Torture and disappearances of ‘enemies’ were common during Ecuador’s ‘bloody ’80s’

Jun 12, 2020

By Liam Higgins

Ecuador didn’t experience the widespread government violence against its citizens that Argentina and Chile saw in the time of military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s. Neither did it see the bloody guerrilla and drug wars of its neighbors, Colombia and Peru.

A 2018 memorial for the Restrepo brothers in Quito.

It did, however, experience a period during which police and military personnel tortured and killed people — mostly those involved in leftist movements — seen as “enemies” of the government. According to Human Rights Watch, about 200 citizens died in the country during the 1980s, and hundreds more were jailed and tortured.

One of the most notorious examples, known simply as the Restrepo Case, involved the death of two brothers more than 30 years ago. An investigation later revealed widespread cases of police abuse and, ultimately, the dismantling of a special police unit involved in most of them.

Teenagers Carlos Santiago and Pedro Restrepo, sons of leftist activists, were on their way to the Quito airport on January, 8, 1988 when they went missing. At first, police suggested they had run away from home, or were involved in a car accident.

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The story remained the same until an international commission investigated the case in 1991. It determined that officers from the National Police Criminal Investigative Service (SIC), which had been dissolved the previous year, were involved in the disappearances. Police had stopped the brothers and searched their vehicle, before torturing and killing them, according to one officer, disposing of the bodies in a nearby lake.

Many Ecuadorians blamed the U.S. for the 1980s violence against the political left.

Although the brother’s bodies have never been recovered, several former SIC officers were convicted of the killings in 1995.

It was never determined why the Restrepos were killed. One officer suggested it had to do with the Restrepos’ family ties to groups opposed to the Ecuadorian government of the time.

The commission’s investigation and the subsequent murder trial revealed a wide range of violence against citizens that continues to be investigated. The government of ex-president Rafael Correa said it intended to solve as many cases as possible and punish those responsible little was done.

In 2017, prosecutors prepared a case against eight former police and military officials on 1985 charges of kidnap, torture and sexual violence against three Ecuadorians considered “enemies of the government” of former President León Febres-Cordero. The case is still pending.

Former President León Febres-Cordero kept an “enemies of the government” list.

The government charged that the police and military officers kidnapped Susana Cajas, Luis Vaca and Javier Jarrín in Esmeraldas during a military patrol. The three were taken back to Quito where the torture and sexual abuse allegedly occurred.

According to former Ecuador Attorney General Galo Chiriboga, police and military officials in the Febres-Cordero administration maintained a policy to destroy groups considered “enemies,” which involved torture and false imprisonment.

According to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch, the Febres-Cordero received money fromt the U.S. CIA for the purpose of combating leftist opposition in Ecuador. One document indicated that Febres-Cordero received personal payments for his efforts.

Investigations in the 1990s also revealed a pattern of violence against indigenous groups by land owners that resulted in dozens of deaths, many of them never investigated. According to reports, the land owners hired former military and police officers from the Esmeraldas area to patrol land in rural areas.

Although the owners claimed they were simply protecting their property, at least one admitted later that some of them were attempting to claim land owned by indigenous families.

According to Chiriboga, “It was a dark time in Ecuador’s history.”

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