Ecuador News Round-Up No. 6: Lasso Scrambles for US Allies as Candidates Spar in Crucial Debate

October 03, 2023

Presidential Campaign

Now that the dust has settled from the first round of elections, all eyes are on the upcoming runoff between conservative candidate Daniel Noboa and correísta candidate Luisa González. Numerous polls show Noboa in the lead with a 10-point difference. Click Research’s poll, with data collected between September 2 and 6, assigned 55 percent of the valid vote to Noboa and 45 percent to Luisa González. Two polls released on September 24, one by Comunicaliza and another by Estrategas Infinity, project that Noboa will come in first place with 54.36 or 55.37 percent of the valid vote, and for González to come in second with 45.64 or 44.63 percent. 

With the election scheduled for October 15, however, and a large number of voters still undecided, the outcome is far from preordained. The official run-off campaign period began on September 24 and will run until October 12. Following this, a mandatory two-day “electoral silence” period will be in force, during which campaigning is prohibited.

The National Electoral Council (CNE), Ecuador’s electoral authority, has said that candidates can raise and spend up to $2.1 million in the second-round campaign. The CNE will also divide a sum of $990,000 among the campaigns to pay for media advertising. González will receive $412,324, while Noboa will get $577,254, as his campaign is supported by two parties, compared to González’s one. Financial statements from the first round of elections show that $200,000 was donated to González’s campaign; Noboa has not yet disclosed his campaign’s finances.

Preparations to ensure that Ecuadorian migrants can vote abroad are underway, in person this time after the electronic voting platform for the Ecuadorian diaspora collapsed in the first round. The CNE has already declared that voting will not take place in Nicaragua, as Ecuador does not have a consulate there, and no way to deploy election resources. Ecuador’s foreign minister added that it will be difficult to carry out elections in Russia and Venezuela, primarily due to challenges associated with transferring funds to the diplomatic missions in those countries.

The Presidential Debate

The second presidential debate, which took place on October 1, could sway voters. Noboa knows this well, as his performance in the first debate was an important factor in his unexpected second-place finish in the first round. Four themes were discussed in the two-hour debate: the economy, the security situation, social challenges, and broader political issues.  

Overall, Luisa González did better than Daniel Noboa. In a departure from the first debate, the correísta candidate shifted from a confrontational style to focus on promoting national unity and her own policies. Noboa, on the other hand, spoke slowly with frequent pauses, often read notes, and, unlike González, was signaled by the moderator multiple times for going off topic. Noboa repeatedly attacked the Correa government for introducing a policy of decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs, which had been intended to differentiate users from traffickers, claiming these had caused drug addiction among young people. He also associated correísmo with corruption and insinuated that a González government would be corrupt.

González defended herself against Noboa’s attacks by asking him if Lasso’s former minister of agriculture, Bernardo Manzano, had worked for the Noboa Group, the large Ecuadorian company owned by the candidate’s family. Noboa confirmed that Manzano had worked for the company as a manager some years prior. To give some context, Manzano has become entangled in the corruption investigations related to Lasso, and resigned from his post in February after admitting that, prior to his ministerial appointment, he had given his CV to Rubén Cherres. (Cherres in turn was suspected of being a “fixer” responsible for overseeing a cash-for-appointments scheme and fake contracts in the energy sector for Danilo Carrera, Guillermo Lasso’s brother-in-law and main business associate. Cherres, whom Lasso had been accused of shielding from investigation, was also suspected of dealings with a narcotrafficking organization. On March 31, after several months on the run from the police, Cherres, a key witness to the potential links between the Lasso government and organized crime, was found murdered.) 

Both candidates stuck to a tough-on-crime stance, with Noboa frequently employing the term “narcoterrorists” to refer to gangs and organized crime. He also spoke of making the Internet a public service, eliminating the tax on capital exiting the country, carrying out referendums on the army and judicial system, doing away with the table regulating the possession of small amounts of drugs, and reconsidered his plan on spending $1.5 billion of the country’s foreign reserves, saying it would be a last resort.

González emphasized the importance of poverty and socioeconomic factors in fueling crime and insecurity. She promised to inject $2.5 billion from international reserves to promote economic development; clamp down on tax evasion; increase the budgets of local governments; fortify the country’s institutions; and hire 2,000 more doctors, while ensuring a resupply of medicines to hospitals; among other proposals.

New Evidence of Judicial Persecution Against Former President Correa Emerges

Since President Rafael Correa left office in 2017, there has been a systematic attempt by authorities to impede his return to Ecuador and his participation in the country’s politics. This has materialized as a campaign of what many in Latin America call “lawfare” — the weaponization of the legal and judicial systems against political opponents. By 2020, Correa was the subject of 25 criminal investigations. Several former Correa administration officials have also been targeted. 

