More neighborhoods organize vigilantes to stop crime, claim the government is nonreponsive

Apr 22, 2023 | 15 comments

Saying they are frustrated and angry about rising crime, residents of Cuenca parishes and neighborhoods continue to mount public protests, organizing their own anti-crime vigilante squads. On Thursday and Friday nights, residents of more than a dozen neighborhoods took to the streets, many carrying torches, sticks and machetes.

In the El Valle parish, in southeast Cuenca, an estimated 5,000 marched through the streets Friday night.

A suspected extortionist is led away by police Friday at the Feria Libre market. He suffered broken ribs in a beating administered by the crowd who caught him.

Earlier Friday, three parish presidents and their supporters claim they were stood up by Azuay Governor Matías Abad. “We were invited to the Government Center by the governor to discuss our concerns about crime but no one came to talk to us,” said Baños parish councilman Diego Ramos. “We waited for almost an hour but the governor did not even show us the courtesy of sending a substitute.”

Outside the government center, in Parque Calderon, University of Azuay economics professor Juan Pazmiño blasted the government for its lack of response to citizen concerns. “From Quito to Cuenca, at every level of government, the response has been ineffective in addressing crime,” he said. “The president is sick in the hospital, the Assembly only cares about impeachment and the governor doesn’t bother to show up for a meeting he promised to attend. What the hell is going on? Why is the biggest problem in the country being ignored?”

On Friday night, a spokesman for Abad blamed a scheduling misunderstanding kept him from attending the meeting.

Earlier Friday, Abad told a Radio Tomebamba interviewer that the government is acting “decisively” to combat crime. “There are 350 military troops on the streets of Cuenca, checking vehicles for firearms and explosives,” he said. “We have confiscated more than 50 weapons since the beginning of the week and the troops will continue the operation.” Abad said that road checks are based on a “profile” of the most likely suspects. “We focus on young men traveling in older vehicles who appear to be from the coast or to be of Peruvian and Colombian origin.”

A sign posted in the historic district warns thieves they will caught and burned.

Pazmiño said troops on the streets are welcome but said police must make neighborhood patrols a priority. “The governor keeps saying Cuenca is not like Guayaquil and this is true. However, if the police response does not change, paying more attention to where people live and work, the situation will get worse.”

Leaders of neighborhood groups say they have organized street patrols and set up phone and social media alert systems to warn of suspected thieves and extortionists. In addition, signs are being posted around Cuenca warning thieves and extortions that they will be captured and, in some cases, burned.

Oliver Mejía, president of the Virgen de Bronce neighborhood said residents have established a night patrol to catch thieves who have targeted the area in recent weeks. “We caught a vaccinator on Thursday and administered punishment before the police arrived. If they had arrived a few minutes later, the punishment would have been much worse.”

Cuenca social media sites posted videos and photos of at least eight suspected thieves and extortionists being beaten by crowds on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday morning, a video showed a man slumped on a Mariscal Sucre sidewalk, blood streaming from his eyes and ears, as police arrived to take him away. A computer store owner claimed the man attempted to steal a hard drive.

Police are warning neighborhood leaders against “lynching” but admit it is a practice with a long history in Ecuador. “We are making renewed efforts to respond timely to calls and are asking citizens to detain suspected criminals without administering punishment,” says Colonel William Egas, deputy commander of the Azuay Police.


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