Ecuador News Round-Up No. 14: Noboa Faces a Scandal and the Prosecutor General’s Impeachment Is Suspended

President Daniel Noboa, First Lady Lavinia Valbonesi, and Quito Mayor Pabel Muñoz in December. Photo: Isaac Castillo-Presidency of the Republic.

May 24, 2024

Security Challenges Prompt Another State of Emergency

On April 30, citing increasing security threats and the “internal armed conflict” he decreed on January 9, President Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency in five coastal provinces. In Durán, a municipality in the coastal province of Guayas, violent deaths have increased from 44 in the first four months of 2023 to 177 so far this year, a 300 percent increase. Unlike the previous state of emergency, this one did not establish a curfew, but it did allow for warrantless inspections, searches, and raids on homes. 

On May 10, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court declared Noboa’s state of emergency unconstitutional, arguing that the president had failed to adequately justify its necessity or demonstrate how the increase in violence could not be tackled through other means. Consequently, on May 22, Noboa declared another 60-day state of emergency in the same five provinces, plus an additional two, similar to the one that was struck down.

Noboa’s use of states of emergency and his broader security policy have been met with mounting criticism. Some analysts have argued that these discretionary powers, which lack adequate oversight, have the potential to result in abuses and risk being normalized with every declaration. Some also contend that Noboa’s repeated use of emergency measures reflects a lack of holistic, long-term policies to tackle insecurity. And notably, there are concerns about human rights abuses stemming from Noboa’s security strategy. A recent El País article details allegations of torture in prisons, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a letter to Noboa on May 22 describing an apparent extrajudicial killing, arbitrary and abusive arrests, and abuse in prisons. A HRW press release about the letter states: 

The Ecuadorian government has consistently failed to present sufficient evidence that fighting with any of the 22 criminal groups constitutes a non-international armed conflict.

Between January and April, the number of homicides in Ecuador dropped by 27 percent, the government reports. But extortions and kidnappings have risen, and the recent killings of three mayors and the director of a prison show that the situation remains serious. Ecuador’s militarization of its streets and prisons, meanwhile, has led to serious human rights violations by security forces.

Implementation of the April 21 Referendum’s Outcome

On May 9, Ecuador’s National Electoral Council officially confirmed the April 21 referendum results. Citizens voted to approve nine security-related proposals while rejecting investor-state dispute resolution (ISDS) mechanisms in treaty-based agreements — already prohibited under the constitution — and the legalization of hourly employment contracts.

On May 13, Noboa submitted to the National Assembly a set of legislative proposals to implement the referendum’s outcome. The National Assembly has 60 days to review, debate, and approve them. After some debate over how to carry out this process, legislators created an ad hoc, multiparty legislative committee to review the proposals before they reach the plenary. The committee is made up of five members, including four from major parties and one independent. The body has 45 days to process Noboa’s proposals starting from the date of its creation, May 21.

Noboa’s proposals aim to implement the outcomes of the approved questions — except for questions that were rejected, despite calls from sectors of the left for Noboa to strengthen the prohibition of ISDS and to reverse previous administrations’ decisions to adhere to ISDS mechanisms. In 2021, for example, the Lasso administration rejoined ICSID — the World Bank’s ISDS institution, which Ecuador had left in 2009 — despite the National Assembly condemning the move and filing a motion of unconstitutionality against it. In light of citizens’ rejection of ISDS, the progressive Revolución Ciudadana (RC) party issued a statement urging the will of the people to be respected and calling for Ecuador’s withdrawal from ICSID. There are similar calls aimed at the Constitutional Court. In addition, a former president of CONAIE — Ecuador’s largest Indigenous organization — and current RC legislator, Ricardo Ulcuango, introduced a bill to reinforce ISDS prohibition. 

The Olón Scandal

The start of a luxury real estate development project in the coastal town of Olón sparked a scandal involving President Noboa’s wife, Lavinia Valbonesi, and several government ministers. 

On May 6, residents of Olón woke to workers cutting down carob trees and mangroves in the Esterillo Oloncito forest, which protects the local population from floods during rainy seasons. When community members began to object, police and military surrounded the area before reportedly leaving after a 48-hour public outcry. Local residents then occupied the land to ward off further destruction. 

