Last Thursday on October 1st, Ecuador became a lawless state without a governing authority. A state of emergency was declared, leaving the country in chaos. The rebellion was spurred by lower levels of the police and military forces due to austerity measures that would significantly reduce benefits for public servants. President Rafael Correa, known for his confrontational leadership style, instated this new controversial law with a presidential veto on Wednesday evening. The police forces would be affected more than any other group by since it would increase the amount of time necessary for a promotion, eliminating the significant salary increase that comes with such promotions. As such, national police forces went on strike early Thursday morning. They placed road blocks on all the main highways, took over the airports, occupied the national assembly and retreated to their barracks. With his fiery personality intact, President Correa approached the police barracks yelling, “If you want to kill the president, here I am—kill me if you dare.” This fierce declaration provoked an attack on the president. Several shots were fired and the police sprayed tear gas in his face. Although Correa was given a gas mask, a protester tore his mask off in an attempt to suffocate him. Correa was quickly whisked away to the closet hospital in the area, ironically (stupidly), the police hospital, where he was then held hostage for 12 hours.
What happens to a country when the police forces go on strike? Pandemonium and anarchy break loose. All over the country banks were robbed, in Quito and Guayaquil, the largest city on the coast, robbers depleted the funds of at least six banks. On the streets, protesters, both those in support of the president and supporters of the police grouped in angry mobs, setting tires on fire and causing terror in the cities throughout the country. Quito and Guayaquil, the two largest cities in Ecuador were most affected by the rioting.
I happened to be in Guayaquil last Thursday, shooting footage for my documentary. My film focuses on a sex worker and her family who are from the most dangerous neighborhoods in the south of Guayaquil—so there I was, unfortunately, in the center of action. The neighborhood around us erupted into chaos. We stayed inside the house as things turned more and more dangerous. People took advantage of the lawless situation to rob everyone and everything in sight. I observed the situation around me from the roof of the house. It was incredible to watch the swarms of looters passing by, people riding bikes with large burlap sacks tied to the back, filled with goods. One man was pushing a washing machine strapped to a large cart. The residents of the neighborhood were rushing back and forth between the nearby stores and their homes, shouting out to their friends and neighbors the things still left in the stores. Streams of people kept passing by carrying as much as they could in large plastic bags. They carried simple household goods like laundry detergent and cleaning supplies to much bigger, more substantial items, like the washing machine, TVs, furniture, and other electronic equipment.
For me things got scary when a mob gathered on a nearby street, many of them with guns. I heard gunshots throughout the day and apparently one man was killed in the violence. I’ve never been in such close proximity to people with so many weapons, shooting their guns off as if they were in some old cowboy western. Robbers were stealing all the cars from the streets and assaulting random strangers. Although I felt fairly safe in the house, I was scared by the violence. The most unsettling part was that I had no idea what was going on. I had no access to the news or a radio. All I knew was that this neighborhood had suddenly exploded into violence, but I had no idea why. Finally my friends in Quito called me to tell me the news that the president had been kidnapped and that Ecuador was in a state of emergency—and worse, that no one in the country knew exactly what was happening or how things would be resolved. My friends said that this was a possible coup attempt. I thought perhaps I would have to stay in this Guayaquil neighborhood for days until things calmed down. I found out that the entire country had shut down, all business, offices, schools, etc. No buses or taxis were in operation. Everyone had taken refuge in their homes, presumably glued to the news.
And here I was, most definitely the only gringa in this part of Guayaquil. I have never felt so alone, despite the kindness of my hosts. They kept reassuring me that I was safe and that everything would be resolved quickly. As Ecuadorians they are accustomed to frequent revolts against the government, it’s a country that has had 8 presidents in 10 years, all of them toppled by popular rebellions. This experience was one of the scariest I’ve had in my life. I felt trapped and had no idea how to escape. I had no idea what was happening in the country, nor did anyone. As luck would have it, I just happened to be filming in a neighborhood already infamous as being the most dangerous part of Guayaquil when the police decide to go on strike. Already a lawless land, the police strike gave the green light to all the residents to do as they pleased. However, not everyone in the neighborhood was looting and stealing. There were plenty of people buckled down in their homes, just as scared as we were.
Towards evening, when things seemed to have settled down, we were finally able to flag down a taxi to bring us to another part of Guayaquil where other family members live. The taxi driver was terrified to stop, he told us to get in as quickly as possible, as people were putting guns to drivers’ heads if they stopped at red lights or stopped at all. We were incredibly fortunate to find a taxi as most of the roads were empty by this point. As we traveled through the city, I was amazed by mobs of people and chaos. We continued to see looters—I saw crowds of people stealing from a pharmacy. We had to weave through crowds and take back roads to finally arrive at our destination, still a dangerous neighborhood, but certainly not like the favelas where we had been trapped all day.
We were finally able to watch the news and by 10 or 11pm, things had been resolved. Correa had been rescued from the hospital by military forces, surprisingly without violence. When Correa arrived at the presidential palace he gave a riveting speech that democracy had been restored and that the oppositional forces would be punished, and removed from their posts. A coup would have been unsuccessful because throughout the day the upper commands of the military forces reassured that they backed the president, the constitution, the law, and democracy. As seen historically in Latin America, successful coups depend on military support and in this case, the military stood firmly behind the president. Furthermore, the police strike did not have the intended effect on the masses—instead of supporting the police, people were furious that they went on strike, leaving the country without security. Again, a coup cannot happen without popular support. Although Correa’s popularity has plummeted in the past year he still has the support of the majority of Ecuadorians.
On Friday everything returned to normal, as if nothing had happened. Correa is in negotiations with the police forces and is willing to rewrite parts of his austere law. I hopped on a bus back to Quito, eager to get return to my comfortable apartment located in a safe neighborhood (well, no neighborhood in Quito is safe, but because I live in a wealthy area, there are private security forces outside every building). Obviously I’m the type of anthropologist who is attracted to excitement and a bit of danger, as my dissertation topic would suggest, but even for me, this experience was unsettling. But fascinating as well. It was exciting to witness everything firsthand, despite my fear.