A year ago today was the first time I was apprised of important, developing news via Twitter. An attempted coup in Ecuador! The Tweeter was not an ideal messenger: he was Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, whose account I follow to see his scurrilous rhetoric comically confined to 140 characters. Here he was, on September 30, 2010, tweeting about Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa: “They’re trying to depose President Correa! Alert, people of the Bolivarian Alliance! Alert, people of UNASUR! Long Live Correa!!” The next morning, when the fires in Quito had dwindled and Correa was still president, Chávez was jubilant: “The people of Latin America have taught fascism a new lesson: it won’t come back!” “Glory to the Brave Ecuadorean People! Glory to the noble soldiers of Ecuador, sons of Sucre, sons of Bolivar! Glory to the Courageous Correa!”
The Ecuadorean National Police had been striking throughout the country, protesting an austerity measure that included benefit reductions for the police, when Correa was detained in a Quito police hospital for several hours. Several other aspects of the unrest suggested an organized insurrection—elements of the Air Force had blockaded the capital’s airport (one of the few ways in which the military was involved), mutinous police officers occupied barracks and public buildings across the country (including the National Assembly in Quito), and police roadblocks went up in a number of provincial capitals—but the events that led directly to Correa’s detention seemed less than preconceived.
The president had gone of his own volition to the Regimiento Quito No. 1, the city’s main police barracks, to address the protesting officers. Standing above a crowd of already unruly and, needless to say, armed men in uniform, Correa refused to negotiate the law. Both sides were belligerent, and when the officers grew increasingly restive, Correa grabbed his tie by the knot, ripped open the top buttons of his shirt (presumably to show that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest), and shouted over the din, “If you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill me if you’re brave enough!” With this provocative bit of stagecraft, Correa tried to leave the barracks but was sucked into the mob of police officers, where he was jostled and pelted with tear gas at close range. He emerged from the crowd wearing a gas mask and limping with a cane (he had recently undergone knee surgery). Someone put him in a wheelchair, and he was spirited into the police hospital adjacent to the barracks. Police then surrounded the building, where he remained until specialized military units rescued him late that night in a hail of gunfire. The rescue operation killed five people and injured dozens.
It was fitting that I learned about the riots from Chávez, a strong ally of Correa and the leader of the Bolivarian Alliance, a network of Latin America’s self-proclaimed “socialist governments.” From the beginning, both Chávez and Correa were determined to label the unrest an attempted coup. This was in line with Chávez’s reliably histrionic politics of paranoia, in which Bolivarian states are perpetually under siege by a roster of destabilizing forces—usually “fascist,” if internal, or “imperialist,” if US-driven—and in which protecting the state from these forces is the perennial rationale for authoritarian behavior. Of course, coups remain an entrenched reality in Ecuador and in Latin America—Chávez for one has both participated in and been the victim of them. And, although most of the transitions largely have been due to popular uprisings rather than staged coups, Ecuador has had eight presidents since 1995. None besides Correa has finished his first term.
Within a few days, documentation surfaced that initially seemed to point towards a coup: a half-hour long audio file of police radio communications during what seem to be the minutes leading up to Correa’s rescue. The officers on the recording are frantic and profane. Facing an impending assault by the military, they make impassioned, hectic speeches and frenziedly tell each other how to deflect the rescue operation. Most shockingly, several officers repeatedly urge one another to assassinate the president. “Kill that son of a bitch Correa!” “Death to Correa!” “Kill the president!”
Many on the internet and in the media saw these calls as evidence that the officers intended to assassinate Correa. This reading ignores the fact that Correa was not actually killed, despite spending a half day in the custody of the people who allegedly wanted to kill him. It also overlooks the officers who on the recording express far more humble convictions: “We are not revolutionaries,” one says, and goes on to demand that the president simply sign an amnesty agreement and provide the National Police its due resources.
The arguments go on and on. Move him, don’t move him, kill him, don’t kill him:
Quick, kill that son of a bitch Correa!
Compañeros, don’t let yourselves get brainwashed.
Just kill Correa and end this. Kill Correa and this protest is over!
Compañeros, let’s not talk of assassinations . . . We are police officers, we are representatives of authority!
In the end, the interactions on the recording resemble an anarchic revolt more than an organized paramilitary operation: no one voice takes precedence over any other, and no declaration is definitive.
The recordings are also a stunning reminder of the deep-seated rivalry between the police and the military, without whom, we can suppose, staging an actual coup would have been an act of folly. Much of the audio consists of police imaginatively insulting the chuspangos (soldiers) mounting the rescue operation. At one point, a man who is apparently a soldier taps into the frequency and calls the police “miserable cowards,” unleashing a string of profanities worthy of a high school parking lot (“Fucking faggot, go fuck your mother”). As trucks full of military personnel encroach on the hospital and police urge each other to fill the streets with caltrops, an officer intones: “The chuspangos are worth shit! In the jungle they can do whatever they want, but in the city we are kings!”
In the days after the riots, columnist Martín Pallares of the Ecuadorean newspaper El Comercio wrote, “For us to speak of a coup there needs to have been, at the least, a manifest attempt to topple the president and replace him with someone else.” Correa has pointed to Lucio Gutierrez, a former president and major opposition leader, as the puppet master behind the unrest. The charge is not inherently implausible: Gutierrez himself was deposed by a popular uprising, and has participated in another failed coup. However, Gutierrez has denied the charges, and Correa has failed to proffer any definitive evidence of his involvement. Police Colonel Cesar Carrión, the hospital director, was also acquitted of charges of attempted assassination. (At issue during his trial was whether he locked the door connecting the hospital to the barracks, and whether he donned a medical robe—Carrión is not a doctor—in order to get closer to Correa.) In June, Police Colonel Rolando Tapia and four of his subordinates were convicted of threatening the security of the state. But these officers were only involved in a brief simultaneous occupation of the National Assembly, not in any attempts against Correa, and their convictions do not speak to any larger plan.
Still, Correa has capitalized plenty on the events. Having displayed an unwillingness to bend to violence, not to mention pulling off a stunt of physical bravery in the process, he came out of the barracks looking strong. His popularity, which had been suffering, increased visibly in the uprising’s aftermath. This May, Correa was widely projected to win a series of referendums increasing executive control over the media and the judiciary, precisely the two institutions capable of independently investigating the events of September 30. The measures were approved far more narrowly than expected, however, suggesting that Correa’s popularity may be waning. Perhaps it’s a sign that, coup or not, Ecuador is sliding back towards the instability that plagued it for years. For a year after the uprising, it remains in the darkness of a country incapable of keeping an open record of its own convulsions.