U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Ecuador

ECUADOR   Ecuador is a constitutional republic with a president and a 77-member unicameral legislature chosen in free elections. President Sixto Duran Ballen's governing coalition controls only nine seats in the Congress. Congress 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 Duran Ballen administration was targeted for censure when Congress threatened the Vice President, Alberto Dahik, with impeachment for obstruction of justice. Dahik fled the country, leaving Eduardo Pena as his successor. Members of the Supreme Court preside over a judiciary that is constitutionally independent but in practice is susceptible to outside pressure. The Ecuadorian military enjoys substantial autonomy, reinforced by guaranteed revenues from the nation's oil exports, as well as from civil aviation, shipping, and other economic sectors. 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, members of 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. The gross domestic product at $1,570 per capita, provides most of the population with a low standard of living. The inflation rate for the year ending in November was 22 percent. The principal exports are oil, bananas, and shrimp, which are the country's leading sources of foreign exchange. Manufacturing for regional export markets is of growing importance. 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 and inefficient 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 isolated instances of extrajudicial killings; torture and other mistreatment of prisoners and detainees by the police; poor prison conditions; government failure to prosecute and punish human rights abusers; and violence and pervasive discrimination against women, Afro-Ecuadorians, and indigenous people. In the wake of renewed border hostilities with Peru in January, a number of Peruvian nationals were arrested by security forces on charges of espionage, and were not released until several months after armed hostilities had ceased in March. The Government made progress toward prosecuting those responsible for two longstanding human rights cases in 1995, although the escape from military custody of the highest ranking defendant in one case renewed questions about the impunity of senior military officials.

Respect for Human Rights

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. There continued to be credible reports of police involvement in extrajudicial killings, although the number of such reports continued to decline. 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 cases revoked this right and tried officers in civil courts. The Catholic Church-based Ecumenical Committee for Human Rights (CEDHU) reported a total of eight extrajudicial killings. Four of these involved the death of individuals in police or military custody, while two others appear to be the result of personal fights between victims and a policeman in one case and a soldier in another. One case involved the death of a high school student who was hit by a stray bullet during student protests in January. Forensic experts determined that the bullet, presumably fired by the police, had hit a hard surface before ricocheting and hitting the victim. Four other students were injured by tear gas canisters fired by police in the same incident. During student protests in November, a bystander was killed when police fired tear gas canisters into a crowd. While most of the abuses were committed by the police, CEDHU reported that the military was responsible for the death in custody of Luis Enriquez Mera in June. Sailors from the navy base at San Lorenzo, in the province of Esmeraldas, detained Enriquez during an unsuccessful search for his brother, who was accused of killing a marine sergeant, and took him to the base for questioning. Four days later, military authorities gave his dead body, which bore signs of torture, back to the family saying that he had died of heart failure. Four enlisted men were detained and face criminal charges in this case. There were other credible allegations of abuses committed by army and navy units participating in anticrime activities in the province of Esmeraldas, which has Ecuador's highest crime rate. 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 brothers, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the police officers implicated in the case and ratified their sentences. The sentences varied in length from 16 years for those who murdered the brothers to 2 years for those who covered up the crime. The former police commander, General Gilberto Molina, was among those convicted of participation in the coverup. He had escaped from police custody in 1992, but turned himself in to authorities in July to serve the remaining 11 months of his sentence. The Supreme Court ruled in March that there was sufficient evidence to try Navy Commander Fausto Morales and Sergeant Sagnay Leon in the case of Consuelo Benavides, a school teacher who was murdered in 1985 for alleged participation in a guerrilla organization. Both defendants were in preventive detention, pending a ruling by the court. Three days after the ruling, Morales escaped from the brig and has not been recaptured. Three other navy officers were subsequently indicted by the court for their alleged role in the disappearance and murder of Benavides. Two were found guilty of illegal arrest and were sentenced to 2 years' imprisonment. The President of the Supreme Court expedited the case against the three defendants in custody and concluded the appeal process only days before the expiration of statute of limitations. Sergeant Sagnay was sentenced to 8 years in prison for his role in Benavides' murder. Other suspects in the case, including Captain Fausto Morales, remain at large.

