Ecuador's Amazonian indigenous community of Sarayaku is in a state of rebellion against the central government after refusing entry to a police contingent arriving by helicopter on the morning of May 6.
The helicopter landed, but was barely able to stay five minutes after being threatened by 300 people carrying machetes, muskets and a net to throw over the helicopter.
“This is extremely serious, an attack on the rule of law in this country,” President Rafael Correa said. “Tomorrow, any other community could claim the right to harbour fugitives.”
The conflict was sparked when the Kichwa jungle community announced it had given asylum to Clever Jimenez, a politician from the indigenous Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement – New Country party. Jimenez had been sentenced to 18 months' jail for libel against Correa. Fernando Villavicencio and Carlos Figueroa were convicted on related charges.
Jimenez had been a fugitive since the sentence. Provincial Pachakutik leader Salvador Quishpe said on March 23: “We have our feelers ready to keep him safe from the grasshopper [Correa].”
On April 24, Sarayaku announced the granting of asylum to Jimenez.
“We will give the necessary protections for his safety until his situation is resolved and we receive guarantees from the government,” said Sarayaku leader Jose Gualinga.
Since the police helicopter’s arrival was rejected, the Ecuadorian government appears to be at a loss as to how to respond.
A spokesperson from the justice ministry said they would consider their options once police filed a report about the incident. Interior minister Jose Serrano accused the Sarayaku community of harbouring paramilitaries.
Last year, Jimenez accused Correa of faking the events of September 30, 2010. On that day, Correa was held captive for nine hours. Police temporarily seized control of parliament and the air force took over the airport in the capital, Quito.
It was considered an attempted coup by the Union of South American Nations, the Organization of American States and the United Nations.
Jimenez, however, levelled Correa with responsibility for the five deaths that occurred that day. Jimenez said Correa left the scene of his captivity and spent the day at a university before returning to “act out” a dramatic escape with army special forces and stage-managed crowds of supporters nearby.
After his sentence, Jimenez took the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Washington (IACHR). The court verified that Jimenez had received due process. However, it criticised the criminal rather than civil nature of Ecuador’s libel laws ― a fact which pre-dates Correa.
The Sarayaku community is in dispute with the Ecuadorian government over a 2012 IACHR ruling that ordered the government to pay US$1.4 million compensation to Sarayaku. In 1996, a previous government sold Sarayaku land as an oil concession without the prior, informed consent of the community.
Sarayaku claims the ruling grants the region broad autonomy. The government, which has since paid the compensation, says it only implies a prohibition on oil or mining without community consent.
Correa said: “Undeniably they were victims of injustices, but does this make them the arbiters of good and evil?”
The events come as the IACHR and the OAS experience a crisis of legitimacy due to attacks from the left-wing Bolivarian Alliance of the People's of Our America (ALBA), founded by the late Hugo Chavez and of which Ecuador is a member.
ALBA is spearheading the push to replace the OAS ― long seen as dominated by the US ― with the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which unites all nations in the Americas except the US and Canada. ALBA members have denounced US interference in their domestic politics on countless occasions.
Though the US hosts the IACHR, it has never actually ratified the OAS’s human rights treaty. This means that cases against the US government cannot be brought before the court.
It has also denied US-entry visas to Latin American activists seeking to testify in Washington against human rights abuses committed by US companies in their home countries.
By trumpeting their case in Washington, Jimenez and Sarayaku may have made compromise a much more bitter pill for the Ecuadorian government to swallow.