QUITO – The indigenous movement leading protests against the austerity policies of Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno took eight uniformed police and two plainclothes officers prisoner on Thursday to put pressure on authorities to dial back violence against demonstrators.
The eight uniformed cops were surrounded and captured while riding motorcycles in the vicinity of the Ecuadorian Culture House (CCE) in central Quito, which the indigenous activists have occupied since Monday.
The police were taken to the CCE’s Agora and presented to assembled members of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (Conaie).
Conaie leaders threatened to subject the eight police to traditional indigenous justice – recognized in Ecuador’s constitution – if the security forces attacked the building.
The threat was followed by a demand that security forces pull back from the CCE complex in El Arbolito park, where Conaie supporters have been gathering all week, and by a call for the armed forces to withdraw their support from Moreno.
Shortly after mid-day, two other people described as undercover cops were brought to the Agora and confined along with the eight motorcycle officers.
EFE saw one of the people who brought the pair to the Agora displaying what appeared to be a grenade taken from one of the suspected infiltrators.
At about the same time, a Conaie official on the podium held up a bright yellow raincoat with a police insignia, also taken from one of the pair.
The area around the CCE has witnessed a succession of police charges toward indigenous people, students and other people protesting against Moreno’s decision last week to eliminate fuel subsidies to comply with the terms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan agreement.
Conaie, comprising representatives of Ecuador’s 14 recognized indigenous peoples, is demanding not only the restoration of fuel subsidies, but also the resignations of Moreno, Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo and Defense chief Oswaldo Jarrin.
Thursday’s confirmation by the Ombudsman’s Office that a Conaie leader was killed the day before during protests in Quito only intensified anger against the Moreno government among the people occupying the CCE.
The death toll from the protests now stands at five, but Romo said in a press conference on Wednesday night that “no person has died in a clash with the police.”
“Today the government is murdering the people,” Conaie president Jaime Vargas told EFE on Thursday, accusing Moreno of having “surrendered to the IMF.”
“We are not interested in negotiating any accord with the government,” Vargas said. “The only thing we ask is immediate resignation and that he leave the presidency.”
On Wednesday, Moreno welcomed the start of talks with some Conaie members and said he expected the turmoil in the country to end soon.
“We already have the first good results of the dialogue,” Moreno said in a Twitter post, praising the indigenous protesters for separating themselves from violent groups.
For Vargas, the indigenous leaders negotiating with the government are “traitors.”
He told EFE that Conaie planned to assign their police prisoners the “mission” of carrying the caskets of indigenous people killed in the protests in a procession to the coroner’s office.
EFE was able to speak with one of the police officers, Darwin Larraga.
“We’re fine, they have not mistreated us. The situation is tense,” he said, standing alongside his comrades. One of the other police, apparently a colonel, was wearing an Ecuadorian flag as a cape.
As evening approached, the flag-draped coffin holding the body of the Conaie leader killed on Wednesday arrived at the CCE.
Moreno’s chief of staff, Jose Augusto Briones, described the seizure of the police as “kidnapping” and claimed that Conaie was also preventing 27 journalists from leaving the CCE.
EFE, however, was able to establish that reporters were free to come and go as they wished, though some Conaie members had harsh words for news crews from two television networks.
The protests began on Oct. 3 with the Moreno administration’s enactment of the austerity package.
The most controversial aspect of the plan was the end of fuel subsidies, which spurred a 123 percent increase in the price of diesel, but the government also slashed public employees’ pay by 20 percent and took steps toward the privatization of pensions.
Moreno, who responded to the protests by declaring a state of emergency, abandoned Quito on Monday for the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s economic hub, but returned to the capital within 48 hours.
The president says that the unrest is being orchestrated by unidentified elements from the government of his predecessor and political mentor, Rafael Correa.
After serving for several years as Correa’s vice president, Moreno won election on a promise to maintain the center-left policies of the Alianza Pais party.
Instead, he has moved to reverse virtually all of Correa’s initiatives and programs.