U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Ecuador

  Ecuador is a constitutional republic with a president and a 77-member unicameral legislature chosen in free elections. In 1992 national elections saw 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. Members of the Supreme Court preside over a judiciary that is constitutionally independent but susceptible to political pressure. The Assembly has important powers to question and censure Cabinet ministers; such censure results in automatic dismissal of the minister in question. The Ecuadorian military has significant autonomy, reinforced by guaranteed access to revenues from the nation's oil exports, and 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 were various credible allegations of human rights abuses by the security forces, especially the National Police, during 1993. 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 remained high, between 30 to 40 percent in 1993. Most Ecuadorians are employed in the informal sector, either as urban street vendors or rural agricultural workers; rural poverty is extensive and unemployment is very high. Ecuadorians enjoy, both in law and in fact, a wide range of freedoms and individual rights, but serious human rights problems have not yet been eliminated. These include some instances of extrajudicial killings, torture and other mistreatment of prisoners and detainees, impunity for human rights abusers, violence by paramilitary groups in rural areas, lengthy detention before trial, a politicized court system, and pervasive discrimination against women, blacks, and Indians. The most fundamental concern is over shortcomings in the Ecuadorian legal and judicial system. People are subject to arbitrary arrest; once incarcerated, they may wait years before coming to trial. Often, the only way to avoid these problems is through the payment of bribes to a variety of officials.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no known politically motivated killings in 1993. There were, however, cases of extrajudicial killing of criminal suspects by the police, who often act with impunity in such cases, because disciplinary action for such activities is the responsibility of the police itself, and crimes by police officers are tried in special police courts. The Catholic Church-affiliated Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU) reported a total of 32 extrajudicial killings in 1993, of which 24 were attributed to the security forces (which include the police, armed forces, prison employees, and other authorities). At least one of these cases later proved to be due to a traffic accident. Marines killed three people in an anticrime sweep in the port city of Guayaquil. The Marines carried out this sweep because the Navy is the dominant branch of the armed forces in that port city and the Government reportedly did not trust the police to do the job. The armed forces asserted that those killed were criminals who offered armed resistance, but no investigation was undertaken into the killings because they were killed in a firefight, in which several Marines were wounded, and because they were among the targets of the sweep. In addition to the casualties, 39 people were arrested in the sweep. Not long after the Marines' sweep, the police mounted a similar operation in Guayaquil in which 65-year-old Antonia Mera de Molineros was shot and killed by police who entered her home by mistake. The police admitted the mistake and apologized. Alleged death squads murdered 14 persons in midyear in Guayaquil. All of the victims were known criminals who had been recently released from custody; one was still clutching his release papers. The Guayaquil-based Ecuadorian Committee on Human and Union Rights (CEDHUS) originally reported that it had evidence that the death squad was made up of police officers. Nevertheless, in July three common criminals were arrested and charged in the death squad killings. Indigenous organizations continued to charge that indigenous people were the target of violent and lethal reprisals by paramilitary groups during illegal land invasions and other squatter demonstrations. The paramilitary groups are armed security guards hired by private landowners to protect their property. These forces often use military-like uniforms; some are reportedly operated or trained by former military or police officials, but there is no evidence of complicity with active-duty military or police personnel.

b. Disappearance

There were no known cases of politically motivated disappearances during 1993. The Committee of Families of Victims of Repression organized weekly demonstrations in the main plaza of Quito and lists 11 cases of disappearances since 1985 in its pamphlets, the latest occurring in 1992. In seven of these cases the perpetrators are unknown; the group alleges police involvement in the other four. Prosecution of those responsible for the 1988 disappearance of the Restrepo brothers continued to move very slowly. The highest ranking official charged in the case, ex-Commander of the Police General Gilberto Molina, who escaped from custody in October 1992, remained a fugitive. In June the charge against Molina was changed from covering up the disappearance and presumed deaths of the two to being one of the perpetrators of the crime itself. Molina issued a statement attacking the court for making such a charge without any solid evidence that a murder had taken place. Two other police officers charged in the case remain in custody.

