QUITO – President Rafael Correa’s allegations that intelligence services in Ecuador had been infiltrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have led to a shakeup in the armed forces of unforeseeable consequences.
Resignations and dismissals are the order of the day. Wellington Sandoval resigned as defense minister Wednesday and was replaced by Correa’s personal secretary Javier Ponce. The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hector Camacho, army commander Guillermo Vásconez, and the chief of police, General Bolívar Cisneros, also stepped down.
A high-level Ecuadorian military officer who asked not to be identified told IPS that the country is at a critical juncture, with only two possible routes: "either the military as an institution returns to its nationalist orientation or it submits itself once and for all to impositions from the US."
It is necessary, he added, for "independent and progressive sectors to regain control over the institution." He also called for "a reduction of the power of a group that answers to former president Lucio Gutiérrez" (03-2005), a former army colonel who was removed as president by Congress and replaced by his vice president Alfredo Palacio.
The current crisis broke out as a result of Colombia’s Mar. 1 bombing raid of a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp in Ecuadorian territory, which led to a brief rupture in relations between Ecuador and Colombia and sparked a regional crisis that was quickly overcome through dialogue.
At least two other members of the Ecuadorian high command have also offered their resignations, said Camacho.
Ponce, the new defense minister, said "this is not setting the stage for a witch hunt, but for a healthy critical exercise of transparency. The stability of our democracy is not based on cover-ups but on the courageous analysis of our actions."
He also urged the armed forces "to undertake a generous review of their structures and practices."
On Saturday, Correa denounced in his weekly radio broadcast that the CIA "has totally infiltrated some of Ecuador’s military intelligence bodies."
A few days earlier he had sacked the army intelligence chief, Colonel Mario Pazmiño, for hiding information from the government, and announced that further measures would be taken.
According to Correa, the failure to share critical information gave rise to errors in the country’s military and diplomatic handling of the conflict with Colombia.
Sandoval’s resignation came two days after the announcement of the creation of a high-level civilian commission to "determine the extent of unauthorized links between intelligence officers and units in Ecuador" and "foreign intelligence agencies," according to the Notimil military news agency.
The agency also reported that an investigation had been launched to determine whether Pazmiño had provided the government with "timely and complete" information with respect to the bombing of the FARC camp, which killed the rebel group’s international spokesman Raúl Reyes, who was negotiating a release of hostages held by the insurgents.
Citing military sources, the on-line news site Ecuadorinmediato said Monday that "Pazmiño’s fall is apparently the result of a series of complaints and denunciations from higher ranking officers who were disobeyed by the colonel," who served as army intelligence chief for more than 10 years.
According to the news report, when it began to be revealed that the armed forces had previous knowledge of the Colombian air strike on the FARC camp in Ecuador, several military officers complained internally that the intelligence service had not passed on the information.
Local media outlets reported that military intelligence had been following Franklin Aizalla, an Ecuadorian citizen who died in the attack on the FARC camp, without informing Correa.
On Mar. 17, Correa and then defense minister Sandoval learned from the press that Aizalla had been under surveillance, which Colombia’s right-wing President Álvaro Uribe had been aware of for some time.
Colonel Pazmiño’s curriculum indicates "very effective training by the US and Israeli security bodies," wrote Ecuadorinmediato, which added that "he handled military intelligence operations in a nearly autonomous manner, without duly reporting to his superiors, many of whom were unaware of those actions."
The military source who spoke to IPS said it was true that Pazmiño had accumulated enormous influence, but also criticized the negligence shown by the intelligence chief’s direct superiors over the last 10 years.
He also said Pazmiño merits "a dishonorable discharge and a trial for treason." But, he added, "perhaps there are fears that Pazmiño knows a great deal about many officers, and could talk."
Alexis Ponce of the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights said "this is the first time that a head of state has touched on this issue, and I think it is a historic opportunity to dismantle groups that are autonomously carrying out parallel intelligence work, often against the very interests of Ecuadorian national security."
Retired colonel Jorge Brito, one of the army officers who took part in the January 2000 uprising by indigenous groups and junior officers that toppled president Jamil Mahuad, brought legal action against Pazmiño in 2001, accusing him of being the founder of the Legión Blanca (White Legion), a far-right group that has issued death threats against journalists, human rights activists and political and social leaders.
With respect to Pazmiño’s possible ties to Colombia’s intelligence services, Alexis Ponce pointed out that people living near the site of the Mar. 1 bombing raid were given warning to leave the area, "because there were going to be armed clashes."
Camacho and US Ambassador to Ecuador Linda Jewell opened a seminar Monday on "Strategic Opportunities and Challenges", which forms part of the cooperation between the US Army Southern Command and the Ecuadorian military.
The officer consulted by IPS expressed his opposition to such activities which, he argued, "condition" Ecuador’s armed forces.
He also said that, "besides the CIA’s infiltration in the armed forces, it is essential to take a look at what is happening in the police, who have traditionally had the closest ties to US security policies for the region."
Former US Southern Command chief Charles Wilhelm said in 2000 that after Ecuador signed an agreement leasing the air base in the port city of Manta to the US military, one of Washington’s aims was to "reorient" the Ecuadorian armed forces.
The officer who spoke anonymously to IPS said "part of that reorientation was the modification of the training received by the Ecuadorian military, to make it more similar to the training received by the Colombian army."
To bring that about, "it was necessary to eliminate more progressive elements and modify the social relationship between the military and different social sectors like indigenous groups," while "implementing more closely the training agreements signed by the US and Ecuadorian armed forces."
The source said a rift occurred in the armed forces after the January 2000 uprising by indigenous associations and the group of junior officers that overthrew Mahuad, and that US influence took deeper root at that time.
In January 2004, after the arrest in Quito of FARC leader Simón Trinidad, US Embassy spokeswoman Marti Estell said the "joint operation, which turned out perfectly," was "an example of cooperation between the Ecuadorian and Colombian police," with the support of the US secret services.
A few days after the Mar. 1 bombing of the FARC camp, the Colombian magazine Cambio reported that members of the Ecuadorian police intelligence services had helped locate the camp.