Over the last several decades, Ecuador has gone through period of turbulent politics. After being subjected to the oppression of the military junta between 1972 and 1979, the country returned to democracy in 1979 with the adoption of a new constitution. Under the government of Osvaldo Hurtado, who was elected in 1982, the country suffered from a severe economic crisis. Hurtado was replaced in 1984 by Léon Febres Cordero who brought back a system of severe and repressive politics. By the end of 1984, in reaction to his administration, an armed group, the “Alfaro Vive Movement”, came into being, demanding greater social justice. To fight against this guerrilla group, Cordero then waged a full scale war against terrorism during which representatives of the public order were allegedly guilty of multiple human rights violations, including many enforced disappearances.
Léon Febres Cordero was replaced in 1988. Nevertheless, political life in Ecuador remained very unstable: over the next 20 years, three Presidents were to be removed from office until the election, in November 2006, of Rafael Correa.
On 17 September 1996, President Abdala Bucaram set up a “Truth and Justice” Commission (Ministerial Resolution No 012), which had as its brief to enquire into at least 176 cases of human rights violations committed in Ecuador since 1979, and in particular those with respect to the Right to Life, Freedom and Personal Security. The mandate of the Commission was to establish the facts in order that those responsible be punished and that the victims obtain redress.
This Truth and Justice Commission was made up of seven members: a President Minister (Franck Vargas), three representatives appointed by human rights organisations working in Ecuador and three representatives from national human rights institutions.
The Commission was given one year to complete its investigations and hand down its conclusions, but with an option to prolong its mandate. It could also produce reports on specific themes or special cases when it considered it to be necessary. In this respect a special commission was set up to look into the disappearance of the Restrepo brothers who are reported to have gone missing in 1988, aged 14 and 18 at the time, after being held in detention by the Ecuadorian police. It is alleged that they were murdered and that their bodies were thrown into the Yambo lagoon in the midst of the Ecuadorian mountains. Following the report of the special commission the Restrepo family is believed to have received 2 million dollars from the State as compensation.
At the beginning of 1997, several members of the Commission began to complain about the lack of resources, equipment and staff which had been promised by the government in its 1996 resolution. On 3 February 1997, the Commission broke off all contact with the government which was then in the throes of a political crisis (President Bucaram was forced to stand down and fled the country on 11 February).
In 2003, another affair rocked Ecuadorian public opinion: on 19 November, 8 people, who were in the process of committing a robbery in a branch of the pharmaceutical company Fybeca in Guayaquil, were gunned down by the police, together with a customer and an employee of the company. Another person is also said to have disappeared in mysterious circumstances in the sidelines of this affair.
In order to shed light on these various human rights violations and to compensate for the abortive 1996 experience, President Correa set up a new Truth Commission in 2007.
The Truth Commission was established by decree of the President of the Republic, Rafael Correa, dated 3 May 2007. Its aim is to lead inquiries into the numerous human rights violations recorded under the government of Febres Cordero between 1984 and 1988 (327 cases are said to have been documented), as well as into other specific cases which occurred after this period, such as the Fybeca affair. To achieve its aim, it can request declassification of State archives which are of a confidential nature or pertain to national security when necessary to conduct its investigations. After assembling the evidence concerning human rights violations, the commission can then submit this information to the judicial authorities if it considers there is sufficient proof of criminal responsibility.
In carrying out its work, the Commission is committed to advancing the rights of the victims and to establishing policies for compensation. It can also make recommendations which it esteems necessary concerning judicial and institutional reforms in order to improve the mechanisms for preventing and punishing human rights violations.
The Commission is presided over by Sister Elsie Monge, a human rights activist. It is composed of two jurists, Julio César Trujillo and Roberto Jurado, a bishop, Monsignor Alberto Luna and Pedro Restrepo, a Columbian citizen and father of two of the disappeared persons.
A back up committee also lends a helping hand to the Commission. It is made up of families of the victims and representatives of both human rights organisations and of the government.
The Commission also receives support from the Centre of Transitional Justice which has already carried out work in Guatemala and Peru. This organisation therefore contributes its experience and methodology.
The Commission encountered difficulties from the very outset. In October 2007, faced with a lack of means, two members of the Commission resigned. (Monsignor Leonidas Proaño and Alexis Ponce, members of the back up committee). Following these resignations, the government then decided to allocate one million dollars to the Commission, thereby allowing it to begin its work.
On 11 February 2008, the Commission began to accept complaints. To this end, a special telephone line was made available to the victims and their families. The Commission has now begun its investigations into all allegations of violations submitted to it, except those which have already been the subject of a previous inquiry. Cases of disappearances will not be subject to in depth investigations unless evidence exists of involvement on the part of the forces of public order.
In mid February the Truth Commission published a preliminary report in which it listed all of the cases of enforced disappearances, torture and unlawful detention documented by other human rights organisations, including the Committee of Families of the Disappeared. This report also made allegations concerning involvement on the part of current highly placed politicians.
By mid April 2008, more than 105 cases had been submitted to the Commission, mainly concerning the events which took place in Quito and Guayaquil. The Commission is set up to receive complaints until mid May 2008, before beginning the task of writing up its report and making recommendations.
Due to the large amount of received complaints and new findings the mandate of the Commission was prolonged for 180 days.
The final report of the Commission is now expected in June 2009.
The creation of the Truth Commission provoked the indignation of the former President of Ecuador, Léon Febres Cordero who, whilst admitting that human rights violations had taken place during his mandate, refused to recognise the competence of the Commission which he referred to as a “Court of Inquisition”.