How a teenager’s death sparked human rights concerns in Ecuador

Two soldiers in helmets and fatigues walk in a row down a muddy path between buildings in Guayaquil.
Military members patrol the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador, during a nationwide security referendum on April 21 [File: Santiago Arcos/Reuters]
Military members patrol the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador, during a nationwide security referendum on April 21 [File: Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Quito, Ecuador – When 19-year-old Carlos Javier Vega left home on February 2 in the southern city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, it was the last time his family would see him alive.

He and his cousin Eduardo Velasco had gone to meet a friend interested in buying a dog from them: Velasco’s pit bull had just given birth to a puppy.

But their red Chevrolet Aveo would never make it past a military checkpoint as they drove towards the meet-up spot at the Politecnica Salesiana University.

A few hours later, Ecuador’s military posted photos on Facebook of Vega and Velasco lying on the ground in bloodstained clothes, their faces blurred.

“Two terrorists arrested before attempting to attack military checkpoint,” read the first line of the caption, written in all capital letters.

What happened at the checkpoint would be the subject of national media attention, throwing an uncomfortable spotlight on President Daniel Noboa’s attempts to restore security in Ecuador.

In recent years, Ecuador has struggled with an influx of organised crime, transforming the country from one of the safest areas in Latin America to one with the highest murder rates.

Noboa, like his predecessor Guillermo Lasso, has responded by declaring a series of state of emergencies, including a new one last month.

Those declarations allow Noboa to increase the military’s presence throughout Ecuador and expand its powers, as well as suspend certain civil liberties.

But human rights advocates warn that the increased militarisation could lead to human rights violations, not to mention deadly consequences for civilians like Vega.

Vega’s mother, Laura Ipanaque, still struggles to understand why the soldiers in Guayaquil took her son’s life.

“I still cannot find sense in what they did,” she told Al Jazeera.

A violent encounter

Daniel Noboa — dressed in a crisp, white collared shirt — stands near a white security gate, surrounded by officers.
President Daniel Noboa has declared states of emergency to curtail violence in Ecuador [File: Santiago Arcos/Reuters]
President Daniel Noboa has declared states of emergency to curtail violence in Ecuador [File: Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

In its post on social media, the Armed Forces of Ecuador explained that soldiers fired their weapons after Vega’s car “attempted to evade control, ramming into military personnel and hitting a patrol vehicle”.

To justify its actions, the armed forces cited an executive order issued by President Noboa in January, which said a state of emergency was necessary to address the "internal armed conflict" unfolding in Ecuador.

The order authorised the military to “neutralise” criminal groups and other “terrorist” actors.

But Vega’s family believes the accusations against the teenager are a cover-up. They reject any notion that Vega was a “terrorist”.

Ipanaque described Vega as a warm-hearted teenager, devoutly religious and hard-working.

“We have been going to a Christian church since Carlos was very young. He played the bass in the local chorus. He worked Monday to Friday in our bakery and went to rehearsal on the weekend. He was a happy, careful, affectionate person,” Ipanaque said.

Two sons, two daughters, a mother and a father pose for a family photo, framed in sparkle graphics.
Carlos Javier Vega, top left, poses for a family photo with his parents and siblings [Courtesy of the family of Carlos Javier Vega]

Vega’s cousin Velasco also disputes the military’s version of events. He survived the shooting, while Vega died the next day at the hospital.

Velasco was driving the Chevrolet at the time of the gunfire. He told Al Jazeera he uses the car for his work as a private driver, and it comes with a partition screen behind the driver’s seat.

He and Vega were nearly at the university when they encountered three soldiers blocking the street. According to Velasco, the soldiers refused to let them pass. Velasco attempted to persuade the soldiers to let them through, but they remained adamant.

That was when the trouble started. Velasco said he shifted the car’s gears into reverse — and as he drove backwards, he accidentally struck a security vehicle.

Jolted by the collision, he remembers accelerating forward, bringing his vehicle to a stop back in front of the checkpoint. That’s when he heard the pop of gunfire.

“I saw my cousin fall against the car partition and turn green,” Velasco told Al Jazeera.

Then he heard another shot. “I thought I was caught in a crossfire during a raid, so I tried to get out [of the area] as fast as I could.”

Velasco drove the Chevrolet for about 200 metres before realising he too had been struck by a bullet: His shoulder was bleeding through his grey T-shirt. He stopped the car, stepped out and called for help. That’s when the military patrol reached him.

