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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Ecuador

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Ecuador, 30 January 1995, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Ecuador is a constitutional republic with a president and a 77-member unicameral legislature chosen in free elections. The 1994 midterm elections left President Sixto Duran Ballen's governing coalition only nine seats in the National Assembly. Members of the Supreme Court preside over a judiciary that is constitutionally independent but susceptible to outside pressure. The Assembly has sweeping powers to question and censure cabinet ministers; such censure results in automatic dismissal of the minister in question. This is often used as a political tool by opposition political parties.

The Ecuadorian military has significant autonomy, reinforced by guaranteed access to revenues from the nation's oil exports, as well as from civil aviation, shipping, and other economic activities. The military has maintained a low profile in domestic politics since the return to constitutional rule in 1979. The National Police, responsible for domestic law enforcement and maintenance of internal order, falls under the civilian Ministry of Government and Police. There continued to be credible allegations of human rights abuses by the police and in some isolated cases the military.

The economy is based on private enterprise, although there continued to be heavy government involvement in key sectors such as petroleum, utilities, and aviation. Inflation was about 25 percent in 1994, though it continued a steady downward trend begun in 1992. Most Ecuadorians are employed in the urban informal sector or as rural agricultural workers; rural poverty is extensive, and underemployment is high.

The most fundamental human rights abuse stems from shortcomings in the politicized legal and judicial system. People are subject to arbitrary arrest; once incarcerated, they may wait years before coming to trial unless they resort to paying bribes. Other human rights abuses included instances of extrajudicial killings; torture and other mistreatment of prisoners and detainees by the police; government failure to prosecute and punish human rights abusers; and pervasive discrimination against women, blacks, and indigenous people. Despite these continuing problems, the Government did make significant progress toward prosecuting those responsible for two longstanding human rights cases in 1994.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of politically motivated killings in 1994. The police continued to be responsible for extrajudicial killings, although the number of such reports dropped noticeably. The police often acted with impunity in such cases, because disciplinary action is the responsibility of the police itself. Although special police courts usually try cases involving police officers as defendants, the Government in some recent cases withdrew this right and tried officers in civil courts.

The Catholic Church-based Ecumenical Committee for Human Rights (CEDHU) reported a total of nine extrajudicial killings, including two individuals who died during an indigenous protest, but with no involvement by security forces (see Sections 2.a. and 5). Two deaths involved persons who died in police custody while being interrogated. A stray bullet killed one person during a military anticrime sweep in the city of Esmeraldas.

For example, CEDHU reported that members of Interpol, part of the National Police, arrested Angel Vega at his home on May 5. Neighbors reported that police beat him while he was detained. Later in the evening, the police delivered Vega's body to the morgue of the Isidro Ayora hospital in Loja without explanation. His body showed signs of scrapes, bruises, and burns. The authorities took no action against the Interpol officers. Another extrajudicial killing occurred when police killed a striking sugar refinery worker. There was no investigation of this case.

After long delays, there was progress toward prosecution of those responsible for two of the principal human rights cases in Ecuador--the 1988 disappearance and presumed deaths of the Restrepo brothers and the 1985 disappearance and murder of Consuelo Benavides. In the case of the Restrepo bothers, the president of the Supreme Court made a series of determinations on the case beginning in May when he declared two lower ranking police officials as authors of the murders, three midlevel officers as accomplices, and General Gilberto Molina (then the police commander), and one other officer as involved in a coverup. On November 15, the president of the Supreme Court gave these seven defendants the maximum sentences for the crimes for which they were charged. Appeals were expected.

In the Benavides case, after a long internal investigation which strongly implicated Navy Commander Fausto Morales in the murder, in August the Minister of Defense ordered that Morales begin to report to his superiors on a weekly basis. When Morales failed to appear at the second such meeting, the authorities sent military police to pick him up and jail him. The Minister of Defense announced that the investigation of the case had uncovered enough evidence of Morales' guilt that the Government would withdraw his traditional right to a military court trial and turn him over to a civilian court for prosecution. By the end of the year, the Supreme Court's penal chamber had moved into the final stages of the case, and a decision was expected soon.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the law prohibits torture and similar forms of intimidation and punishment, police continued to physically mistreat suspects and prisoners, usually with impunity. CEDHU regularly published detailed reports on suspects claiming that the police had tortured them, frequently naming police officials alleged to be responsible, and often including photographs of the victims with their wounds. In most cases, the police appeared to have abused such persons during investigations concerning ordinary street crime. According to CEDHU, the victims reported that the police beat them, burned them with cigarettes, or threatened them psychologically. The Government has never responded to CEDHU's reports.

