By Thomas Dean Hogan
Sometimes I marvel at the country we have chosen to retire to, though not simply because of its stunning natural wonders and its almost perfect climate. No, there are many more fascinating aspects to life here that I know you will agree merit both mention and more attention so please humor me a short while and see if this is a midlands thing (una cosa costeña) which I speak of or indeed if it is a national attribute.
I speak as a retiring expat about to return to Quevedo and my darling wife and our previously uncomplicated life there. And my concern is the thirst for and the willingness to believe in rumors that I note has an almost frightening energy amongst the people in Los Rios Province at times.
For example, on the evening of Monday April 8, 2016, while all of us were still reeling and punch drunk in the aftermath of the disastrous earthquake two days previously, I was sitting at my desk at home when some commotion at the front of the house caught my attention. There seemed to be a torrent of activity and then voices were raising and footfalls started getting even louder and so I left what I was doing to join my wife in the foyer and see what was amiss.
She was listening to someone very agitated outside and she turned anxiously to me as I arrived saying, “La presa se ha reventado mi amor,” with a worrying tremble in her voice. I looked from her to our frantic neighbour at the window – then to the people pouring down the street behind him carrying luggage – entire families some of them — and he animatedly confirmed that what she had said was true – the blessed dam had collapsed and a deluge of white water was most certainly gushing and swooshing its way into Quevedo to flood the river and the entire plain the city is built on. It was going to burst banks and destroy houses, take children and leave cattle splayed dead and it would be of merciless and biblical proportions, he explained with an incongruent, hearty dread.
Panic was building on the street outside. I noted that my wife had disappeared, no doubt looking for suitable bags for an urgent exodus to safety, while I frankly just found myself bemused by the alarm amongst my neighbours. My gut feeling was neither fight nor flight, readers; it was more disbelief. Surely if such a calamitous event had occurred, we would have heard from an official source and not just on the street like this, wouldn’t we. I tried to reason the situation out – could a dam have been damaged by the earthquake and ultimately collapsed? Was there even a dam somewhere in Los Rios? Could they maybe be talking about a reservoir? Was there one of those nearby?
My cynical old mind went into overdrive as I called to my wife to wait while I went inside and turned on both the TV and the local radio station for some class of confirmation – some state of emergency call – some grim official face or voice, anything that would ease my disbelief and spur me into action.
And then came clarification my friends, crackling out of our old 80s boom box and live on local radio in Quevedo, almost clear as day and for all to hear. The effusive announcer was clearly perturbed as he pleaded with people not to be so naive and to return to their houses, complaining how a calumnious rumor had been started by a wicked band of thieves to get people to abandon their homes and leave their stuff behind, ripe for easy pickings.
I turned up the volume as loud as it would go then went back to the foyer to make sure those passing outside could hear it. Some did, came over and checked with me for confirmation before nervously, almost begrudgingly even, shuffling off on their way home; others kept going, they were leaving their houses that night and no one was about to stop them, I supposed. For my part I was pleased that my wife had relaxed and been spared the angst and the stress of the moment and she quickly gave thanks to her favorite saints, as she invariably does when calamity comes, or is narrowly avoided.
Back to today then, readers, and while a part of me wants to interpret the latest reports flooding from Los Rios as speculation and exaggeration, another part of me is afraid that if they are somehow true then the quiet retirement my wife and I have worked so hard for has all but abandoned us. The difficulty is that these rumors, unlike the one about the dam, are much more believable, my friends. You see, when the tale about the dam gathered traction, it was word of mouth with no official gravitas – just gossip — but these latest reports are frequently being confirmed by police for people on the ground there and are borne out by a tide of national press reports from both Quito and Guayaquil that I have been reading while away.
To contextualise the rumour — remember when the Ecuadorian navy made a concentrated effort to get Colombian drug-runners off the high seas along the coast a few years ago? Well, they really succeeded, and the cartels’ response to that has been to create a land corridor down south through Ecuador all the way to Peru, buying up officials, locals and petty thieves as required and even penetrating the prison system so that they can protect their foot soldiers in times of need. This, in turn, has given way to a huge increase in delinquency and, more insidiously, a surge in racketeering and extortion. I hear that there are school teachers in Los Rios being shaken down for a slice of their salaries; that not even the smallest local trader is immune from some oleaginous visitor demanding “la vacuna” (the vaccination – how topically paradoxical a name for a demand for protection money, made under threat).
Cloying criminals are apparently now extorting money from people across the spectrum in Los Rios, from the smallest landlady with a room to let, to the biggest wholesale providers and everyone in between. But the protection money being demanded is not for the cartels, I’ll wager. I’m sure they have more than enough on their hands keeping their own businesses going. It strikes me that some unctuous opportunists have jumped on the bandwagon, selling fear of the cartels and finding it all too easy to get a lucrative foothold into racketeering, creating new markets for their slavering selves as they go, and causing a palpable dread amid the population of Los Rios. Of course, as well as the tales about “la vacuna,” there is a swell of rumors about what may happen or what has happened to those who have been either unable or who have refused to pay it and these are shocking in the extreme, with stories of gunfire and death and blazing homes now rife.
I sincerely hope it is mostly just rumor dear friends, or at the very least highly over-exaggerated. My wife and I are a little older and unwilling to rewrite our future at this late stage. That said, as an outsider I understand that I would certainly be a legitimate target for such extortionists I’m pretty sure, and that would cause my dear wife more worry than she should ever have. I guess maybe she and I have some talking to do when I get home after Christmas.
FYI readers, Ecuador has three large dams, two of which, the Mazar and the Paute, are northeast of Cuenca on the Paute River, while the other is in Napo province, on the Coca. It would be hard indeed for any of them to ever impact you or me should they one day collapse as all are well distant from us, or indeed any major urban centres.