Former president Lenín Moreno, who spearheaded persecution against Correa, held a referendum — which was criticized by the Inter American Commission for Human Rights — that limited presidents to two terms and granted Moreno extraordinary powers to overhaul the judiciary. After the referendum — held in the short period of time when Moreno enjoyed high approval ratings — passed, Moreno stacked the highest levels of the judiciary and other independent institutions with anti-correísta diehards. This enabled dozens of criminal investigations to be launched against Correa and some of his former officials. 

In April 2020, the ”sobornos” case, tried in absentia, landed Correa a guilty sentence of eight years in prison and a 25-year ban on his political rights — essentially the rights to vote and to run in elections. The court proceedings were plagued with inconsistencies. Much of the evidence relied on a notebook written by former Correa advisor Pamela Martínez that detailed, down to the cent, bribes that Correa had supposedly received. It was later revealed that Martínez’s notebook was written in the present tense, in diary fashion, some four years after the events she described had taken place. She was forced to testify that she had in fact penned her notes from memory on a 45-minute flight. 

As there was no evidence to prove Correa’s direct involvement, he was found guilty of heading a criminal organization and of exerting “psychic influence” on public officials to commit crimes. Correa’s appeals, which he lost, were decided in record speed, with the last Cassation appeal turned down in an unprecedented 17 days. This barred him from running in the 2021 elections before the deadline for candidate registration had been met. 

These violations of due process and of judicial impartiality prompted Correa to apply for political asylum in Belgium, which was granted in 2022. Interpol has also rejected Ecuador’s request to issue a red notice for Correa’s arrest on at least three occasions.

The latest in a series of revelations on Correa’s court case was published in a September 21 journalistic investigation carried out by Página 12, a leading Argentine news outlet. The article describes leaked 2019 audio recordings involving Iván Saquicela, the current president of Ecuador’s National Court of Justice (CNJ) and one of the judges who sentenced Correa. Before his involvement with Correa’s case, Saquicela reportedly expressed his opinion that actions taken by lower courts in the matter were without merit. He added that the case lacked evidence and that the charges against Correa and others were inconsistent. He further questioned why some of Correa’s officials were in pretrial detention. Despite this, Saquicela later decided to rule against Correa, a decision that Página 12 alleges was rewarded with a promotion to the presidency of the CNJ. Saquicela has denied these allegations.

Lasso’s Attendance at the UN General Assembly 

On September 17, President Lasso traveled to the United States to attend the General Debate of the UN General Assembly. Lasso addressed the UN on two occasions: at the UN Security Council, calling for applying the UN Charter with regard to Ukraine, and appealing to the Russian Federation to suspend its military operations there. At the General Assembly, Lasso spoke about environmental matters and the fight against child malnutrition, and called for more international cooperation to tackle organized crime. 

Lasso also signed the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty, an instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that promotes conservation and the sustainable use of marine biodiversity. South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol invited Lasso to Seoul to sign a trade agreement that Ecuador and Korea have been negotiating, and there were preliminary discussions on a potential security agreement between the two countries.

Lasso’s “Personal” Agenda in the United States: The Real Reason for His Visit?

Aside from his multilateral commitments, Lasso spent several days visiting influential figures in New York and Washington, DC.

Against a backdrop of overwhelming unpopularity and grave corruption allegations that forced him to dissolve the National Assembly in May, Lasso dedicated much of his trip to trying to cozy up to the US foreign policy establishment, including by attending an awards ceremony where he was given the “Champion of Freedom Award” from the Florida International University’s Adam Smith Center for Economic Freedom.

In turn, Lasso gave Ecuadorian decorations to former US president Bill Clinton and former senator Christopher Dodd, in addition to several US businesspeople. Lasso also participated in an event sponsored by the Wilson Center, the Atlantic Council, and the Inter-American Dialogue. Lasso praised the US in an interview with Voice of America, saying that bilateral relations are “stupendous in every area … hopefully successive governments realize that our main ally is the United States.” 

Lasso’s bilateral agenda in the United States gave the impression that he was trying to secure some sort of US protection in the last days of his presidency, especially as new evidence has emerged that could lead to criminal investigations and possible indictments. Scandals around alleged ties between Danilo Carrera, Lasso’s trusted brother-in-law and close business associate, to criminal organizations — including a drug trafficking ring — are not going away. Nor is the accusation that Lasso may have granted Carrera presidential protection.

Several journalists who have been investigating these matters have fled Ecuador in recent weeks. Andersson Boscán and others have claimed they are the victims of state-driven political persecution and have received death threats as a result of their investigations.