The law permits police or military courts to try police officers and members of the armed forces in closed sessions. The police court in particular does not announce verdicts or punishments, if any, creating the strong impression that the police are immune from prosecution. In some high-profile cases (as in the Consuelo Benavides case and the Restrepo case noted in Section l.a.), the civilian authorities may decide to remand a case to a civil court.

The most significant case of alleged mistreatment of prisoners involved the suspects arrested by the military following a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla ambush along the Colombian border. The military picked up 11 alleged FARC members or supporters, 10 Colombians and 1 Ecuadorian, in a sweep following an ambush in which 11 soldiers and police officers died. All but two of the suspects signed confessions admitting to taking part in the ambush. Two, however, later recanted saying that they had signed the confessions as a result of torture. Others also claimed the military tortured them but did not recant their confessions. The one female prisoner said she was raped. Several human rights organizations examined the prisoners and confirmed that they had a variety of injuries ranging from bruises and abrasions to a broken arm. The military said the injuries were a result of being handcuffed and of traveling through the jungle on foot. According to some human rights observers who wer close to the case, medical examinations of the suspects indicated that the injuries were consistent with either explanation, and that there was no conclusive evidence of torture. In August the authorities released 4 of the 11 for lack of evidence, including the 2 who had never confessed and the 2 who had recanted.

Conditions in Ecuador's detention centers generally continued to be poor. Prisons in the tropical coastal areas tend to be worse than those in the temperate highlands. Overcrowding is a chronic problem, although conditions are notably better in the women's prison in Quito than in other facilities. There are no separate facilities for hard-core or dangerous criminals, nor are there effective rehabilitation programs.

Indigenous organizations continued to charge that private paramilitary groups target indigenous people and other peasants for violent and lethal reprisals during illegal land invasions and other squatter demonstrations. However, there were no substantiated reports of any serious incidents between the paramilitary groups and squatters in 1994. Modifications made in the agrarian land reform law changed the former legal framework that had prompted many landowners to form their own private armed security units to protect their land holdings. Under the new law, civil courts settle land disputes.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution and the Penal Code provide that no one may be deprived of liberty without a written order from a governmental authority, but the authorities often violated these legal protections against arbitrary arrest or detention. By law the authorities must issue specific written orders within 24 hours of detention--even in cases in which a suspect is caught in the act of committing a crime--and must charge the suspect with a specific criminal offense within 48 hours of arrest. All detained persons have the right to a review of the legality of their detention within 48 hours of arrest, a review that is supposed to be carried out by the senior elected official (usually the mayor) of the locality in which the suspect is held. Regardless of the legality of a detention, the law requires a court order in order to release a prisoner. In some cases, detainees unaware of this, or who do not have the funds to hire a lawyer, may remain in prison for an extended period before being released. Bail is not generlly available. Families of detainees sometimes intervene in an attempt to secure the prisoner's freedom through illegal means.

Human rights organizations reported occasional cases of incommunicado detention, although the law prohibits this practice. Despite provisions of the Penal Code, the police often detained suspects without the required written order. Even when an order was obtained, those charged with determining the validity of detention often allowed frivolous charges to be brought, either because of overwork or because bribes were paid by the accuser. In many instances, the system was used as a means of harassment in civil cases in which one party sought to have the other arrested on criminal charges. The authorities frequently detained suspects longer than 24 hours before orders were signed and charged few within 48 hours of arrest. Preventive detention up to and including trial is legal under certain circumstances.

The Government does not use exile as a method of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The regular court system tries most non-military defendants, although some indigenous groups try members privately for violations of tribal rules. Despite efforts begun in 1992 to depoliticize and modernize the court system, the judiciary continues to operate slowly and inconsistently. Judges reportedly rendered decisions more quickly or more slowly depending on political pressure or the payment of bribes. However, the norm is for lengthy periods before cases come to the courts (see below).