Environmental groups were quick to denounce the events in Olón on social media. They revealed that Vinazin, the company behind the project, is owned entirely by Valbonesi. Environmentalists called attention to the fact that the development intersects with legally protected land, as Esterillo Oloncito was declared a protective forest by the Ministry of the Environment in 2001. Soon, links between government ministers and the company behind the project were also exposed. Mónica Palencia, the minister of the interior, had worked as a lawyer for Vinazin for several years. Roberto Luque, the minister of transportation and public works, was the main shareholder of the company that carried out the project’s feasibility study. María Beatriz Moreno, the head of Noboa’s ADN alliance, is the general manager of Vinazin. Finally, Sade Fritschi, the minister of environment, granted Vinazin an “environmental registry” permit for the project in record time on December 5, less than two weeks after president Noboa was sworn in.

Palencia and Luque protested that they had worked for Vinazin in a limited capacity before Noboa became president, and Noboa dismissed the scandal as the work of “obvious politicians” attempting to jumpstart their 2025 presidential campaigns. But the story has exposed the overlap between Noboa’s cabinet and his family business.

The minister of the environment, meanwhile, released a statement saying that the area in question was not protected and that the ministry had begun examining a permit for the project during the previous administration. But José Dávalos, Lasso’s former minister of the environment, denied this, claiming instead that the project had been submitted to the ministry on November 28, five days after Noboa’s inauguration. Moreover, María del Carmen Aquino, the mayor of Santa Elena municipality where Olón is located, said the local government had denied Vinazin a permit in June 2023 because the area was protected. She added that even though Vinazin later obtained a permit from the Ministry of the Environment, it still needed to meet further requirements before construction could begin, including provincial licenses and environmental impact studies. Environmental law experts argue that for Vinazin to undertake such a large project in a protected area, it should have at least obtained an “environmental license,” which takes a minimum of six months. Instead, the company received an “environmental registry” permit, which can be requested online and is issued within days.

As a result of the scandal, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced it had begun an investigation into the matter. In the legislature, the Committee on Autonomous Governments initiated oversight hearings and summoned five ministers to testify, including Fritschi, Luque, and Palencia. After none of the ministers showed up, the committee approved a motion to consider their impeachment, which is now under review by the National Assembly’s administrative council. Civil society groups have called on Fritschi to resign. A major Ecuadorian news outlet report described the scandal as “at the very least, [a] conflict of interest; in the worst case scenario, influence peddling in order to authorize what could not be authorized.”

On May 11, Vinazin issued a statement announcing the project’s suspension. It denied any tree cutting and claimed to possess all necessary permits and licenses. 

A Committee Toward the Closure of an Important Oil Block

On May 8, in the midst of the Olón Scandal, and seemingly intended as a distraction, Noboa announced the creation of a Committee for the Implementation of the Popular Will. Contrary to previous statements regarding the Noboa administration’s intentions, this committee, mostly composed of government ministers, will supposedly work to close the 43-ITT oil block. Ecuadorians voted in another referendum in August to prohibit oil extraction in the block (see Ecuador News Round-Up No.5), kicking off a one-year countdown for the state-run oil company to cease operations there. Noboa, who initially favored stopping the block’s oil production, suggested postponing its closure for one year in January. His then minister of energy and mines, Andrea Arrobo, went further, saying it should be postponed by five years.

YASunidos, the environmental group that spearheaded efforts to close block 43-ITT, criticized the committee, arguing that there is no definitive timetable for the block’s closure and no assurances that oil extraction will cease. YASunidos and CONAIE submitted a joint brief to the Constitutional Court urging it to verify government compliance with the court’s rulings concerning block 43-ITT. Furthermore, the Waorani Indigenous community, which lives in the area, has asked to be a part of the committee. 

Impeachment of Diana Salazar Suspended 

In November last year, members of the RC party formally requested impeachment proceedings against Prosecutor General Diana Salazar, who has played a key role in persecuting members of correísmo on political grounds and in intervening in the 2021 and 2023 elections to favor non-correísta candidates. The RC alleges that Salazar repeatedly failed to fulfill her duties regarding several cases. 

After processing several other impeachments, the National Assembly prepared to initiate proceedings against Salazar in late May or early June. However, on May 16, Salazar announced she was experiencing a high-risk pregnancy and asked for the impeachment to be suspended due to the stress it may cause her. The next day, the Legislative Administrative Council voted to temporarily suspend the impeachment, with no timeline for its resumption. The RC, while accepting the vote, pointed out that the Prosecutor General’s Office had denied the same humane consideration to other pregnant politicians when processing or investigating cases. 

