- In 2023, at least five journalists have fled the country due to death threats from criminal gangs and Ecuadorian officials. Ecuador is experiencing an increase in the presence of local and foreign drug cartels, and in March five journalists were targeted with explosives in the form of USB flash drives.
- On August 9, former journalist and presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was murdered by six gunmen while exiting a rally. Prior to his assassination, Villavicencio complained about criminal organizations taking over the state and its institutions such as the police. He vowed to decrease corruption and tackle the insecurity crisis.
- Jefferson Sanguña, Juan José Albán, and Karol Noroña revealed their fears while investigating ties between Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso’s inner circle and mafias, massacres inside prisons, and the operation of criminal gangs. All three, who have been subject to threats, consider Ecuador unsafe for journalists.
In the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters without Borders, Ecuador fell 12 positions, from 68th in 2022 to 80th position in 2023. Correspondingly, Ecuador’s score dropped from 64.6 out of 100 points in 2022 to 60.5 in 2023.
Although these figures show better conditions for Ecuador than for neighboring Colombia (45.2 points) and Peru (52.7 points), Reporters without Borders contends: “Journalists in Ecuador work in a climate of growing hostility, physical danger, and self-censorship, marked by an increase in the power of criminal gangs and drug cartels, as well as an increase in threats, physical attacks, and even murders.”
In March 2023, five prominent Ecuadorian journalists—Lenín Artieda, Carlos Vera, Mario Rivadeneira, Mauricio Ayora, and Milton Pérez—received an explosive in the shape of a USB flash drive. Artieda, the only journalist who inserted a flash drive into his computer, suffered minor injuries because “only half of the explosive was activated.”
In 2023, five journalists have fled Ecuador due to violent threats, chiefly from criminal organizations and Ecuadorian officials. This investigation explains how journalists are forced to abandon Ecuador due to violent threats from local and foreign criminal organizations that have allegedly penetrated the state and its institutions such as the National Police. The Impunity Observer interviewed:
- Jefferson Sanguña (Quito), former journalist at La Posta;
- Juan José Albán (Quito), journalist at La Posta;
- Janet Hinostroza (Quito), host of Vis a Vis on Visionarias Ecuador;
- Karol Noroña (location unknown), the first journalist exiled from Ecuador in 2023.
2023: The Year of Abandonment
On July 25, 2023, Ecuadorian digital news outlet La Posta announced that journalists Andersson Boscán and Mónica Velásquez had left the country due to death threats. Boscán, La Posta’s cofounder, and Velásquez, a La Posta journalist, are the fourth and fifth reported cases of exiled journalists from Ecuador this year.
La Posta’s statement reads: “Boscán and Velásquez were forced out of the country due to concrete and worrying threats to their individual and family’s safety. The threats received are a consequence of their investigations.” The outlet contends that the Lasso administration is acting in reprisal for La Posta’s investigation, which revealed alleged influence peddling between Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso and his brother-in-law Danilo Carrera.
La Posta, al país. pic.twitter.com/GGwteGtbvL
— La Posta (@LaPosta_Ecu) July 25, 2023
On March 24, Karol Noroña—a journalist at local news outlet GK—fled the country and went to a “safe destination” due to death threats after investigating organized crime, criminals’ power inside Ecuadorian jails, and ties between police officers and mafias. She was the first Ecuadorian journalist who went into exile in 2023.
According to GK, the news outlet “was forced to activate its security protocol with Noroña as it was confirmed on March 24 that there was a situation that threatened her life and physical integrity, related to her coverage of the jail crisis and organized crime.” The statement adds, “This is an example of how the insecurity crisis and narcotrafficking, which have taken over the country, affect the entire society.”
The name of the second journalist exiled from Ecuador remains unknown due to fear of reprisal. However, he fled the country in April, a month after Noroña went into exile. According to Unchained Journalists, a local NGO that advocates for press freedom, the journalist reported the threats to the Prosecutor’s General Office, the security minister, and the Presidency’s Communication Secretariat. However, the journalist still had to flee the country as he perceived that his life was in danger.
Lisette Ormaza—a reporter from Majestad TV, a channel from the Santo Domingo province—was the third exiled journalist in 2023. After her investigation of a car accident that resulted in the death of two people, which revealed malpractice from a public transport company, Ormaza’s car was pushed toward a ditch by another vehicle. She then received death threats and a text message saying: “The next time, the consequences will be far worse.”
Similarly, Janet Hinostroza has experienced this challenge close to home: “Two journalists left the country because they were at risk of being killed, and another colleague had to be transferred to a different city to reduce the risk she was exposed to.”
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished by Ecuadorian Officials, Mafias
Both GK and La Posta have researched how criminal organizations work and how they are penetrating the Ecuadorian state and law enforcement. According to all the interviewees’ experiences, the threats they have received come from the state, criminal groups, and even members of political parties after revealing information on gangs and alleged ties between organized crime and high-ranking government officials.
For example, La Posta’s investigation of the Lasso administration and his inner circle, “The Great Godfather,” is based on a report by the Ecuadorian Police’s Counter Narcotics Agency. Although the police report is mainly focused on how the Albanian mafia operates in the country, it reveals with audiovisual material a friendly relationship between Danilo Carrera and Rubén Cherres.
Carrera is Lasso’s brother-in-law and father figure, since he gave the incumbent president his first job and named Lasso the president of the now defunct Finansur bank in 1984. Rubén Cherres, according to the La Posta investigation, is an operator of the Albanian mafia in Ecuador, and he has previously been accused of narcotrafficking.