The law provides for internationally accepted due process rights for criminal defendants, but the authorities often did not observe these rights in practice. By law, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and defendants have the right to a public trial, defense attorneys, and appeal. They may present evidence but have the privilege not to testify against themselves, and they may confront and cross-examine witnesses. Although a public defender system exists, in practice there are relatively few attorneys available to defend the large number of indigent suspects.

Trial is supposed to begin within 15 to 60 days of the initial arrest, but in practice, initiation of the trial phase can take years. An end-of-year census of the penitentiary system found that only 29 percent of the 9,227 prisoners had been convicted of a crime. Indigenous people and other minorities are disproportionately affected by these delays as they are more likely to be poor and unable to buy their way out of pretrial detention. However, there was no evidence of a systematic effort to discriminate against women or minorities.

There were no political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law requires police to have a warrant to enter a private home or business, except in the case of hot pursuit. The police generally respect the sanctity of private homes and correspondence. Police surveillance is permitted, but the Constitution prohibits wiretapping, and the results of a wiretap are not admissible as evidence in court.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech, and the authorities generally respected this provision in practice, but with some notable exceptions. All of the major media organs-- television, newspapers, and radio--are in local private hands except for two government-owned radio stations. (Foreign investment in media is prohibited.) However, using a law (promulgated by the last military regime) that requires the media to give the Government free space or air time, the Government can and does require television and radio to broadcast government-produced programs featuring the President and other top administration officials. It also requires newspapers to carry a minimum amount of news prepared by the National Secretariat of Social Communications. The media and opposition political figures often criticized the Government's use of the media for its own political ends.

In June, following a protest by indigenous people against an agrarian reform law, troops took over several radio stations in heavily indigenous areas. The Government accused the stations of inciting the protest which resulted in the deaths of two persons in altercations between striking indigenous people and other civilians. The Government allowed the stations back on the air after they agreed not to broadcast news or other information related to the protest. The Government said the public service stations had violated their charters by broadcasting news reports. (Public service stations are prohibited from airing news, opinion, or commercial messages.)The media represent a wide range of political views and often criticize the Government. However, some degree of self-censorship in the print media occurs, particularly with respect to politically sensitive issues or stories about the military and its related industries. The media also willingly censored issues considered to be in the realm of national security when the Government so requested.

The Government does not interfere in issues involving academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the rights of free assembly and association for peaceful purposes. These rights are generally respected in practice. Public rallies require prior government permits, which are generally granted, although exceptions exist. Numerous political demonstrations took place in the capital and the outlying regions, including a major national protest by indigenous groups. In general the security forces intervened in demonstrations only when there was violence against bystanders or property. Although the authorities usually showed restraint in the use of force, riot police in two instances fired tear gas canisters at protesters, causing some serious injuries.

Following the court decisions in the Restrepo case (see Section 1.a.), the Government continued to refuse to renew a permit for the Restrepo family to hold its weekly protest in the main plaza in front of the presidential palace. However, the weekly demonstrations continued because the boys' father believed the convictions should have included higher government officials.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution prohibits discrimination for religious reasons, and citizens are free to practice the religion of their choice. Numerous foreign-based religious orders and missionary groups are active.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution assures the right of all citizens to travel freely throughout the country, to choose their place of residence, and to depart from and return to Ecuador. These rights are respected in practice.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Since the return to civilian rule in 1979, citizens have actively exercised their right to change their national and local governments. Free and fair elections resulted in the peaceful transfer of power to parties of opposing views in presidential elections every 4 years. There are 15 legally registered political parties, spanning the ideological spectrum, 13 of which are represented in Congress. The 1992 national elections resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from a center-left government to a center-right government, with a realignment of power within the National Assembly as well.

Voting is mandatory for literate citizens over the age of 18 and voluntary for illiterate citizens. The Constitution bars members of the clergy from election to Congress, the presidency, or vice presidency. Candidates must belong to one of the recognized parties and may not run as independents.

Traditional elites tend to be self-perpetuating, and blacks, indigenous people and women continued to be almost completely absent from high positions in government, although no specific laws or policies prevent women or minorities from attaining leadership positions. Grassroots community groups, particularly among the indigenous population, were increasingly successful in pressuring the central Government to assist them. Several traditional political parties began to court the rural indigenous vote, and at least one, the Maoist Popular Democratic Movement, did unexpectedly well in the May congressional elections because of support it received in heavily indigenous areas.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Domestic human rights groups such as CEDHU and the regional Latin American Human Rights Association (ALDHU) are independent and actively monitor human rights issues. These groups, particularly CEDHU, have been outspoken in their criticism of the Government's record on specific cases. Nevertheless, the Government contracted with ALDHU to provide human rights training to the military and the police.