“They throw me to the floor, beat me,” Velasco said, recounting the incident blow by blow. “They walk over my head and my injury. And they hit my cousin too.”

The soldiers checked his car, but Velasco said they found nothing suspicious. It was only after a police patrol approached the scene that he said the ambulance was called.

Questions of ‘extrajudicial executions’

A soldier sits behind the sight of a rifle, looking out on the El Rodeo prison, its long white buildings and chain-link fence in the distance.
Soldiers enter El Rodeo prison in Portoviejo, Ecuador, to conduct a search on June 5 [File: Cesar Munoz/AP Photo]
Soldiers enter El Rodeo prison in Portoviejo, Ecuador, to conduct a search on June 5 [File: Cesar Munoz/AP Photo]

Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international nonprofit, has led its own investigation into what happened that day in the lead-up to Vega’s death.

Last month, it denounced the shooting as an “apparent extrajudicial execution” in an open letter to President Noboa, detailing alleged human rights abuses committed by the military.

According to HRW, an autopsy report revealed Vega’s body had four projectile wounds, causing lacerations to his lungs and intestine. He ultimately died from internal bleeding.

The nonprofit also said that witness descriptions, as well as photos and videos of the altercation, reveal the soldiers appeared to “have been slow to provide aid”, despite the life-threatening injuries.

“They delayed several minutes before calling an ambulance, and this was decisive because the wounds were serious,” said Abraham Aguirre García, a lawyer for the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, a nonprofit in Guayaquil.

Aguirre is representing the Vega family in ongoing legal proceedings against the military: The Attorney General’s Office is investigating the soldiers for use of excessive force. He believes the military opened fire on February 2 with the intent to kill.

“The military never complied with the obligation to use force progressively. They never took into account the risks of shooting,” he said.

The military, however, offered its own version of events in its February social media post. It said Vega and Velasco “received first aid” from the local fire department at the scene, before “being transferred through the chain of custody to a health facility”.

In an interview with the local television network Ecuavisa, military commander Carlos Salvador also said that the soldiers aimed at the Chevrolet’s wheels, not its passengers.

He blamed “the irregularities of the area, the movement of the vehicle and the recklessness of the driver” for Vega’s death and Velasco’s injuries.

The Vega family, however, has called for a ballistic examination to create a three-dimensional model of the crime scene, in order to understand the precise circumstances surrounding the shooting. A prosecutor is investigating the soldiers involved in the incident.

In response to questions from Al Jazeera, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement, “The case is being investigated by the competent authority. Our institution is providing all the related support.”

In the aftermath, though, Velasco was charged with assault and resisting arrest. He spent a month and a half under house arrest.

Ultimately, a local judge closed the investigation into his behaviour and set him free on April 10.

Fears of human rights abuses

A man with a baby in his arms walks past a soldier on an elevated walkway.
A man passes a soldier on a walkway in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on April 21 [File: Santiago Arcos/Reuters]
A man passes a soldier on a walkway in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on April 21 [File: Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Human rights experts see the shooting as an example of the dangers that heavy-handed security measures present.

“Noboa’s policies have not significantly dismantled organised crime groups in the country, and on the contrary, they have brought new human rights violations,” said Juan Pappier, the deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch.

According to the nonprofit, the Attorney General’s Office in Ecuador is investigating eight cases of possible extrajudicial killings.

In addition, Human Rights Watch says there is evidence of arbitrary arrests and abusive conditions behind bars since the military took control of the prison system in January.

According to the open letter sent to President Noboa, detainees have been deprived of their right to speak with lawyers, and there have been “cases of beatings, use of tear gas, electric shocks, sexual violence and deaths at the hands of soldiers”.

The letter questioned the efficacy of Noboa’s security measures, too. Human Rights Watch pointed out that the Attorney General’s Office received 18,000 reports of crime from January to mid-April — but only 217 resulted in convictions so far.

“The judicial system is extremely weak, and it has serious shortcomings, from the moment the criminal investigation is started,” Pappier said.

He pointed to flaws in “the protection of judges and prosecutors, the control over the prison system [and] the capacity to investigate money laundering and corruption”.