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 who charged the police with torture. In these reports CEDHU frequently named police officials alleged to be responsible, and often included photographs of the victims with their wounds. In most cases, the police appeared to have abused such persons during investigations of ordinary street crime. According to CEDHU, the victims reported that the police beat them, burned them with cigarettes, or threatened them psychologically. In August four Colombian nationals were detained by the army on suspicion that they planned to assassinate Colombian President Ernesto Samper during a visit to Quito. The detainees, who were eventually released 6 weeks after their detention following President Samper's departure, told reporters that they had been tortured while in army custody. A police doctor who examined the detainees certified that all had bruises from apparently recent beatings. One had to have restorative surgery to his left eye. The CEDHU reports have not prompted a reply from the Government. The law permits police or military courts to try police officers and military defendants in closed sessions, in accordance with the respective military and police court martial manuals. The police court in particular does not announce verdicts or punishments, if any, creating the strong impression that the police are immune from prosecution. Cases involving flag rank officers can only be tried by the Supreme Court (as in the Benavides and Restrepo cases noted in Section l.a.). 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.

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 may have the legality of their detention reviewed within 48 hours of their arrest. This review is supposed to be conducted by the senior elected official (usually the mayor) of the locality in which the suspect is held. Regardless of the legality of a detention, a prisoner may only be released by court order. In some cases, detainees who are 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 generally available. Families of detainees sometimes intervene in an attempt to secure the prisoners' 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 they were overworked or because the accuser bribed them. 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 court orders were signed and often failed to bring charges against suspects within 48 hours of arrest. Preventive detention up to and including trial is legal under certain circumstances. In the wake of hostilities with Peru in January and February, a number of Peruvian nationals were arrested by the military and the police on charges of espionage and detained for several months beyond the end of hostilities. The weak evidence presented against them left the Government open to charges that they were being detained arbitrarily. By July all had been released. In December 1993, the army arrested 11 alleged supporters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a sweep along the Putumayo River following an ambush in which 11 soldiers and police officers died. In August 1994, four of those arrested were released for lack of evidence, and a fifth was released in July. The remaining six are still in jail despite claims by local human rights groups that they are innocent and were detained arbitrarily. The government does not use exile as a method of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The regular court system tries most nonmilitary defendants, although some indigenous groups try members independently 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. 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 right 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. A reform to the Constitution which was passed by the legislature in early 1995 and signed into law after the end of the year establishes that no testimony taken from a prisoner can be used as evidence in court unless the individual's lawyer was present at the taking of testimony. This is expected to cut down on the large number of confessions extracted from prisoners often by unlawful means. 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. A mid-year census of the penitentiary system found that only 37 percent of the 10,312 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 reports of political prisoners.

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

The law prohibits such practices, government authorities generally respect these prohibitions, and violations are the subject of effective legal sanctions.

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. In October an independent congressman, Fernando Larrea, gave an interview on a provincial radio station in which he ridiculed the president of the Supreme Court and the commander of the army. He spoke derisively of the role the army commander had played in the recent border hostilities with Peru. While not releasing the tape or transcript of Larrea's intemperate remarks, the military proceeded to charge Larrea with treason under the National Emergency Decree then in force and initiated proceedings against him in a military court. The Supreme Court has yet to determine if the military court has jurisdiction in this case. 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 broadcast media is limited by law. 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. The Government used this authority broadly during the armed border confrontation with Peru during January-February. The media and opposition political figures often criticized the Government for using the media for its own political ends. 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. During the border conflict at the beginning of the year, press support for President Duran Ballen's positions was uncharacteristically unanimous. An opposition politician made unsubstantiated charges that the Government paid large sums of money to journalists to report favorably on its handling of the war and ensuing peace negotiations. 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, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice. Public rallies require prior government permits, which are generally granted, although exceptions occur. Numerous political demonstrations took place in the capital and the outlying regions, including a major national protest by labor and peasant groups and large scale student demonstrations in Quito. 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, two students were killed by police during separate demonstrations, and police shot three peasants blocking a road during a national peasant protest, seriously injuring them.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. Numerous foreign religious orders and missionary groups are active.

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

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. The Government cooperates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees.

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

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. 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 14 legally registered political parties spanning the ideological spectrum, 12 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, and a corresponding realignment of power within the legislature. Voting is mandatory for literate citizens over 18 years of age and voluntary for illiterate citizens. By law, active duty members of the military are not allowed to vote. The Constitution bars members of the clergy and active duty military personnel from election to Congress, the Presidency, or Vice Presidency. Traditional elites tend to be self-perpetuating. Consequently, very few women, Afro-Ecuadorians, and indigenous people are found in 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.