International human rights organizations operate without hindrance in Ecuador.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or social status. However, women, blacks, and indigenous people face significant discrimination.


Discrimination against women is pervasive in Ecuadorian society, particularly with respect to educational and economic opportunity in the lower economic strata. The increasingly active women's movement blames culture and tradition for inhibiting achievement of full equality for women. There are fewer women in the professions or working as skilled laborers than men, and salary discrimination against women is common. Although the law prohibits violence against women, including within marriage, it is a widespread practice. Many rapes go unreported because of the victims' reluctance to confront the perpetrator. An individual alone may not swear out a complaint against a spouse or companion, but must have a third party do so. While some communities have established centers for counseling and legal support of abused women, the Government only began to address this question with the formation of the "Comisaria de la Mujer," or Women's Bureau, which initiated work in early November. Still, while the Comisaria an accept complaints about abuse from women, it has no authority to act on them.


The Government is committed in principle to the welfare of children but has not taken effective steps to promote it. Government resources to assist children have traditionally been limited, though in October it instituted a program to care for the children of the working poor called "Operation Child Rescue." Several private organizations are very active in programs to assist street children, and the U.N. Children's Fund also runs a program in conjunction with the Central Bank. Especially in urban areas, the children of the poor often experience severe hardships. It is common to see children as young as 5 or 6 years of age selling newspapers or candy on the street to support themselves or to augment the family income. There also are instances of prostitution by girls under 18 in urban areas. In rural areas, young children often must leave school at an early age to help out on the family's plot of land.

Indigenous People

While at least 85 percent of all Ecuadorians claim some indigenous heritage, culturally indigenous people make up about 25 to 30 percent of the total population. The vast majority of these people live in rural areas and most live in varying degrees of poverty. Land is scarce in the more heavily populated highland areas. High infant mortality, malnutrition, and epidemic disease are common, and potable water and electricity too often unavailable. The rural education system is seriously deficient.

Indigenous people enjoy the same civil and political rights as other citizens and also have several special privileges designed to allow them to manage their own affairs within their own communities. This is especially true in the Amazon area, where indigenous groups have claim to specific land areas. Amazon indigenous groups also have begun to play an active role in the decisionmaking process in the use of their lands for oil exploration and production through direct pressure on the Government and through their contacts with foreign nongovernmental organizations. Many indigenous groups participated actively with the Ministry of Education in the development of the bilingual education program used in rural public schools.

Indigenous leaders argue that the Government does not take their interests into consideration when making national policy and that the only way to get attention is through active protests. In one such action in June to express opposition to a newly passed agrarian reform law, indigenous groups blocked roads in the highland region of the country, isolating cities from other regions and from food-producing areas for almost 2 weeks. During confrontations in the protest, persons affected by the stoppage of commerce killed two indigenous people. When the Government finally announced a military mobilization to end the protest, the authorities restored peace rapidly and without further bloodshed. As a result of the protest, the President named a commission with significant indigenous participation to redraft the Agrarian Reform Law. Congress then quickly passed a modified reform law.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The population of the rural, northern coastal area includes large numbers of black citizens. They suffer widespread poverty and pervasive discrimination, particularly with regard to educational and economic opportunity. There were no special government efforts to address these problems.

People with Disabilities

There are no laws to guarantee disabled people access to public buildings or services, nor are they provided any other special government assistance.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution and Labor Code provide most workers the right to form trade unions. However, public security and military officials and public sector employees in nonrevenue earning entities are not free to form trade unions. The 1991 labor code reforms raised the number of workers required for an establishment to be unionized from 15 to 30, which the International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) considered too stringent a limitation at the plant workers council level.

While employees of stated-owned organizations enjoy rights similar to those of the private sector, the law technically prevents the majority of public sector employees from joining unions or exercising collective bargaining rights. Nevertheless, most public employees maintain membership in some labor organization, and there are frequent "illegal" strikes. Despite official threats, the Government rarely takes action against striking public workers.

Approximately 8 to 9 percent of the work force is organized. There are four large labor centrals or confederations, three of which maintain international affiliation. None of the main labor centrals is firmly connected to any one political party, and there are no ties between the Government and any labor union.

