Witnesses describe how a criminal network controlled the courts and prisons, implicate Correa

Mar 29, 2024 | 0 comments

In a 14-hour court hearing Thursday in Quito, four government witnesses described how a powerful criminal gang leader manipulated Ecuador’s court and prison systems for favorable legal rulings and preferential treatment. Key moments of the testimony included details of how a prison pacification commissioner, the president of the national judiciary council and two National Assemblymen, did the bidding of drug traffickers.

The Quito courtroom where witnesses presented testimony in the Metastasis Case was heavily protected by police and military personnel.

One witness, the prison cellmate of Leandro Norero, alias El Patrón, described video calls between Norero and former president Rafael Correa regarding the imprisonment of former vice president Jorge Glas. Norero is the centerpiece of the Attorney General’s Metastasis Case, which has resulted in the arrests of more than 50 public officials.

Mayra Salazar, former communication director for the Guayas Provincial Court, detailed her work as a “go between” for Norero, Guayaquil court officials, judges and National Assemblyman Pablo Muentes, to get favorable court rulings for gang members. “He [Muentes] had control of the [National] Judiciary Council and its president [Wilman Terán] and I delivered messages and the money to pay the judges,” she said.

Salazar, no relation to Attorney General Diana Salazar, also described efforts to gain “influence and control” of local and national governments. In one case, she met the son of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias El Chapo, to support the political campaigns of former Correista Assemblyman Ronny Aleaga and current mayor of Simón Bolívar, María Fernanda Vargas. “This was all about money and intimidating people who were in the opposition,” she said.

Salazar, who was jailed in the first wave of Metastasis arrests in December, agreed to be a government witness in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Marcelo Lasso, Norero’s cellmate, bodyguard and “right-hand man” described his work with other gang leaders to manipulate the legal system, as well as with Prison Pacification Commissioner Claudia Garzón, who was also arrested in December. “She [Garzón] made sure that his [Norero’s] wishes were met while she worked for the government,” Lasso said.

Lasso also described delivering $200,000 to the former director of the national prison system, Pablo Ramírez, to protect Norero in the Latacunga prison and to prevent searches for weapons and other contraband.

In a highlight of Thursday’s testimony, Lasso claimed he was present on several occasions when Norero spoke via video call with former president Rafael Correa. “They mostly talked about how to get Jorge Glas out of prison,” he said. “Money passed from Leandro and Daniel Salcedo to some judges to make this happened.”

According to Lasso, Correa told Norero that he would soon return to power in Ecuador and wanted Glas out of prison and able to return to political office.

In other testimony, Helive Angulo, one of Norero’s attorneys, described how he moved money between Norero and Manta Mayor Agustín Intriago. “Agustín came to Leandro several times for money,” Angulo said. “Once, he needed $500,000 to buy a condo and said he would pay it back by helping [Norero] get city contracts.” Intriago was assassinated in July 2023, reportedly for disobeying drug gang orders.

Angulo also described delivering jewelry, cars and condos in exchange for various favors. “Leondro took care of his friends and I helped him with this,” he said.

The fourth witness at Thursday’s hearing, prosecutor Lidia Sarabia, described the difficulty in working with a corrupt judicial system. “So many of the judges I went before seemed to be on the narcos’ payroll,” she said. “It was almost impossible to get real justice. In one case, a judge in Santo Domingo returned property to Norero that had previously been seized and he refused to hear my objection.”

Sarabia says she has been in fear for her life since she began working anti-corruption cases. “My life changed entirely. I couldn’t even walk out to the street in front of my house without worrying that a hitman would drive by.” Her concerns were justified when the Attorney General’s office obtained a chat between Norero and Angulo. In it, Norero suggests “scaring” Sarabia and, if that doesn’t work, to have her murdered.

Due the threats, Sarabia is currently in the national court’s witness protection program.

Leandro Norero was murdered in the Cotopaxi prison in October 2022, after the coalition of criminal gangs he coordinated fell apart.

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