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How Criminal Elites in Ecuador Twist Legal Norms to Skirt Justice

How Criminal Elites in Ecuador Twist Legal Norms to Skirt Justice

How Criminal Elites in Ecuador Twist Legal Norms to Skirt Justice

Ecuador’s judiciary is struggling to stop well-connected criminals from turning legal safeguards meant to protect civil rights into loopholes for escaping justice. 

In early April, Ecuadorian prosecutors ordered the arrest of 14 judges, lawyers, judicial officials, and police accused of colluding with high-level criminals to secure their release and procure “impunity through legal tricks and abuse of the law,” according to the Attorney General’s Office.  

The scandal started back in December 2023 with the arrest of dozens of judicial officials, who the Attorney General said may be linked to convicted money launderer and suspected drug trafficker, Leandro Norero, who was killed during a prison riot in late 2022.  

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In the months that followed, the case grew to include 52 defendants and spawned other corruption investigations. In February of this year, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court ruled that some judges were letting off criminals convicted of serious crimes by using due process guarantees like the right to a speedy trial (habeas corpus) and an adequate defense, as well as other rights like the right to medical treatment. 

InSight Crime sat down with Pablo Punín, a constitutional and criminal justice expert, to better understand how high-profile criminals play the system and what can be done about it. 

InSight Crime (IC): What do due process guarantees entail?

Pablo Punín (PP): The idea is that the entire Ecuadorian democratic system must guarantee compliance with constitutional rights, including, for example, the right to life, equality and non-discrimination, among others.

This is where due process guarantees come in. These are mechanisms through which the judicial system can intervene to prevent, cease, or interrupt, as well as amend or repair the violation of a constitutional right.

So, if the judicial system is inefficient, it doesn’t matter who you are, if your rights are violated, you can activate guarantees to protect them. But there’s a problem when people use the guarantees without justification. 

IC: What is the scope of the problem? 

PP: In recent years, we’ve seen that some of these due process guarantees have been perverted. These efforts are directly linked to organized crime.

From my experience at the National Service of Attention for Adults Deprived of Liberty and Adolescent Offenders (Servicio Nacional de Atención Integral a Personas Adultas Privadas de la Libertad y a Adolescentes Infractores – SNAI), I can say that we received around 15 to 20 cases related to due process guarantees on a daily basis. Roughly 75% to 80% of the cases dealt with the poor care received by detainees in the detention centers. 

Powerful criminals inside the prisons are able to obtain falsified medical certificates. They know that judges will rule in their favor because they are aware of prisons’ lack of resources, so they take advantage of due process guarantees. I’ve been able to show that, unfortunately, imprisoned gang members saw that this was happening and began abusing the process meant to act as a safeguard.

In one single case, a judge freed more than 50 people […] Freeing 50 people convicted of crimes such as murder, rape, or organized crime is a lot.

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IC: How does the abuse of this measure work? Who benefits? Who loses?

PP: Organized criminals don’t care what tool, what right, or what legal figure they abuse. They always find a way to serve their own interests. Basically, criminal organizations have infiltrated the judicial system so deeply that they can abuse it to get judges to do their bidding.

When organized crime infiltrates the judicial system through threats and corruption, money or violence, it creates a parallel justice system. It’s as though we have one set of laws to govern ordinary citizens and another to govern criminals, who use certain judges to apply the law in their preferred way. Even though the laws are the same, they use them in a way that they were never designed for and which is outside the legal framework.

IC: Can you give us specific examples of where high-level criminals have used due process or constitutional protections to get off?

PP: One example is that of Daniel Salcedo Bonilla, a man allegedly linked to various corruption cases and organized crime groups. Bonilla had been convicted on some charges and placed in preventive detention for others. However, he claimed to suffer from certain illnesses and health issues that required medical attention. He was serving his sentence in Quito, in a prison known as the VIP center, where criminals receive more favorable treatment. While serving his sentence there, Bonilla filed habeas corpus in Manabí, one of the provinces where the Tiguerones, the Aguilas and the Choneros operate. Bonilla submitted supposed medical certificates, which were even refuted by the SNAI. But despite all this, the judge granted his freedom based on the constitutional guarantee. 

I’ll give you another example: “Gordo Lucho,” whose real name is Luis Alfredo Arboleda, and John Jairo de Mera Zambrano, Gordo Lucho’s cousin, who is also a leader of Los Lobos, were sentenced for murder, illicit trafficking, arms trafficking, and organized crime. However, they were irregularly released before even serving 15% of their sentence. As in the previous case, both claimed a violation of their right to health. Even though the judges knew that this legal precedent was not appropriate, they still ruled in their favor. Subsequently, Arboleda and Mera Zambrano argued other legal guarantees related to due process and were granted their freedom.

IC: What makes Ecuador’s judicial system vulnerable to abuse?  

PP: We do not have a common law system like they have in England or the United States, where everything is guided by legal precedent. In recent years, the Constitutional Court has made a huge effort, taking on a more active role and trying to limit certain ambiguous situations that have created opportunities for these malicious judicial actors.

There are rulings that the Court has had to continuously refine to further curb these irregularities. 

However, there are always going to be these ‘kamikaze judges’ willing to do whatever it takes to favor these gang members who control them from behind the scenes, either through benefits or threats.

IC: Is there any way to guarantee people’s rights without letting criminals with good lawyers go free?

I’m against blaming this on the guarantees or in the law itself, or suggesting that they should be eliminated or restricted. On the contrary, these are indispensable tools because the vast majority are used appropriately. Unfortunately, organized crime has found a way to twist them. Guarantees must be strengthened and there must be a system that respects these mechanisms and their nature as much as possible, while avoiding their abuse. 

Undoubtedly, we need more resources to have for more judicial units. However, I believe it’s even more important to provide protection to all the judges currently working in the country today.

Unfortunately, I think that the Attorney General’s Office also faces significant resource limitations in investigating criminal cases, especially complex ones. I think it is evident how many of the prosecutors handling these cases are murdered, or face threats and have no security.

Without a doubt, we need to structurally improve our oversight bodies, including enhancing monitoring and transparency in administrative procedures for sanctions. This would involve better monitoring of judges and judicial bodes’ irregular activities.

And finally, I think that the job of strengthening training within the justice system is closely tied to all of this. Not only should judges receive more and better training in law, but also in judicial ethics. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that the normalization of narco culture also influences the judicial system.

Without addressing corruption, without tackling organized crime’s infiltration of the judicial system and all the problems that come with that, no amount of legal reform will be enough to fix the problem.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Featured image: Police officers make an arrest during a judicial corruption case. Credit: Primicias

The post How Criminal Elites in Ecuador Twist Legal Norms to Skirt Justice appeared first on InSight Crime.