There are few restrictions on workers' right to strike, although a 20-day cooling-off period is required before declaring a strike. The 1991 labor code revisions limit solidarity strikes or boycotts to 3 days, provided that they are approved by the Labor Ministry. In a legal strike, workers may take possession of the factory or workplace, thus ending production at the site, and receive police protection during the takeover. The employer must pay all salaries and benefits during a legal strike; the Labor Code protects strikers and their leaders from retaliation. The only significant strike in 1994 was at the Aztra sugar refinery. Workers closed down the plant to protest the sale of the company as part of the Government's modernization program. As noted in Section 1.a., police killed one Aztra worker during street demonstrations related to the strike.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Ecuador has a highly segmented labor market with a minority of workers in skilled, usually unionized, positions in state-run enterprises or in medium to large industries. Most of the economically active population is employed in either the agricultural sector or the urban informal sector; the vast majority of these workers are not organized. The Labor Code requires that all private employers with 30 or more workers belonging to a union must negotiate collectively when the union so requests.

The new labor law streamlined the bargaining process in state enterprises by requiring workers to be represented by one labor union only. It prohibits discrimination against unions and requires that employers provide space for union activities upon the union's request. The law does not permit employers to dismiss a worker without the express permission of the Ministry of Labor, rulings which are not subject to judicial review. If the Ministry of Labor rules a dismissal as unjustified, it can require the employer to pay large indemnities or separation payments to the worker, although the reforms set a cap on such payments. The Labor Code provides for resolution of labor conflicts through an arbitration and conciliation board comprised of one representative of the Ministry of Labor, two from the union, and two representatives of management.

The Maquila (in bond) Law passed in 1990 permits the hiring of temporary workers for the maquila industries only. While there is no express prohibition on association rights in the Maquila Law, in practice it is difficult to organize temporary employees on short-term contracts. Because the labor law does not consider the concept of the temporary worker, they do not enjoy the level of protection offered by the Labor Code. The maquila system allows a company and its property to become an export processing zone wherever it is located. Many such "zones" have thus been established; most are dedicated to textiles and fish processing.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution and the Labor Code prohibit compulsory labor and there were no reports of it.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law prohibits persons less than 14 years old from working, except in special circumstances such as apprenticeships. It requires those between the ages of 14 and 18 to have the permission of their parent or guardian to work. The law prohibits children between the ages of 15 and 18 from working more than 7 hours per day or 35 hours per week, and it restricts children below the age of 15 to a maximum of 6 hours per day and 30 hours per week. In practice, the Ministry of Labor is seriously lax in enforcement of child labor laws. In rural areas many children attend school only sporadically after about 10 years of age in order to contribute to household income as farm laborers. In the city many children under age 14 work in family-owned "businesses" in the informal sector, shining shoes, collecting and recycling garbage, or as street peddlers.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Ministry of Labor has the principal role in enforcing labor laws and carries this out with a corps of labor inspectors who are active in all 21 provinces. The Labor Code provides for a 40-hour workweek, a 15-day annual vacation, a minimum wage, and other variable employer-provided benefits, such as uniforms and training opportunities.

The Ministry of Labor sets the minimum wage every 6 months in consultation with the Commission on Salaries, but Congress may also adjust it. Enforced by the Ministry of Labor, the basic minimum wage is not adequate to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. As of December, the minimum wage plus mandated bonuses provided a gross monthly compensation of approximately $120.50 (277,334 sucres). Most organized workers in state industries and formal sector private enterprises earned substantially more than the minimum wage and also received significant other benefits through collective bargaining agreements. The great majority of Ecuadorian labor, however, works in the large informal sector without recourse to the minimum wage or legally mandated benefits.

The Labor Code also provides for general protection of workers' health and safety on the job. A worker may not leave the workplace of his own volition, even if there is a hazardous situation. The worker is allowed to request that an inspector from the Ministry of Labor come to the workplace and confirm the hazard; that inspector may then close down the workplace. The Government enforces health and safety standards and regulations through the Social Security Institute. In the formal sector, occupational health and safety is not a major problem. However, there are no specific regulations governing health and safety standards in the agricultural sector and, in practice, there is no enforcement of safety rules in the small mines which make up the vast majority of the mining sector.

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