When Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, visits Ecuador later this month, at the top of her agenda should be a discussion of the judicial malpractice currently creating a climate of fear and repression in the Andean nation. Today, Ecuador is a country where not only does the opposition to President Rafael Correa need to worry, but so do his friends.
Mayor Marco Tapia is one case. Once a young, aspiring politician in Ecuador and a close ally of Correa’s, Tapia is the latest casualty in a country that has thrown the rule of law out the window.
When it comes to political persecution Rafael Correa’s Ecuador, despite a more moderate appearance, is quickly becoming one of the most volatile nations in Latin America where even friends of the regime aren’t safe.
Originally from the province of Azuay, Marco Tapia was known as an athletic, educated, charismatic and popular leader in his local city of Gualaceo. In 2005, he caught the eye of then-presidential candidate Rafael Correa and became the man on the ground in Gualaceo for Correa’s fledgling political party PAIS Alliance (Alianza PAIS, in Spanish).
Gathering more than 2,500 signatures, Tapia organized Correa’s first visit to the city in July 2006. Before long he created a buzz in Gualaceo around Correa, a once relatively unknown candidate. Tapia used his own popularity to tell local voters that Rafael Correa would be the next President of Ecuador.
Tapia’s commitment to the PAIS Alliance was rewarded once Correa was elected president in 2007, becoming chief of staff to the powerful governor of Cuenca (Ecuador’s third largest city and capital of the Azuay province). Along with Cuenca’s governor, Tapia was instrumental in transforming the Azuay province into a stronghold for the PAIS Alliance and, more importantly, a critical province for Correa’s reelection victory in 2009.
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After Correa’s reelection, Tapia had gained enough political favor to launch his own candidacy for governor of Gualaceo. He faced a powerful rival in Paúl Manuel Íñiguez Ríos, a close confidant of Fernando Cordero. Cordero was a key Correa operative vital to passing the constituent assembly of 2008. Tapia, however, won the primaries by an overwhelming majority, winning by an 8:1 margin over Íñiguez. But as Mayor Tapia would find out, this would be the beginning of his problems.
From the time he took office, Tapia became the victim of persecution and defamation by his former rival and now Judge of the National Court of Justice (equivalent to the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). Judge Íñiguez initiated legal actions against Mayor Tapia, including a criminal suit for “libel” against the mayor, accusing Tapia of disparaging Iñiguez’s reputation during a public speech, in which—certainly—Tapia did not even mention his name. Iñiguez also filed a civil suit against Tapia, demanding an astronomical US$5 million in “damages.”
Convicted of “aggravated insult”—after a trial tainted by irregularities—Tapia was sentenced to three months in prison this past February with a fine of $250,000. In March, Tapia was forced into exile, resigning as mayor. Away from his family, and at the mercy of the justice system, Tapia is unfortunately one of many members of Ecuadorian society facing political persecution for doing their job.
Facing similar fates are Ecuadorian journalist Fernando Villavicencio, former congressman Cléver Jimenez, and doctor Carlos Figueroa. All victims of National Court Judge Lucy Blacio, a former minister in Rafael Correa’s cabinet.
Ecuador has long stayed in the shadows of its more visible Bolivarian brothers, especially Venezuela. When it comes to political persecution Rafael Correa’s Ecuador, despite a more moderate appearance, is quickly becoming one of the most volatile nations in Latin America where even friends of the regime aren’t safe from the wrath of an all-powerful executive.
In her upcoming trip it would be prudent for Ms. Jacobson to ask her Ecuadorian counterparts about this blatant disregard for the rule of law in a so-called democracy. Or perhaps she can speak to several of the journalists, politicians, human rights activists and indigenous leaders who are losing their voice in a country that curtails any opposition to the status quo.