One of Lasso’s first engagements in Washington was a meeting with Luis Almagro, the scandal-plagued secretary general of the Organization of American States, who praised Lasso for his “good handling of the economy.” Almagro’s choice of praise surprised some analysts given Ecuador’s unenviable status as the South American country with the worst post-pandemic economic recovery, the lowest post-pandemic per capita growth rate, and — consequently — one of the most significant migrant crises in the region, with over 189,000 Ecuadorians out-migrating between 2021, when Lasso took office, and 2022. This is more than the number of Ecuadorians who out-migrated between 2011 and 2019, and it appears the trend is accelerating, with 66,000 Ecuadorians having already left this year alone. Lasso also met with members of the US Congress to discuss the IDEA Act, which, if passed, would reduce US tariffs on Ecuadorian exports, among other things.

The indictment of US Senator Bob Menéndez for corruption has featured prominently in the Ecuadorian press, given Lasso and Menéndez’s history of close collaboration. Menendez has co-led the IDEA Act in the Senate, and in April, Menéndez visited Quito to “express backing” — as the Financial Times put it — for the embattled president during impeachment proceedings.

Menéndez is also known in Ecuador for having received large donations from Roberto and William Isaías, former Ecuadorian bankers and fugitives from justice who reside in the US, despite Ecuador’s repeated requests for their extradition. The New York Times reported in 2014 that, in return for the Isaías’s contributions, Menéndez pressured the US State Department, including Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills, to reverse its decision to ban Roberto Isaías’s daughter Estefanía from entering the US due to Estefanía Isaías’s past conduct in what US consular officials described as people “smuggling.” 

Upon Lasso’s return to Ecuador, the Washington Examiner revealed that his administration had quietly signed two agreements with the Biden administration that could allow for deploying US troops in Ecuador. The first is a maritime law enforcement agreement that would allow US military vessels to operate off Ecuador’s coast. A status of forces agreement was also signed, which — the Washington Examiner claims — outlines “the terms by which members of a foreign military, in this case the Defense Department, can operate or are expected to conduct themselves in another country” — in this case, Ecuador. The possibility of US troops being sent to Ecuador has already stirred much controversy, as it would appear to violate Article 5 of the Ecuadorian Constitution which prohibits the stationing of foreign troops or military installations on Ecuadorian soil, although it has not yet played a significant role in the electoral campaign. 

Updates on the Assassination of Presidential Candidate Fernando Villavicencio

With the investigation into the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio set to close on October 10, the Lasso administration and the prosecutor general have remained relatively quiet on the progress. This has prompted members of both Luisa González’s party, Revolución Ciudadana, and Movimiento Construye, the party that backed Villavicencio’s candidacy, to seek more transparency. Nevertheless, some details have emerged. 

El País reports that Colombian citizen Johan David Castillo López, one of the five alleged hitmen accused of assassinating Villavicencio, recruited the six other people — all Colombian nationals — arrested the day of the assassination. This information allegedly comes from Castillo López’s phone, retrieved by the police after they shot and killed Castillo López shortly after he reportedly gunned down Villavicencio. 

Another seven people were arrested on September 8, nearly a month after Villavicencio’s August 9 murder. Two of these arrestees, Laura Dayanara C.V. and Carlos Edwin A. L., have become important suspects.

Dayanara is the alleged leader of a Quito gang believed to have ties with the more powerful Los Lobos gang. The Quito Police’s Antinarcotics Unit had had her under surveillance since January, and in June, Dayanara and Castillo López were arrested together on weapons charges, though Dayanara was never prosecuted. The most damning evidence against Dayanara, however, is video footage from August 8, the night before Villavicencio’s murder, that shows a white Kia Sportage vehicle circling the site where the candidate would be shot the next day. The day of the murder, Dayanara and others were seen driving around Quito in the same car, accompanied by two motorcycles. A motorcycle with the same color and license plate as one of these was later found abandoned near the crime scene.

The other notable suspect, Carlos Edwin A. L., was in prison serving a 54-month sentence for arms and drug trafficking at the time of the assassination. He is also believed to have connections with the Los Lobos gang. Police believe the order to kill Villavicencio came from Carlos’s phone, which he had access to from inside prison.

The media has also revealed that phones belonging to the officers overseeing Villavicencio’s protection have been examined and that a police sergeant’s home was searched, but no police officers have yet been arrested. Police also believe that a phone number with a Chicago area code is linked to the crime. As for the FBI’s involvement in the case, no information has yet been disclosed and Lasso has declined to give further details. However, the US State Department, as part of its Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program, has offered a $5 million reward for “information leading to the arrest or conviction of co-conspirators and masterminds behind the assassination of… Fernando Villavicencio.”

Support Cepr


If you value CEPR's work, support us by making a financial contribution.

Si valora el trabajo de CEPR, apóyenos haciendo una contribución financiera.

Donate Apóyanos

Keep up with our latest news