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Ecuador’s justice system awash with corruption and death threats

Recent investigations into corruption show the extent organized crime has infiltrated the country's justice system.

QUITO, Ecuador (CN) — It’s been nearly three months since Ecuador President Daniel Noboa declared an internal war against armed groups operating in the country in an attempt to quell the recent escalation of violence. But a series of investigations has revealed how deeply entrenched organized crime has become in Ecuador’s highest levels of government, including its justice system.

The most recent corruption scandal came to light April 3, when officials raided homes and arrested 14 judges, lawyers and security officials across the country over their suspected connection with organized crime.

The arrests are part of a special investigation dubbed “Caso Plaga,” (plague case), where the Ecuador attorney general’s office says suspects accepted bribes in exchange for special favors for inmates or the release of sentenced prisoners.

This isn’t the first scandal to hit Ecuador in recent months. In December, the agency arrested nearly 30 politicians, top judges, lawyers and security officials as part of a probe called "Caso Metastasis." Arrestees included a former judge of the National Court of Justice, a former head of the country’s prison system and a former judge of the Criminal Guarantees Judicial Unit, shaking the core of Ecuador’s justice system.

Attorney General Diana Salazar, who is largely seen as spearheading the investigations, called Metastasis “the largest in [Ecuador’s] history against corruption and drug trafficking” that “evidences the deep structural decomposition” in the country. Another mass arrest occurred in March, with 13 more detentions of judicial staffers and others. The number of defendants connected to Metastasis has reached 52 so far.  

Investigators say the suspects are part of a large criminal network once headed by Leandro Norero, a top financial ally of three gangs, Los Lobos, Los Tiguerones and Los Chone Killers. Norero was murdered in prison in 2022. When the attorney general’s office gained access to Norero’s phones, it decrypted his chat logs and found ongoing conversations with numerous judiciary, legislative and security forces who helped the gang leader with special favors.

Metastasis quickly led to offshoot investigations. In March, dozens of judicial staffers, including nine judges, were arrested in the coastal province of Guayas for their connection with organized crime as part of "Caso Purga" (purge case). This criminal network came to light from the phone records of Mayra Salazar, a suspect arrested in connection with Metastasis. 

How did we get here?

These investigations are only the “tip of the iceberg” according to Renato Rivera, director of the Ecuadorian Observatory of Organized Crime (OECO).

It’s long been an open secret organized crime has heavily infiltrated Ecuador’s justice system, he said. While the recent investigations play an important role in signaling the involvement of the highest levels of the judiciary in Norero’s corruption network, it hasn’t yet revealed the corrupt courts or prosecutors working cases outside of this network.

For example, Rivera said money laundering in the country is rarely investigated, and even less so if committed by private companies even though it’s the second most prevalent criminal economy in Ecuador.   

Manipulated trials are also common, he said. One study by OECO shows that 85% of court cases in Ecuador between 2015 and 2020 that dealt with organized crime (including offenses like extortion, hired hitmen and financing for drug trafficking) received abbreviated proceedings despite the complexity or gravity of the crime. Of those cases that went through regular trials, 41% received the minimum sentencing of 20-24 months, which is usually less than the time it takes to investigate these crimes, Rivera said.


“It is a more structural issue of the entire justice system,” Rivera said. “You can see how easy it is for organized crime to co-opt these institutions."

Though the current corruption investigations are a good first step, it’s important to watch how the trials and charges proceed, he said.

José Andrés Murgueytio, a lawyer and special projects coordinator with the Observatory of Rights and Justice of Ecuador, said Ecuador’s justice system has historically been inefficient. Judges, for example, are often awarded positions without proper qualifications, which has long made them easy to co-opt for political interests. This has led to extensive trial delays for particular cases or lack of due process in high-profile corruption cases, which organizations like Human Rights Watch have called out. Today, organized crime is doing the co-opting, Murgueytio said.

But if Ecuador really wants to take down organized crime, militarizing the streets isn’t going to cut it, the experts say. It’s essential that the country strengthen other institutions, like the justice system, “which may be a medium-term strategy but will generate much more efficient results in the end,” Rivera said.

Today, Ecuadorians’ opinion of the judiciary is historically low, with one Ipsos poll from 2023 showing less than 12% of the population trusts its justice system. This is dangerous, Murgueytio said, as it sets the stage for authoritarian leaders to justify abandoning democratic institutions and processes.

A second crisis

But there’s another crisis facing Ecuador’s judicial staffers, he said: increased threats and assassination attempts for their work. In 2023, the Observatory of Rights and Justice counted four assassinations as well as 28 attacks everything from attempted killings, bomb threats, direct threats and intimidations against lawyers, judges and other judicial operators. The year before, six judicial staffers were killed. 

Lack of security and state protection for judicial workers is a huge problem and a major driver of corruption, according to Judge Heidy Borja, former president of the Ecuadorian Association of Magistrates and Judges in the province of Guayas. Judiciary workers are more likely to succumb to corruption when faced with threats to work for organized crime or face potential death if they know there are no adequate safeguards to protect them, she said.  

Borja received a threat in 2022 when one armed group demanded she work for them and rule in their favor for current and future trials. They threatened to put a bomb in her car if she refused and named several of her family members, which was terrifying, she said. She denounced the threat and now has security guards who follow her everywhere, but not everyone has access to this kind of security or can wait through the long bureaucratic process of getting it approved.

“Criminals are taking advantage of the fact that there is no system of protection for judges,” Borja said. “To think about attacking and combating corruption, to think about reducing violence in the justice system, you have to first protect the system.” 

Margaret Satterthwaite, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, said in a statement she was “dismayed by the great vulnerability of justice officials” in Ecuador and that it threatens the rule of law. She also told Ecuadorian officials to do more to protect judicial workers.

But the reaction from Noboa's office has been the opposite, with past and current presidents either publicly naming and denouncing judges or calling lawyers “terrorists” for defending accused gang members. These kinds of declarations put judiciary workers at higher risk, Murgueytio said, adding no recent president has denounced the many crimes and threats menacing the judiciary or the complicated connection with corruption.

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