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

Although torture and similar forms of intimidation and punishment are prohibited by law, there were continued reports of physical mistreatment by police of suspects and prisoners. There were few reports of officials being punished for such abuses. The CEDHU published detailed reports on suspects claiming to have been tortured by the police, frequently naming police officials alleged to be responsible and often including photographs of the victims with their wounds. The Government took no action to respond to the CEDHU reports. By law, police officers may be tried only before police courts in closed sessions. The practical effect of this is immunity from prosecution, with the occasional exception of some high-profile cases, such as that of the Restrepo brothers. Prison conditions in Ecuador's overcrowded detention centers generally continued to be very poor. Prisons in the tropical coastal areas tend to be worse than those in the temperate highlands. The women's prison in Quito has notably better conditions than other facilities. There are no separate facilities for hard-core or dangerous criminals, nor are there rehabilitation programs.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution and Penal Code provide that no one may be deprived of liberty without a written order from a governmental authority, but these legal protections against arbitrary arrest or detention are often violated. Specific written orders must be signed within 24 hours of detention – even in cases in which a suspect is caught in the act of committing a crime. The suspect must be charged with a specific criminal offense within 48 hours of arrest. All prisoners have the right to a review of the legality of their detention within 48 hours of arrest, a review which is supposed to be carried out by the senior elected official (usually the mayor) of the locality in which the suspect is held. Incommunicado detention is not uncommon although it is legally prohibited. Despite provisions of the Penal Code, the police often detain suspects without the required written order. Even when an order is obtained, appropriate authorities charged with reviewing it to determine its validity often allow frivolous charges to be brought, either because of overwork or because bribes are paid by the accuser. In many instances, the system is used as a means of harassment in civil cases in which one party seeks to have the other arrested on criminal charges. Suspects are frequently detained longer than 24 hours before orders are signed, and few are charged within 48 hours of arrest. Preventive detention up to and including trial is legal under certain circumstances. In late August, the courts ordered a census to be taken in the 30 penitentiaries in the country to determine the number of people being held and their legal status as inmates. Several hundred prisoners were released for having served more than the maximum sentence for the crime for which they were accused without actually having been convicted and sentenced. Exile is not used as a tool of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Most nonmilitary defendants are tried by the regular court system, although some indigenous groups try members privately for violations of tribal rules. To depoliticize and modernize the court system, a major reform of the Supreme Court began to be implemented in January. The Supreme Court is now composed of 31 justices and 3 alternates chosen by Congress from lists of candidates submitted by the executive, the legislature, and the Court itself. The Court appointments are no longer coterminous with the term of the President, and terms of the judges are staggered so that one-third of the Court changes every 2 years. While these reforms were intended to distance the judiciary from political influence, the ensuing selection process was no less political than in the past, with each party in the Congress demanding its proportionate share of the Supreme Court. This made it much more difficult to arrive at decisions, and the Supreme Court failed to complete restructuring the superior courts because members could not agree on the candidates. Due process rights for criminal defendants are provided for by law but often not observed in practice. In theory, the accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. 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. In practice, however, as noted in Section 1.d., initiation of the trial phase can take years. 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. Bail is not generally available. Families of detainees sometimes intervene in an attempt to secure the prisoner's freedom through illegal means. Political activity is not sanctioned in any way by the judicial system, and there are no political prisoners.

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

Police are required 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 wiretapping is prohibited by the Constitution 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 this provision is generally respected in practice. However, the media and opposition political figures criticized the Government's use of the media for its own political ends. With the exception of two government-owned radio stations all of the major media organs – television, newspapers, and radio – are in local private hands (foreign investment in the media is prohibited). Using a law (promulgated by the last military regime) that requires the media to give the Government free space or air time, the Government frequently required television and radio to broadcast government produced programs featuring the President and other top administration officials. It also required newspapers to carry a minimum amount of news prepared by the National Secretariat of Social Communications. 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 stories about the military or corruption at high levels of national, provincial, or municipal government. There are 2 major daily newspapers in the capital, Quito, 5 in the principal commercial center, Guayaquil, and more than 20 additional papers published daily in other regions and cities. There are 4 national television networks, 4 local and provincial television networks, and about 300 radio stations. All are free of overt government censorship. Journalists working in the preparation and reporting of news (as opposed to opinion) must be graduates of an accredited Ecuadorian university journalism school, but the quality of investigative reporting is generally poor. Ecuador has a large university system comprising both state-subsidized and private universities. The state universities are active in politics, particularly on the left of the political spectrum. The Government did 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 (see below). Numerous political demonstrations took place in the capital and the outlying regions, including two national strikes. In general, the security forces intervened in demonstrations only when there was violence against persons or property, and police showed restraint in the use of force. In January the Government refused to renew the permit for what had become a regular weekly demonstration by the Restrepo family and their supporters in the main plaza in front of the presidential palace. Then Minister of Government Roberto Dunn asserted that the demonstrations were too great a disruption and that, with the progress of the case through the courts, their usefulness had ended. Nonetheless, the family and an increasingly smaller group of supporters continued to gather near the plaza each Wednesday in silent protest. On several occasions when the protesters attempted to become more vocal, the police used tear gas to break up the demonstration.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution prohibits discrimination for religious reasons, and citizens are free to practice the religion of their choice. There is no official state religion. The population is nominally over 90 percent Roman Catholic, but there are active Protestant and Jewish communities in the major cities, and evangelical movements continue to attract new adherents. Numerous foreign-based religious orders and missionary groups are active in Ecuador.

