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Guayaquil's top cop pulled a classic "blame-the-victim" diversionary stunt, to explain the tear gassing of the Gay Pride marchers.

pride crowd
Gay Pride marchers and cops—before the tear gas.

Ecuador: Scapegoating
in Guayaquil

by Ana Simo

AUGUST 1, 2000. About three hundred people were tear-gassed by police on the evening of June 28 in the center of Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, as they tried to peacefully march in the first local Lesbian and Gay Pride March. The march never took place.

Eyewitness report that some 60 cops in anti-riot gear, backed up by patrol cars, surrounded the crowd at the starting point of the march, ordering them to disperse, and threatening them with arrest if they refused.

The crowd was already trickling out when, unprovoked, the cops suddenly began firing tear gas canisters at them. In the ensuing panic, several people were trampled while others temporarily choked on the tear gas. The incident was reported in the local media, which was there to cover the march.

The attack was ordered by Guayas province Police Chief Pedro Cruz Rodriguez, reportedly under direct instructions from his boss, Governor Joaquin Martinez Amador. Guayaquil (pop. 2 million) is the capital of the province. "Society is not yet ready for this type of event," the Police Chief told the Fundacion Amigos de la Vida (Friends of Life Foundation), the HIV/AIDS and queer human rights group that organized the march.

Constitution As Toilet Paper
Stung by activist charges that the police action was a violation of Ecuador's 1998 Constitution, the only one in Latin America that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and health status, Guayaquil's top cop pulled a classic "blame-the-victim" diversionary stunt.

At a hurriedly called press conference, a day after the thwarted march, Chief Cruz Rodriguez denounced local transgender sex workers as dangerous AIDS carriers. Many had been among the most visible, and enthusiastic, march participants—in Ecuador and other Latin American countries, transgender people, many forced by their limited options into sex work, are at the forefront of the nascent queer rights movements.

Within 24 hours of the Police Chief's press conference, eleven transgender persons had been thrown in jail, and were being pressured by the cops to take the HIV test as a condition for their release, according to Neptali Arias, President and co-founder of the Friends of Life Foundation.

Arias told The Gully that after almost two weeks in jail, in spite of efforts by his group to get them released, eight detainees were forcefully tested, and seven were found to be HIV-positive. The tests, he said, were done by a private lab hired by Police Chief Cruz Rodriguez after the Ecuadorian National Institute of Hygiene turned him down on the grounds that enforced HIV testing is illegal in Ecuador.

Triggering Repression
Cruz Rodriguez quickly used the test results to justify his tear-gassing of Pride marchers and his abuses against transgender people and both the local media and public opinion appear to have bought into his cynical rationalization. "The media has begun to give a 'yellow,' sensationalistic tinge to these incidents. On the streets, people are screaming 'sidosos' (AIDS-carriers) at us, and the stigma is much worse than before. The population has reacted negatively," said Arias.

copsHe worries that all this could trigger a full-blown campaign of repression and violence against queers and people living with HIV/AIDS. Already, he said, Police Chiefs in smaller, nearby cities, like Duran, are also rounding up transgender people and testing them against their will. He also pointed at another ominous development reported on July 22 by the local press: "A mother denounced her HIV-positive daughter to the police and three officers went to their home and arrested the daughter, who is still being detained," he said.

The seven transgender detainees who tested positive also remain in jail. Police Chief Cruz Rodriguez has vowed "to keep them in jail until he decides what to do with them," said Arias, whose Friends of Life Foundation has presented a habeas corpus motion on their behalf, which so far has been ignored by the cops. An appeal to the provincial Ombudsman has also been ignored and Arias' group is organizing a protest in front of the Ombudsman's office this week.

With help from the local Human Rights Committee, the Friends of Life Foundation is now planning to take the Guayaquil Police Chief to court, "so that a [legal] precedent can be set against this type of action," said Arias, who is also clearly pinning his hopes on international pressure to make his country's frail, quasi-paper democracy work for queers.

A New Cambodia?
The anti-queer repression in Guayaquil comes at a particularly delicate moment:

Ecuador continues to totter on the brink of economic collapse.

An armed indigenous insurgency is not inconceivable: the marginalized, well-organized, and thoroughly fed-up Indians who toppled a President in January are 40% of a population of 12.5 million, but not one sits in the Ecuadorian Congress.

Escalating U.S. involvement in the decades-old civil war in neighboring Colombia—mendaciously sold to Americans as the "war on drugs"—could suck in Ecuador the way Cambodia was sucked into the Vietnam War. The U.S. is reportedly already testing the killer fungus Fusarium oxysporum in the Ecuadorian Amazon forest, after the Colombian government balked. It hopes to use the fungus to destroy Colombian coca plantations, which environmentalists fear could trigger a monumental ecological disaster in the entire region.

As the events in Guayaquil forewarn, Ecuador may be ripe both for radical change, and for all sorts of demagogic scapegoating and bizarre flights from reality.

Related links:

For the laggardly CIA profile of Ecuador, last updated January 1999.

For the excellent site of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

For what to do if cops attack you with tear gas and pepper spray.

For the eye-opening "Tear Gas—Harassing Agent or Toxic Chemical Weapon" by Physicians for Human Rights.

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