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Latin American Anti-racism in a 'Post-Racial' Age - LAPORA



During August 2015, several demonstrations against the government were violently repressed, with the arrest of several leaders of social movements.  This "national strike and uprising" had been convened by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuadoar, CONAIE, and union organizations, in opposition to the constitutional amendments that the National Assembly was passing (especially on indefinite re-election) and in opposition to large-scale mining, oil exploitation in the Yasuní National Park, land and water laws, and in defense of bilingual intercultural education and indigenous justice (Colectivo de Investigación Acción Psicosocial 2016). During the weeks of demonstrations, the conflict escalated, resulting in 142 people being apprehended by the security forces, and 229 cases of assaults, detentions, attempted arrests, and raids in all the territories where protests were held (CONAIE et al., 2016: 7).

In Saraguro, Loja province, in the southern Ecuadorian highlands, indigenous organizations supported the strike and made demands for intercultural bilingual education. They also opposed prohibitions on the commercialization of dairy products, especially quesillo; and protested about mining concessions in the Cerro Fierro Urco. As has been a common practice in indigenous mobilizations in Ecuador, the protesters blockaded the Pan-American Highway, allowing traffic only at certain times. The government ordered an operation to clear the road and quell the indigenous bases of the uprising.

On August 17, 2015, a contingent of around a thousand police and military arrived on the outskirts of the town of Saraguro. The armed forces indiscriminately attacked the demonstrators and other indigenous people who were just onlookers. They resorted to tear gas, pepper spray, and physical and verbal violence.

In total, the police arrested 31 people. The police let two minors go, and the remaining 29 persons were transferred to jail, where they stayed for sixteen days. The battle of the 29 of Saraguro has been waged against a process of criminalization and judicialization that lasted three years. After the uncertainty during their detention, the 29 were charged with the crime of paralyzing a public service (Article 346 of the Penal Code). Five persons were sentenced to jail, receiving a punishment of 4 years in prison—due to the aggravating circumstances related to the state of emergency—although the Penal Code only establishes a penalty of 1 to 3 years in prison. In December 2016, the lawyers of the 5 sentenced to prison filed an appeal of cassation before the National Court of Justice in Quito.  

The judicial system acted arbitrarily, due process was violated, and the sentences were carried out without the evidentiary elements necessary to justify them. In this case, the justice system was not impartial, and the executive branch of the governmen to pressured the judiciary to punish and, in the words of a representative of the Ministry of the Interior after a hearing, "set a precedent so that the roads are not blocked". Additionally, the sentence was not only disproportionate, but the accused found it humiliating, including the requirement to undergo a "training course to not be a threat to the internal security of the country." The judges based their sentence on a notion of "abstract danger", that is, actions that harm society, and according to their argument, the defendants were co-authors of a plot. Faced with this, a member of the team of lawyers commented: "that's where I see that racism enters, because they assume that all indigenous people are part of that plot", without any evidence of what it was, or of how and where the supposed plot was devised.

In May 2017, CONAIE presented to the newly elected president a proposal for the amnesty and pardon of 98 people being prosecuted for social protest and 13 who had already been sentenced. The perspective of the 29 of Saraguro differs from the amnesty proposal that CONAIE presented, because they consider that asking for amnesty implied accepting their guilt: "You can not ask for amnesty for something that you have not done." Finally, on August 7, 2018, after three years, the five peoeple of the 29 of Saraguro who had been sentenced to jail were declared innocent, after a hearing of cassation in the National Court of Justice. No official of the state or justice system operator has been held responsible for their unjust imprisonment.