But Esteban Torres, a deputy minister of government, dismissed the allegations contained in Human Rights Watch's letter. In a news conference on May 27, he connected the letter to conspiracy theories surrounding billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

“Behind that NGO is George Soros, who promotes the disorganisation of our societies in the whole world and the penetration of irregular groups that hide behind human rights,” Torres said.

“We accept these critiques, and we will apply the necessary correction, but we will not stop fighting corruption with any means necessary. The government answers to the Ecuadorians, not to international NGOs.”

Cracking down on crime

A street scene in Guayaquil, seen from above: cars and pedestrians navigating a busy street, moving past vendors with umbrellas.
Port cities like Guayaquil have seen a spike in violence as drug traffickers seek to exploit routes to the Pacific Ocean [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]
Port cities like Guayaquil have seen a spike in violence as drug-traffickers seek to exploit routes to the Pacific Ocean [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

On May 22, the same day the letter was published, the government declared a new 60-day state of emergency, targeting the provinces of Los Rios, Guayas, Santa Elena, Manabì, El Oro, Sucumbios and Orellana.

The government noted that six of the provinces accounted for approximately 84 percent of Ecuador’s gun deaths so far in 2024.

“Due to the military offensive, criminal groups retreated and entrenched themselves in seven provinces,” Noboa said in a video message.

His declaration authorised police and armed forces to inspect any house or personal communications they wished without prior authorisation, a policy that threatens to raise further human rights concerns.

Still, Noboa has touted the security measures as a success. According to the “security bloc” — a term Noboa’s government uses to describe its collaboration with police and armed forces — homicides this year have fallen by 16 percent so far.

In the final week of May alone, police forces said they had detained 735 people, 120 of whom were considered medium and high-ranking members of criminal organisations.

Noboa’s “iron-fist” tactics have also won widespread support. According to a May poll led by the Argentina-based survey agency CB Consultora, Noboa was the most popular president in Latin America.

In April, voters also overwhelmingly backed a ballot referendum to bolster Ecuador's military presence and increase prison sentences.

The referendum came at a pivotal moment for Ecuador. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened Ecuador’s economy, and drug-trafficking gangs took advantage of the instability to increase their presence in the country.

They include gangs like Los Choneros and Los Lobos. Ecuador was attractive to these groups, not only for its seaports but also for its location between Colombia and Peru, the two largest cocaine-producing countries in the world.

As gangs fought over territory and drug-trafficking routes, Ecuador experienced spiralling violence. According to the Ecuadorian Observatory on Organized Crime, homicides increased by more than 574 percent from 2019 to 2023.

Widespread public support

An aerial view of a neighbourhood in Guayaquil, Ecuador, with lots of flat, white multi-story buildings.
Murders have escalated in recent years as gang violence has spread across Ecuadorian cities like Guayaquil [File: Karen Toro/Reuters]
Murders have escalated in recent years as gang violence has spread across Ecuadorian cities like Guayaquil [File: Karen Toro/Reuters]

Mayor Yulissa Aguilar of Portovelo is among the supporters of the tough-on-crime tactics. She assumed her office in April, after the previous mayor, Jorge Maldonado, was killed by gunmen. She has been under police protection ever since.

Aguilar told Al Jazeera that she noticed a difference early in the year, when the state of emergency first came into effect.

“During the first period, those who came to Portovelo to commit any sort of crime left the town,” she said.

But Portovelo has continued to face challenges. A 13,500-person canton in the southeastern province of El Oro, Portovelo has been a major mining centre for decades.

But that has also made it a destination for organised crime. A 2023 study found that Portovelo and the nearby town of Zaruma constituted the main hub for illegal industrial mining in the country.

“Two years ago, organised criminal groups started coming here because they believe that, being a mining town, all that glitters is gold,” Aguilar said.

She said that extortion is the main problem for local entrepreneurs, but most victims do not report the crime out of fear. “Based on unofficial conversations, I would say that three out of 10 entrepreneurs have been blackmailed.”

Aguilar hopes that the renewed state of exception will help restore order in town, and she said she trusts the military.

“As a citizen, I like to believe that our security forces will behave in the proper way, abiding by the law and respecting human rights,” she said.

Even Ipanaque said she would not blame the government directly for what happened to her late son. She simply wants justice.

“I am not against the government,” she said. “I just want them to employ trained people. But soldiers are trained for war, and now they are dealing with civilians. They shouldn’t act like this.”

Source: Al Jazeera