forces for a major protest on November 15. According to reports, more than 500 workers from Cuenca, many involved in the hat-making trade, traveled horse trails through the Cajas Mountains to join the Guayaquil workers.
On November 15, a crowd estimated at 5,000 headed for the governor’s office in Guayaquil, demanding the release of protesters who had been arrested the previous day. Several blocks from their destination, police and army troops opened fire with rifles and machine guns, killing an estimated 1,500. According to press reports, almost a third of those killed were women and children. It was also reported that many of those firing on the protesters were business owners who took aim from second and third floor balconies along the protest route.
In the aftermath of the shootings, police and military troops were said to have thrown hundreds of bodies into the Guayas River while more bodies were loaded onto trains to be buried in mass graves in areas north and east of Guayaquil.
According to Ecuadorian writer Alfredo Pareja Diezcanseco, the shootings “continued for hours and the streets ran with blood.”
“Amidst the whistle of bullets and the smell of gun powder were the screams of the dying, the most heart-breaking from women and children,” Diezcanseco wrote. “Bodies broke into pieces, jaw bones were splintered, eyes popped form their sockets and the hands of the dead reached for the sky as if in an attempt to escape the horror.”
Diezcanseco added: “And through it all, the bullets continued to scream into the crowd.”
Later, it was learned that Ecuador President José Luis Tamayo gave direct orders to open fire. He was quoted by an aid, the day before the killings, saying, “I hope that tomorrow, at six in the afternoon, you will inform me that you have returned Guayaquil’s tranquility by whatever means necessary. Above all, the interests of business must be protected.”
One report says that political and business leaders of Guayaquil had gathered in the street November 13, drafting a message to Tamayo, urging that deadly force be used to put down the protests. The report said the men met in the street so that their wives and children would not overhear the conversation.
Tamayo later denied that he had given the order despite claims by army officers to the contrary.
According to Diezcanseco and other writers, family members of those killed searched for the bodies for more than 20 years. They received no help from the government, which claimed that only a few dozen were killed and that they had no knowledge of the missing.
“November 15, 1922 is a day of shame for Ecuador,” Diezcanseco wrote. “It was the day the streets of Guayaquil turned red.”