La Posta’s investigation, conducted by Boscán and eight other journalists, explains how Carrera and Cherres—who held no position in the Lasso administration—allegedly managed a web of false contracts with the Ecuadorian state in strategic sectors such as oil and electricity. In addition, the investigation reveals that both Carrera and Cherres recommended people to become government officials under Lasso. This is the case of Bernardo Manzano—who was named minister of agriculture in 2022 and resigned after Cherres allegedly helped him get the job.
Noroña’s work at GK focused on organized crime. However, she told the Impunity Observer that she started to identify state and police officials working alongside criminals. For instance, in December 2022 Noroña posted an article about an active member of the armed forces being the leader of a hired-assassins gang. However, Judge Ricardo Arias released the alleged gang leader for having “not enough evidence against him.”
In one of her last pieces, posted on March 6 (18 days before her exile), Noroña revealed that high-ranking police officials were silencing dissidents within the institution. The article contends that the Ecuadorian police are not autonomous and that the high-ranking officials act according to the incumbent administration instead of independently.
The Murder of a Journalist Presidential Candidate
On August 9, Ecuadorian presidential candidate and journalist Fernando Villavicencio was murdered by multiple gunshots while exiting a rally in the capital city of Quito. Although six alleged gunmen are still in the custody of the state, the intellectual authors of the murder remain unknown.
Villavicencio was a journalist who focused his work on corruption and criminal gangs. However, he became a congressman between 2021 and 2023 and a presidential candidate for the 2023 presidential election.
As a journalist, Villavicencio led around 260 investigations against presidents and high-ranking officials of the Ecuadorian government, especially during the Rafael Correa administration (2007–2017). Due to his bribery investigation, which he presented to the attorney general, former President Correa was sentenced to eight years in prison for bribes and influence peddling alongside Vice President Jorge Glas. Correa, however, fled to Belgium and is a fugitive from Ecuadorian law.
As a presidential candidate, Villavicencio vowed to reduce the insecurity crisis and corruption within the state and its institutions. In an interview with local TV channel Ecuavisa on August 9, hours before his murder, Villavicencio complained that multiple institutions, including the National Police and the Armed Forces, were taken over by mafias. Although he did not provide further detail on how criminal groups were linked to law-enforcement agencies, he pledged to end it.
What Journalists Go Through
Every expert that the Impunity Observer interviewed agreed that Ecuador has become unsafe for journalists. According to Fundamedios, an organization that advocates for freedom of expression, there were 356 aggressions against journalists in 2022. The previous year Fundamedios registered 289 aggressions, 67 fewer. These aggressions came mainly from officials and criminal organizations.
For Noroña, the worsening conditions for journalists became visible after the murder of two journalists and their driver in 2018 in San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas—a city that borders Colombia. A dissident faction from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kidnapped and killed the three Ecuadorians after failed negotiations between the state and the criminal organization.
“This tragic act,” explains Hinostroza, “made known the presence of organized crime and narcotrafficking—a new player in the reality of the country. Before that the principal threat to journalists was political power and corruption, above all from the Rafael Correa government, which took a stance of intolerance towards the critiques of and opposition towards its actions and way of thinking.”
“This changed with the arrival of Lenín Moreno … and the change was consolidated by Guillermo Lasso. He reformed the Communications Law, which had been used by specific politicians as a weapon against freedom of expression. Last week Lasso signed the regulation for the application of this reform, which includes guarantees for unhindered work for the press and a system of protection for journalists who suffer threats.”
However, the interviewees highlight that the insecurity crisis is affecting every citizen regardless of his profession. Further, a lack of faith in law enforcement suggests state protection is far from enough to quell fears.
Sanguña, who quit his job at La Posta, revealed to the Impunity Observer that one of the main reasons for him to leave the news outlet was the insecurity he felt when working. For him, “Ecuador is unsafe for journalists” due to the constant violent threats against La Posta from powerful actors.
Albán, who still works at La Posta, confesses to fear when conducting his work. Albán and Sanguña, who have been subject to threats addressed to their entire team, revealed that during the investigation the journalists had to meet in secret locations to work together for safety reasons. Albán explains that the team at La Posta is putting in place safety policies, such as hiring private security in their offices to avoid possible attacks and working remotely on random days.
Noroña started receiving violent threats from gangs in February 2022, when she published an article regarding the importance of microtrafficking for poor families in the coastal province of Manabí. However, she told the Impunity Observer: “When I had to leave the country, I was not only investigating criminal organizations but also the National Police.” This is consistent with Villavicencio’s claims on the morning he was murdered.
Noroña, who focused on prison massacres and narcos, had direct contact with some low-ranking members of criminal organizations across multiple Ecuadorian jails. These insiders warned her about possible attacks against her. She also had access to chats from gang members saying they had to take action against her.
After receiving multiple warnings from her own sources and foreign journalists’ networks, Noroña decided to flee Ecuador within 24 hours. For her, it was a difficult experience as she had to explain to her family that if she did not abandon the country, criminals would have killed her. Further, she believes that “by investigating and receiving violent threats, we are not only putting ourselves in danger but also our families and friends.”
Beyond the five journalists who have fled the country, others lack the resources to leave. They risk their lives by staying in the country while violent threats keep arriving at their doorsteps. In the case of Hinostroza, she says leaving “would not be an easy decision. Here I have my home, my family, my life. I am aware of the risks, and I will do my job for as long as I can.”
However, Hinostroza notes the specter of a changing journalist culture: “The majority conduct their work with forthrightness and courage, but they have begun to feel the need to self-censor. This is out of fear stemming from rising crime and the sense that authorities are weak and lack control.”
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