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

A number of human rights groups, both domestic and international, operate without restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Domestic human rights groups, such as CEDHU and the Regional Latin American Human Rights Association (ALDHU), were 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.

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, Afro-Ecuadorians, and indigenous people face significant discrimination.


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 perpetrators. Women may only file complaints against a rapist, or an abusive spouse or companion if they produce a witness. While some communities have established their own centers for counseling and legal support of abused women, the Government only began to address this question seriously with the formation of the "Comisaria de la Mujer," or Women's Bureau, in 1994. However, although the Comisaria can accept complaints about abuse of women, it has no authority to act on them. On November 29 President Duran Ballen signed a law against violence affecting women and children. The legislation, which was drafted by a coalition of women's organizations, criminalizes spousal abuse for the first time, including physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. It also creates family courts and reforms the Penal Code to include legislation giving courts the power to separate an abusive spouse from the home. Congress approved the law in record time. Discrimination against women is pervasive in Ecuadorian society, particularly with respect to educational and economic opportunities for those 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 and skilled trades than men, and pay discrimination against women is common.


The Government is committed in principle to the welfare of children but has not taken effective steps to promote it. There is no pattern of societal abuse against children. Government resources to assist children have traditionally been limited, although 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 years of age 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.

People With Disabilities

There is no official discrimination against disabled persons in employment, education or the provision of other state services. However, there are no laws to guarantee disabled people access to public buildings or services, nor are they provided any other special government assistance.

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 where high infant mortality, malnutrition, and epidemic disease are also common. In addition, electricity and potable water are 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 particularly true in the Amazon area where indigenous groups have claim to specific tracts of land. These groups also have begun to play an active role in decision making with respect to the use of their lands for oil exploration and production, by lobbying the Government and enlisting the help of 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. During the January-February border conflict with Peru, some Shuar-Achuar indigenous people were displaced, either by hostile actions or by their anticipation of hostile actions, to areas further north in Morona Santiago province. Estimates of the number of displaced Shuar-Achuar range from a few hundred to several thousand, depending on the source. The continued presence of landmines planted during the conflict has impeded the return of some of the indigenous peoples. However, others reportedly decided not to return to the sites of their original villages. The Shuar-Achuar Federation and Salesian Missionaries assist those indigenous people who opt to resettle. 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 May to express opposition to the Government's privatization program, indigenous and peasant groups blocked roads in the highland region of the country, isolating cities from other regions and from food-producing areas. In confrontations during the protest police shot and seriously wounded three demonstrators and arrested 13 others. Indigenous groups defended their political interests through the democratic political process in November by organizing to oppose a constitutional referendum which indigenous leaders claimed undermined the interests of the indigenous population. The reforms were overwhelmingly voted down in part due to the significant "no" vote in provinces where indigenous groups make up a large sector of the population.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The population of the rural, northern coastal area includes large numbers of Afro-Ecuadorian 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.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution and Labor Code provide most workers with the right to form trade unions. Members of the police and the military, and public sector employees in nonrevenue producing 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's Committee on Freedom of Association 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. Although the five umbrella organizations are politically independent, the two largest single labor unions, the Teachers' Union and the Union of Social Security Workers, are allied with the Movimento Politico Democratico, the far-left socialist party. Approximately 12 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 the right of workers to strike, although a 20-day cooling-off period is required before a strike is declared. 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 strikes were by public sector employees such as teachers and medical workers. None of the strikes resulted in violence.

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. Although approximately 12 percent of the workforce is organized, only 188,779 workers (roughly 3 percent of the workforce) were covered by collective bargaining agreements in 1995, according to the Ministry of Labor. 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 that a dismissal is 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 comprising 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. Since temporary workers are not recognized by the Labor Law, they do not enjoy the same level of protection offered to other workers. 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 Constitution establishes that children must attend school until the equivalent of 14 years of age. However, because of the lack of schools in many rural communities and the need for children to work, this provision is rarely enforced. 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 years to have the permission of their parent or guardian to work. The law prohibits children between the ages of 15 and 18 years from working more than 7 hours per day or 35 hours per week, and it restricts children below the age of 15 years to a maximum of 6 hours per day and 30 hours per week. In practice, the Ministry of Labor fails to enforce 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 14 years of age 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 through 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 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. The statutory minimum wage is not adequate to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. As of September, the minimum wage plus mandated bonuses provided a gross monthly compensation of approximately $143 (S/375,583). 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 majority of workers, however, work in the large informal and rural 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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