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. Ecuadorian citizens who return to the country after residing abroad are not harassed or discriminated against by the Government.

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

Since the return to civilian rule in 1979, Ecuadorian citizens have actively exercised their right to change their national and local governments. Free elections resulted in the peaceful transfer of power to parties of opposing ideologies in presidential elections every 4 years. There are 17 legally registered political parties, spanning the ideological spectrum. Thirteen of the 17 parties, including 3 leftist parties, are represented in the Congress. Voting is mandatory for literate citizens over the age of 18 and voluntary for illiterate citizens. There are no restrictions on voting by women or by minority groups. Police officers and active-duty members of the military forces cannot vote and there is no provision for absentee voting. All citizens, regardless of sex, religion, socioeconomic status, or ethnic origin, have the right to form and join political parties and to run for local or national office. Members of the clergy, however, are barred by the Constitution from election to the Congress, the presidency, or vice presidency. Candidates must belong to one of the recognized parties and cannot run as independents. Traditional elites tend to be self-perpetuating, and blacks, Indians, and women continue to be underrepresented in high positions in government. There are no specific laws, customs, or policies that prevent women and minorities from attaining leadership positions. This underrepresentation results from the fallout of past practices as well as present cultural and social forces which result in fewer women and members of minorities having the educational background or personal influence to enter leadership positions. Nevertheless, grassroots community groups, particularly among the indigenous population, enjoyed increasing success in pressuring the central Government to assist them.

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 in Ecuador. These groups, particularly CEDHU, have been outspoken in their criticism of the Government's record on specific cases, and CEDHU has taken a particular interest in defending the human rights of the poor. In August the armed forces contracted with ALDHU to provide human rights training to the military, and the police concluded a similar training agreement with ALDHU in December. International human rights organizations also operate without hindrance in Ecuador.

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


Although the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or social status, discrimination against women is pervasive in society, particularly with respect to educational and economic opportunity. The 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 is common. Although violence against women, including within marriage, is prohibited by law, it is a common practice. Many rapes go unreported because of the victims' reluctance to confront the perpetrator. To date the Government has not addressed this question as a serious public policy issue.


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 are limited, although several private organizations are very active in programs to assist the street children. Especially in the urban areas, the children of the poor often experience severe hardships. It is common to see children as young as 5 or 6 years old selling newspapers or candy on the street to support themselves, or to augment the family income. There also were reports in the media of growing prostitution among 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

The vast majority of the rural population of approximately 5 million (slightly less than 50 percent of the population) is made up of peasants of Indian or mestizo ancestry, most of whom live in varying degrees of poverty. Land is scarce in the more heavily populated highland areas; infant mortality, malnutrition, and epidemic disease are common; and potable water and electricity are often unavailable. The rural education system is seriously deficient. Efforts to improve living standards for indigenous people were hampered by the Government's reluctance to change traditional spending patterns, especially those favoring the cities. 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. (These areas are more like park reserves than Indian reservations.) The Amazon indigenous groups in particular have begun to play a very active role in the decisionmaking process involved in the use of their lands for oil exploration and production. Many indigenous groups participated actively with the Ministry of Education in the development of the bilingual education system used in rural public schools. Private paramilitary groups, sometimes working in conjunction with the police, were used to break up occupations of land by indigenous groups in rural areas. In 1991-92, the Government announced strengthened controls over private guard forces and other armed groups that were not properly registered. In 1993 the Government arrested the members of a private security force, who had been hired to protect the property of the Yuracruz Agroindustrial Company, following the rape and murder of a 77-year-old indigenous woman. The security force at Yuracruz was replaced by periodic patrols by the police.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The population of the rural, northern coastal area of Ecuador 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

