Ecuador’s raid of the Mexican embassy poses a threat to Latin American diplomacy

Apr 26, 2024 | 0 comments

By Tessa Flemming

For years, Ecuador and Mexico looked like two countries in diplomatic harmony. Despite their political differences, the pair worked as partners tackling gang crime and migration and boasted a two-way trade of $US368 million ($562 million) in 2023.

Then in early April, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador questioned the electoral violence surrounding the win of Ecuador’s Daniel Noboa.

Within days, Ecuador had declared the Mexican ambassador persona non grata. Mexico retaliated by granting political asylum to a convicted former vice-president.

What happened next — an armed, allegedly violent, raid of Mexico’s embassy in Ecuador — shuddered their ties altogether.
So how did this all occur, and what happens next?

A video taken in the Mexican embassy shows Ecuadorian police entering, restraining an embassy officer, and apprehending former vice president Jorge Glas.

How did it unfold?
On April 5, Ecuadorian security forces — armed with shields — scaled the walls of the Mexican embassy in Quito and barged through its doors. In CCTV footage from the night a resisting former-vice president Jorge Glas is seen being carried out by his hands and feet.

The video also shows Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Chief in the embassy Roberto Canseco struggle with security forces as he tries to keep them from seizing Glas.

A copy of Mexico’s later complaint to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) claims Mr Canseco was “violently assaulted” in the incident, suffering injuries to his arms, legs, face, back, and neck.

Another embassy staff member Martha Balbuena called it the “the saddest moment” in her public service career.

Once seized, Glas was transported to a maximum-security prison in the port city of Guayaquil. He has since alleged police beat him during the arrest, though they say force was progressively used due to the ex vice-president’s resistance.

Who is Jorge Glas?
Jorge Glas was Ecuador’s vice-president from 2013 to 2017 under leftist president Rafael Correa. In 2017 he was removed through a decree of Correa’s successor Lenín Moreno.

Ecuadorian police outside the Mexican embassy foollowing the raid.

Shortly after his removal, Glas was sentenced to six years in prison for leading a million-dollar corruption network between politicians and embattled construction company Odebrecht. The Odebrecht scandal— named after Latin America’s largest construction conglomerate — is labelled by the region’s legal advocates as one of the “largest transnational bribery schemes ever uncovered”.

In 2020, Glas was found guilty for his role in a separate scheme where he collected bribes in exchange for issuing public contracts between 2012 and 2016. He was sentenced to eight years in jail.

In 2022, an Ecuadorian judge ordered Glas be released from prison, after his lawyers claimed Glas was not safe behind bars. Facing further embezzlement charges, Glas sought asylum from Mexico’s Quito embassy in December, which it approved just hours before the April 5th raid.

Ecuador has claimed Mexico has no ground to grant Glas asylum as he is facing criminal charges, and asylum is therefore in contradiction to international protocol.

Mexico contends the charges are politically motivated.

How common are embassy raids?
Amid a long history of military coups, it is not unusual for Latin American politicians to seek asylum in another nation’s embassy.

Former vice president Jorge Glas

For example, Peruvian leader Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre spent five years at the Colombian Embassy in Lima.
The case moved Latin America to introduce its own policy on political asylum, the 1954 Convention on Diplomatic Asylum.
Ecuador even called itself a safe haven for whistleblower Julian Assange who sought political asylum in its London embassy in 2012.

In contrast, embassy raids are definitively rarer and more concerning. As Mexico’s secretary of foreign relations Alicia Bárcena put it: “Not even the dictator Pinochet had dared to enter the Mexican embassy in Chile”.

Griffith University researcher at the School of Government and International Relations Diego Leiva says embassy immunity is one of the guiding principles of international relations. He says it’s important to understand an embassy is essentially a “territory of your country outside of your country”.

Even throughout wars, embassies have generally been protected. “During some of the worst dictatorships in the region, this principle has been respected,” Mr Leiva says. “[Embassies] allows the diplomacy to continue, even during very tense periods. “You always want to at least be able to talk, and to avoid escalating further conflict.”