Depending on the length of the suspension, the proceedings against Salazar could continue after her term as prosecutor general ends in April 2025. The National Assembly could censure her, which would prevent her from holding public office for two years. 

Updates on the Diplomatic Crisis with Mexico

There have been new developments in the diplomatic crisis that began after Ecuador stormed the Mexican embassy in Quito and kidnapped former Ecuadorian vice president Jorge Glas, who had been granted asylum in Mexico.

On April 30 and May 1, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held hearings on provisional measures requested by Mexico in its case against Ecuador. Mexico had asked the court to ensure that Ecuador protects diplomatic premises and property, allows Mexico to “clear [its] diplomatic premises,” and “refrains from any act or conduct likely to aggravate or widen the dispute.” Mexico argued that Ecuador had violated international law by breaking into its embassy and that Quito had not provided credible assurances that it would avoid further breaches of the embassy. Ecuador, on the other hand, said it is already complying with the measures sought by Mexico, that Mexico did not attempt to negotiate a settlement to the dispute, that Mexico misused its diplomatic premises, and that the Ecuadorian government’s actions were an “extraordinary” act. A day before the hearings, Ecuador countersued Mexico at the ICJ for “illegally” granting asylum to Glas.

The ICJ ultimately ruled against Mexico’s request for provisional measures but called on Ecuador to respect international law, with an emphasis on “the fundamental importance of the principles enshrined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.” This is, however, not a final ruling on the merits of Mexico’s case, which may take years to complete. 

Discussions on resolving the dispute have reached an impasse. Mexico demands that Glas be released from custody and allowed to travel to Mexico, but Noboa has said this will not happen

On May 11, Ecuador’s foreign ministry announced that it was suspending consular services in Mexico beginning May 16, and would redirect citizens to consulates in the US and Guatemala. The Ecuadorian foreign minister later announced that Mexico had requested the consulates’ closure. This will likely have devastating consequences for Ecuadorian migrants, tens of thousands of whom transit through Mexico on their way to the US and often fall victim to violence, extortion, and kidnapping

Ecuador-Canada “Free Trade” Agreement Negotiations Kick Off

Negotiations between Ecuador and Canada on a controversial “free trade” agreement (FTA) have officially begun. The first of four rounds of talks took place virtually between April 29 and May 8. A second virtual round is anticipated in June, followed by an in-person round in Canada scheduled for September, and another in Ecuador set for October.

This first round of negotiations comes less than a month after Canada condemned Ecuador’s illegal raid on the Mexican embassy in Quito, calling it “a clear violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” and just weeks after Ecuadorians voted to reject a proposal that would have allowed for investor-state dispute settlement provisions in treaty-based agreements (see Ecuador News Round-Up No. 12), currently prohibited under the Ecuadorian constitution. Before the vote, Canadian officials had clearly stated that they wanted ISDS included in the agreement.

A number of civil society organizations in both countries oppose the potential FTA for several reasons. These include concerns about costly ISDS lawsuits that Ecuador is likely to face and further expansion of mining in Ecuador by Canada-based companies, which often goes against the will of local populations and exacerbates human rights issues. UN experts recently called on Ecuador to respect environmental consultation processes, as “a number of potentially affected Indigenous Peoples and communities were excluded and information provided was incomplete” during a consultation process concerning Canadian companies’ mining projects. The experts also note that these companies filed several complaints “as a retaliation measure against human rights defenders and protesters” who opposed their projects.

When a journalist asked Canadian foreign ministry officials if they would continue with negotiations after Ecuador’s breach of the Mexican embassy, a spokesperson said, “FTA negotiations are an occasion to strengthen the rule of law and underscore the importance of honouring legal commitments. … We maintain that an FTA with Ecuador, supporting good governance and economic opportunity, will benefit Canadian companies, in line with the outcome of Canada’s public consultations process on the FTA.” It also appears that discussions on ISDS are ongoing. An Ecuadorian press release about the first round of negotiation mentions that “institutional affairs and dispute resolution” were discussed, and neither government has stated that ISDS is out of the question, despite the referendum results.

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