While people with disabilities are not legally discriminated against, there are no laws to guarantee access for the handicapped, 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. Workers not free to form trade unions include public security and military officials, and public sector employees in nonrevenue earning entities. 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) considers too stringent a limitation at the plant works council level. In 1993 the ILO reiterated that the Government should bring the Labor Code into compliance with international standards on this issue. While employees of state organizations enjoy full rights similar to that of the private sector, the majority of public sector employees technically are prevented from joining unions and lack collective bargaining rights. Nevertheless, most public employees maintain membership in some labor organization, and the Government frequently is hampered by "illegal" strikes. Despite official threats, action is virtually never taken 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. Ecuador also has numerous labor federations unaffiliated with the four labor centrals, such as the Teachers' Organization, the National Artisans and Mechanics Confederation, and numerous peasant groups. None of the main labor centrals is firmly connected to any one political party. There are few restrictions on workers' right to strike, except for public servants and workers in some state enterprises. 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. All salaries and benefits must be paid by the employer during a legal strike; and strikers and their leaders are protected by the Labor Code. Illegal strikes, however, far outnumbered the legal ones as public employees protested the Government's proposals to modernize government operations and privatize state enterprises.

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 enterprises or in medium- to large-sized industries. The vast majority of the economically active population is either unemployed or underemployed in the informal sector, and most rural labor is 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 ILO CFA found that a 1991 Labor Code provision calling for the formation of a single central committee composed of at least 50 percent of the workers concerned in institutions, both public and private, which deal with social or public functions, and in which there is no works council, did not take into consideration the possibility that less than 50 percent of the workers could be organized. The CFA also dealt with a complaint concerning a requirement that collective bargaining agreements involving entities of the State be cleared with the National Secretariat for Administrative Development (SENDA) to assure that funds had been budgeted. In this case, the ILO requested that the Government establish a means for direct consultation on agreements among employers, workers, and SENDA. Finally, the ILO decided that a special cooling off period prior to any strike action for public entities which deal in essential services was acceptable. The new Labor Code 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. Despite the reforms promulgated in November 1991, employers consider the Labor Code to be highly unfavorable to their interests and a disincentive to the hiring of union members and to employment in general. Employers often try to avoid hiring additional workers and unionization by substituting machinery for workers or "atomizing" their production processes to maintain plants employing less than the number needed to form a union. Employers are not permitted to dismiss a worker without the express permission of the Ministry of Labor, rulings which are not subject to judicial review. Dismissals ruled as unjustified by the Ministry of Labor require payment to the worker of large indemnities or separation payments by employers, although the reforms have set a cap on such payment. 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 from management. The CFA expressed concern that the 1991 Labor Code revisions provide for compulsory arbitration if no agreement is reached, contrary to the principals of freedom of association. The Government provided the ILO an explanation of the law but did not change it. A 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. The maquila system allows a company and its property to become a free trade zone wherever it is located. Many such zones have been established; most are dedicated to textiles or fish processing.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Compulsory labor is prohibited by both the Constitution and the Labor Code and is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Persons less than 14 years old are prohibited by law from working except in special circumstances such as apprenticeships. Those between the ages of 14 and 18 are required to have the permission of their parent or guardian to work. In practice, enforcement of child labor laws is seriously inadequate. In rural areas, many children begin to attend school sporadically at 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 "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 minimum wage is set by the Ministry of Labor every 6 months in consultation with the Commission on Salaries, but also may be adjusted by Congress. Enforced by the Ministry of Labor, the basic minimum wage is very low and is not adequate to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. As of September, the minimum wage plus mandated bonuses totaled approximately $88.43 (s/172,000) a month. Most organized workers in state industries and formal-sector private enterprises earn substantially more than the minimum wage and also have significant other benefits. Because it is so low, the minimum wage is the operative wage in many informal sector activities where the majority of the economically active population is employed. The Labor Code also provides for general protection of workers' health and safety on the job. In the formal sector occupational health and safety is not a major problem. 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. 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 informal sector mines that make up the vast majority of the mining sector.

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