Comments by President Lenin Moreno are being blamed for inciting violence in the northern city of Ibarra following the Saturday night murder of a pregnant Ecuadorian woman by her Venezuelan boyfriend. After the woman was stabbed in front of dozens of national police and a crowd of bystanders, Venezuelan refugees were chased and beaten and their belongings burned by mobs that roamed the streets.
At one point, police formed a cordon around a house where refugees are living to protect it from an angry crowd.
Following the murder, Moreno said he would establish law enforcement brigades to patrol Venezuelan refugee communities and introduce new requirements for Venezuelans entering Ecuador. “Ecuador is a country of peace and I will not allow foreign criminals to bring terror to our people,” he said. “We must do this for Diana Carolina,” he added, referring to the murdered woman.
Refugee rights advocates and legal experts immediately attacked Moreno’s response, claiming that it “demonized” Venezuelans and incited violence against them. “What we needed was a steady voice following this terrible event but, instead, the president is attacking the refugees and fueling xenophobia,” said Daniel Regalado, president of the Ecuador Association of Venezuelans.
Saturday night’s murder followed an hour-long stand-off with police on an Ibarra street when the Venezuelan man held his girlfriend at knife-point, threatening to kill her if police came too close. She died later at a local hospital as a result of stab wounds and the man was was arrested.
On Sunday, crowds of protesters filled downtown Ibarra, condemning the murder and the police response to the hostage situation that preceded it. Protest leaders said that most demonstrators were simply advocating an end to violence, particularly against women, but some carried signs calling for the expulsion of Venezuelans. Meanwhile, police protected dozens of Venezuelans at the bus terminal who were attempting to leave town.
In his remarks, Moreno also criticized the national police for their handling of the situation and ordered an investigation of their actions. On Sunday, Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo fired Ibarra’s police chief, saying he should have “acted with decisive authority” to prevent the murder.
Criticism of Moreno’s comments mounted throughout the day Sunday on social media and talk radio. “Statements by senior officials can constitute, in themselves, violations of the government’s duty to respect, guarantee and prevent violations of human rights,” said University of San Francisco legal expert Daniela Salazar. “Far from condemning macho violence, the expressions of Lenin Moreno have incited acts of violence and xenophobia in Ibarra.”
Regalado said he was “saddened and appalled” by Moreno’s comments. “More than a million Venezuelans have passed through Ecuador in search of better lives and this is the first incident of its kind,” he said. “These are people who are fleeing violence back home and it is unfair that the president adds one tragedy to another.”
At the Ibarra bus station Sunday, refugees said it is impossible to remain in Ibarra. “This is a terrible little town filled with terrible people and we must get out,” said one woman. “We will go to Quito or Cuenca where people are not violent.”