Sunday, June 16, 2024

Ecuador sparks diplomatic crisis after police storm Mexican embassy

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Mexico has broken off diplomatic relations with Ecuador and vowed to bring it before an international court after police broke into its embassy in Quito and captured the Andean nation’s former vice-president, who was sheltering there after being convicted of corruption.

President Daniel Noboa’s hardline conservative government ordered officers into the embassy premises after Mexico’s leftwing administration granted asylum to Jorge Glas, who served as Ecuador’s vice-president from 2013-18 and was later sentenced to 14 years in jail.

Police forced their way into the embassy late on Friday night as heavily armed troops stood guard outside. Video posted on social media showed two black police jeeps leaving the diplomatic premises with sirens wailing as Mexico’s acting ambassador Roberto Canseco shouted: “No, no, this is a violation, this is not possible!” and was wrestled to the ground by police.

“This is totally unacceptable,” Canseco told reporters afterwards. “They have hit me, they have pushed me to the ground. I physically tried to prevent them entering. They searched the Mexican embassy in Quito like criminals.”

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican president, accused Ecuador of a “flagrant violation of international law and Mexican sovereignty” and said he had ordered the immediate suspension of diplomatic relations.

The 1961 Vienna Convention guarantees the inviolability of diplomatic premises, stating that “the agents of the receiving state may not enter them except with the consent of the head of mission”. Forced entry into an embassy by a host government is almost unheard-of, even in military dictatorships.

Martha Bárcena, who was Mexico’s ambassador to Washington until 2021, said the incident was a reflection of a region profoundly divided along ideological lines. 

“It’s the growing ideologisation of foreign policy across Latin America,” she said. “These verbal fights, verbal darts are leading to the abandonment of diplomacy and culminate in these events we haven’t seen in Latin America in many years.” 

Latin America has not seen a serious national embassy violation since the 1980s. In 1980, when 37 people died in the burning of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City, and the M-19, a Colombian guerrilla group, held diplomats hostage at the Dominican Republic’s embassy in Bogotá. A year later, Cuban officials entered the Ecuadorean embassy to arrest Cuban dissidents residing there.

The US state department is yet to give a statement and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Noboa said that the “immunities and privileges given to the diplomatic mission which was sheltering Jorge Glas had been abused” and that his political asylum was “contrary to the legal framework”.

“Ecuador is a sovereign country and we are not going to allow any criminal to remain in impunity,” he added.

Glas was transferred to a maximum security jail dubbed “the rock” in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s major port city, on Saturday morning, the country’s prison agency said. Earlier, videos shared on social media showed an armoured motorcade transporting him from a holding facility in Quito.

Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s foreign minister, said she would take the case to the International Court of Justice “to denounce Ecuador’s responsibility for violations of international law”. She added that several Mexican diplomats were injured during the break-in.

The dispute between Ecuador and Mexico had been brewing since Glas sought refuge in the embassy in December. He fled there after prosecutors published chat messages suggesting that he had been released early from his lengthy jail terms in 2022 because a leading Ecuadorean drug trafficker had bribed a judge.

López Obrador infuriated Ecuador’s government this week by suggesting that Noboa’s election victory last year against a leftwing opponent was thanks to the opponent being unfairly blamed for the murder of another candidate during the campaign. Ecuador ordered the expulsion of the Mexican ambassador over the remarks.

The Mexican president, like several other leftwing Latin American leaders, has remained loyal to Ecuador’s long-ruling former president Rafael Correa. The authoritarian leftist leader fled to Belgium in 2018 after a warrant was issued for his arrest on corruption charges. Glas was Correa’s vice-president and Luisa González, who lost to Noboa last year, was backed by Correa. González on Saturday called on Noboa to resign over the embassy raid.

The ordeal has reminded many observers of the story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, to whom Correa granted asylum and sheltered at the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid arrest over rape charges in Sweden. After Correa left office, the new Ecuadorean government accused Assange of violating his asylum conditions, revoked his status and allowed UK police to enter the embassy and arrest him.

Noboa, 36, is enjoying soaring popularity among Ecuadoreans and strong support from Washington after declaring an all-out war on drug trafficking. The scion of a wealthy banana-exporting family, he used emergency powers to put troops on the streets and sent the army to take control of gang-ridden jails, using tactics partly borrowed from El Salvador’s strongman leader Nayib Bukele.

A former haven between the big cocaine-producing nations of Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has suffered spiralling violence and soaring murders in recent years as drug cartels turned it into an important trans-shipment point for cocaine destined for Europe.

Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said that Noboa’s actions are probably intended to bolster domestic support. “If he gets a popularity boost from this, will it embolden him or encourage him to bend the law in other ways in pursuit of popularity and re-election in February 2025?”

Condemnation from Latin America’s governments was swift, with leftist leaders from Cuba, Venezuela, and Honduras criticising Ecuador’s conduct, while Nicaragua on Saturday followed Mexico in breaking off diplomatic relations with Quito. The foreign ministry of Brazil said the raid set “a serious precedent, and must be subject to strong repudiation, whatever the justification for its implementation”. The conservative governments of Argentina and Uruguay also rebuked Ecuador.

Gustavo Petro, the leftist president of neighbouring Colombia, said that Glas’ right to political asylum had been “barbarically violated”, and called on regional multilateral organisations including the Organisation of American States (OAS) to take up the case.

The OAS general secretariat on Saturday criticised Ecuador and said in a statement on Saturday that “it rejects any action that violates or puts at risk the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions”. The regional body also called for “dialogue between the parties to resolve their differences”.

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