Mr Leiva says Ecuador’s disregard for embassy protection posed a “terrible precedent.” “You’re questioning a principle that has been there for many years, and that’s worrying because it becomes normal or justifiable to do these kind of things,” he adds. “It could become something much more common, and then diplomacy as an institution may lose its importance or effectiveness.

How has the world responded?
Since Mexico cut diplomatic ties with Ecuador, Nicargua has followed suite. Honduras has recalled its charge d’affaires, and Venezuela has closed its Ecuadorian embassy.

Protesters gathered outside the Mexican embassy two days after the raid.

The US has also condemned what it deems a “violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations”.

However, it has been hesitant to interject further. US National Security advisor Jake Sullivan has asked Ecuador to resolve the conflict itself with Mexico.

Mr Leiva fears this muted response has been alarmingly common, especially among Mexico’s neighbours. “I would have expected something much stronger from the region, especially considering this institution,” he said. “Maybe the problem is the person they took, because Jorge Glas has been actually convicted for crimes. It’s very hard to say he’s someone who’s been wrongly persecuted.”

The US’s dwindling influence over Latin America could also be behind its lacklustre response. “We saw the US make a statement but not a very clear or strong one, and I don’t think the United States will do much more about this,” Mr Leiva says.
“The US influence in the region has diminished over the years, so even if they want to put more pressure I don’t think they really can do much.”

What further action can Mexico take?
Mexico has asked the United Nations to expel Ecuador from the organisation, alongside its ICJ complaint. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said an Ecuadorian suspension would be for “the member states to decide.”

The likelihood of that request succeeding is slim, Mr Leiva warns. “It’s highly, highly unlikely,” he says. “I think it’s much more symbolic. Mexico wants to have more clear, broad international condemnation, so that’s probably why taking this issue to the UN… so everyone gets to see what’s happened.”

The likelihood of a successful ICJ case, however, is more hopeful.

“They may be able to get a stronger resolution there of the conflict,” Mr Leiva says. “Latin America has a long history of going to the Court of Justice to some resolution, and the region tends to agree with them on the results.”

What’s happening elsewhere in Ecuador?
The diplomatic rift could further damage Ecuador’s fraying stability.

Ecuador has been under a state of emergency since early January when powerful Los Choneros gang leader Adolfo ‘Fito’ Macías escaped prison. His escape was followed by gunmen taking over a television station during a live broadcast and brandishing explosives.

Gang warfare has been worsening in the state, marred by the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

2023 was Ecuador’s bloodiest on record, with more than 7,600 homicides — up from 4,600 the prior year.
In response, Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa has swiftly cracked down on security, touting a new plan that will include expanded powers for the police and military.

Many, including Mr Leiva, say the embassy raid was partly about maintaining Noboa’s “strongman” image. “Going against international law for the sake of national security — the calculation was it was going to be good internally because he was fighting crime. He may have won some internal points and actually lost a lot of international points for this.”

Ecuadorians voted overwhelmingly for these new measures in an April 21 referendum, but this political gamble may hinder its long-term success. Already, Colombia has backed out of bilateral meetings on gang crime.

Mr Leiva says the issue of transnational organised crime can only be solved with “collaboration between governments”.
“The isolation of Ecuador could have implications for this, in terms of information, in terms of intelligence, and in terms of cooperation,” he says. “Especially considering that there is a clear link between what happened in Ecuador to the Mexican cartels. The country that you want to be able to dialogue with and co-operate with is Mexico, and now those connections and links are completely gone.”

What happens now?
López Obrador is demanding a public apology from Ecuador for the raid, reparation of damages and a promise not to do it again.

But Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Gabriela Sommerfeld has been staunch in her defence of the raid. She says an apology “is not something that is under discussion at this moment.”

Meanwhile, Glas looks set to remain in jail for a while — despite attempting suicide and launching a hunger strike.

On April 12, an Ecuadorian tribunal concurred his arrest “was illegal and arbitrary” but Judge Monica Heredia said Glas’s previous convictions meant the tribunal couldn’t modify his sentence.

Glas’s lawyer Sonia Vera said her team will continue to appeal “until he is free.”

Credit: ABC Australia News


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