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Assassination attempt on Ecuadorian leader

by Marc Becker
The Monitor
February 25, 2004

On the evening of Sunday, February 1, two gunmen shot at the leader of Ecuador’s main Indigenous organization when he returned from a meeting in Cuba against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Leonidas Iza, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), escaped unharmed but three of family members were injured.

When Iza and his family arrived at CONAIE’s headquarters in Quito, the capital city of the South American country of Ecuador, the two assassins shouted “we will kill you” and opened fire, but the party managed to take cover inside the building. In the attack, Iza’s son Xavier was seriously hurt by the gunfire that penetrated a metal door at the entrance to the office. Iza’s brother and nephew received minor gunshot wounds in their legs and feet. The attackers also struck Iza’s wife on the face.

It appears that the attack was politically motivated, and that the assassins had followed Iza from the airport to CONAIE’s office. Iza and other Indigenous leaders immediately placed blame on the government of retired Coronel Lucio Gutiérrez as the intellectual authors of the attack, and announced an uprising calling for the president’s resignation. Ricardo Ulcuango, a representative of the Indigenous political party Pachacutik in the national congress declared that “the government has the obligation to defend the lives of all Ecuadorians, and especially those of Indigenous leaders who have been receiving threats for quite some time.”

Gutiérrez also denounced the attack, and announced that he would launch an investigation. Ecuador has been seen as an island of relative peace and stability surrounded by Colombia and Peru that were plagued with violence, but such political attacks seem to be on the rise. Two days before the attack on Iza, Patricio Campana who was investigating corruption in the state oil company was also killed. In December, Humberto Cholango, the president of Ecuarunari, the country’s most radical Indigenous organization, was briefly imprisoned for his pointed attacks on Gutiérrez’s policies. Ulcuango and Gilberto Talahua, Pachakutik’s coordinator, have also recently received threats because of their political activities.

In response to the attack, CONAIE announced a “state of national mobilization” and called on its members to occupy symbolic locations in the provinces. It declared that this was “ not only an attack against the president of CONAIE, but a repressive action against everyone who disagrees with the inhumane and perverse policies of the current regime.” The mobilization began with a demonstration in Iza’s home province of Cotopaxi in central Ecuador on February 10, and spread to the rest of the country a week later with the blocking of highways.

On February 16 in the southern province of Azuay, the police and military launched tear gas against the crowd and shot four demonstrators and detained nineteen protesters, including two Indigenous leaders. A 63 year-old woman, María Doraliza Lalvay, subsequently died from bullet wounds to the stomach. Another man was reportedly killed in Cotopaxi. For Packakutik’s coordinator Talahua, this was further evidence of Gutiérrez’s repressive nature and that he was a danger to democracy. “We are living under a military dictatorship,” a local priest Francisco Jara noted. As the situation became increasingly polarized, Indigenous leaders declared that the mobilization would continue until the president resigned.

The next day, however, CONAIE’s leaders announced that in the face of the militarized response they were temporarily halting the uprising in order to reassess strategies. Nevertheless, they still demanded Gutiérrez’s resignation who they considered a traitor because of ruling in the interests of international capital. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iza declared, was “the true destabilizing force.” Social organizations issued a list of demands that included not only an investigation into repressive activities against leaders, but also credit for small farmers, rejection of U.S. militarization of the conflict in neighboring Colombia, withdrawal from free trade agreements, suspension of payments on the foreign debt, and more funding for education and social services.

Feeling the political pressure on the streets, Gutiérrez finally agreed to meet with the Indigenous leaders and conceded on some key economic demands including increasing funding for agriculture and turning over to a municipality an electrical company that was on a list of utilities to be privatized.

This protest appears to represent a definitive and irreconcilable break between the Indigenous movement and Gutiérrez. CONAIE joined Gutiérrez in 2000 in an Indigenous-military coup that overthrew the government of Jamil Mahuad after he attempted to impose very unpopular neoliberal economic reforms including raising the prices of bus fares and cooking gas and adapting the U.S. dollar as legal tender. In 2002, CONAIE through its political wing Pachakutik supported Gutiérrez’s bid for the presidency–which he won–but subsequently broke from his government after the former Coronel imposed the same conservative policies that he had previously opposed.

Since its founding in 1986, CONAIE has been at the forefront of social mobilization against neoliberal policies in Ecuador. In 1990, it launched a nonviolent “levantamiento” or uprising against the government calling for extensive social, political, and economic reforms to end five hundred years of exclusion and exploitation of the country’s large Indigenous population. Street protests thrust the marginalized masses onto center stage and into the dominant culture’s consciousness. Ecuador’s Indigenous movement subsequently became a model for how civil society could organize itself to fight for its rights.

In recent years, Indigenous leaders in Ecuador have emerged at the forefront of hemispheric struggles against neoliberal economic policies. In Cuba, Iza had been participating in the Third Hemispheric Encounter of Struggle Against the FTAA. From an Indigenous point of view, these policies that place corporate profit over people’s social needs are an extension of the European conquest of the Americas that destroyed native communities. “If the leaders are killed,” CONAIE’s communication coordinator José Yungán noted, “many more people will rise up to continue fighting for the ideals of the Indigenous people.”

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