How does it happen that the president of a country is held captive in a hospital where he is being treated after the police tear-gassed him, and then has to be make a dramatic escape through gunfire, under the cover of military special forces?
Or, to turn that around, what happened that the police, who tend to embody the inherently conservative stance of the institution’s law and order mandate, would rise up against the nation’s leader?
According to the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio, [i] 193 were injured in chaos on 30 September 2010. Five people died in Quito, either during the president’s escape or afterward from injuries, and two died in Guayaquil from the lack of police presence (although it is unclear how exactly that could be known). I spoke with a friend in Quito on Saturday who gave this local perspective, “Things got completely out of control. It was a normal Thursday for everyone until the police decided they wouldn’t work, at 9:30 AM. Then, it was a nightmare out of the movies – children were already at school, people were at their jobs, and the criminals and thieves were in the streets robbing as much as they could. The police made the announcement that they wouldn’t work and the president put himself in the middle of their protest with a not very intelligent discourse. The police are corrupt, stupid and irresponsible, and our president is an overly emotional type who doesn’t think about what he says or what he does. What was the result? The president ended up held captive by the police.”
The basic story is that the president signed a new law pertaining to civil servants that would have reduced benefits and the police staged a nationwide strike in protest. The president went to the main barracks in Quito and ended up challenging the officers there to kill him, reportedly tearing at his shirt and saying “If you want to kill the president, here he is. Kill him, if you want to. Kill him if you are brave enough”.[ii] Within moments the protesting police fired tear gas at him and he fled the building wearing a gas mark, to a police hospital, which was rapidly surrounded with angry, perhaps drunk[iii] police officers. From within, the president stayed in control, declaring a state of emergency and making declarations that were transmitted by public radio and on the state-owned EcuadorTV station. He was rescued eleven hours later in a nighttime raid by special forces, after which he declared that he had successfully resisted a coup d’état.
Political analysts in the country have opined that this was not, however, a coup d’état[iv] because, among other things, during the time he was in the hospital, three delegations of police came in to request changes to the law, and at no point did the protesting police suggest removing the president from power and installing someone else. They generally add that the president should have shown better judgment. Despite government assertions of organization and conspiracy,[v] the English language press largely agrees with the Ecuadorian analysts. They are probably right, although this also demonstrates a pointed lack of attention to the fact that the police shot real bullets, and the president of a country could reasonably say that he should be able to go where he thinks necessary, including making visits to the capitol city’s police.
It was significant that it was the police who refused to work, beyond the basic fact that they have guns. At least in the past year, “environmentalists, students, teachers, journalists and miners have protested against Mr Correa’s policies”.[vi] Although comments in the news said things later in the day were mostly quiet, that seemed to be largely because people stayed put in their homes and work places. Like doctors and nurses, the police serve a crucial function and people suffer fairly immediate harm when their services are stopped.
The basic facts of the story are embedded clearly enough in a multi-stranded web of Ecuadorian politics, the country’s history of public protest and overturning the government. Someone who has lived and worked in Ecuador would surely be able to speak with greater specificity to those elements and probably add others. Still, there are questions I want to pose here, which I think we can reasonably address because they take interpretive analytics and policing as their object rather than Ecuador per se. (1) What conceptual tools does the social science of policing have to examine what happened? What I mean is, outside of going to Ecuador and doing fieldwork, or even interviews from a distance, what are the ways that anthropology or sociology etc can approach events like these; is there something anthropological rather than journalistic that we can do, essentially analytically or synthetically (because not methodologically in this case)? (2) What is interesting about these events for people who do the anthropology/sociology/political science of policing? Did readers of this post who work on policing make connections to their own work they first found out about these events (in the paper, or reading here, or more immediately)?