Explaining and Predicting: Why Ecuador Flouted International Norms to Arrest Its Former Vice President

Should Noboa be successful, we are likely to see more such leaderships emerge in the region, and a public willing to sacrifice some liberties in favor of a sense of increased security. 


Image Source: CNN.

On 5 April, Ecuadorian security forces stormed into the Mexican embassy in Quito in order to detain Jorge Glas, vice president under Rafael Correa and part of the Moreno government. Glas had been accused, and sentenced by Ecuadorian courts for bribery, embezzlement of public funds and illicit association. The former vice president had already served time in prison, and although out on parole, he had been in the Mexican embassy since December. According to Ecuadorian officials, there was a suspicion that Glas would attempt to leave the country. The attack on the Mexican embassy, however, sparked international controversy. Indeed, Ecuador itself once raised the issue of diplomatic immunity when Julian Assange was given asylum in its embassy in London. When the UK threatened to enter the Ecuadorian embassy to detain him, the government of Rafael Correa said such a move would be considered “a hostile and intolerable act”. Times, and governments, change. In this explainer we examine the source of the outrage, and the implications for Ecuador and the international legal system.

Why has Ecuador attracted so much criticism, if the former vice president had been convicted?

International law protects foreign embassies. Latin American countries have a long-standing tradition, dating back to the 19th century, of granting asylum to political dissidents. In modern times, the diplomatic status of embassies is consecrated in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1961. This is the reason that diplomats are considered to have immunity, and that refugees and others often seek asylum in foreign embassies. Because the proper functioning of the international system assumes certain norms, a contravention of such rules raises alarm bells. As Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena pointed out, not even Augusto Pinochet dared enter foreign embassies when they gave refuge to political activists after the Chilean coup. She also claimed that Mexico had received expressions of solidarity from 18 Latin American countries, plus the United States and Canada and ten European countries.

Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa wants to present himself as tough on crime. It is worth recalling that the crisis his government faced last January began with the escape from prison of convicted gang leader Adolfo Macías. The ensuing violence led to the arrest of over 8,000 Ecuadorians. 

Noboa, then, has turned the fight against crime into his government’s main priority and Ecuador will hold a referendum on 21 April. The questions are all geared towards Noboa’s battle against crime and corruption, and, if approved, would likely give the president extraordinary powers.  

So Ecuador is in the wrong?

Ecuador claims that Mexico was the first to break with international norms. Mexico had requested the granting of asylum for Glas, but Ecuador rejected the request. On this, Ecuador has a point: Article 1 of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on Political Asylum and the 1954 Caracas Convention states that those who have been convicted of “common crimes” should not be granted asylum, and is explicit about the responsibility of the embassy in question to deliver the person to the appropriate authorities. In this sense, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) overstepped legal and political bounds. 

However, the storming of embassies is almost unheard of. As the US State Department explains, “The purpose of these privileges and immunities is not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient and effective performance of their official missions on behalf of their governments.” Prior to this event, there have only been a handful of cases where foreign embassies have been stormed by local authorities, including the Haitian embassy in Cuba in 1956, the Ecuadorian embassy in Cuba in 1981, the OAS office in Nicaragua in 2022, and perhaps most famously, the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Are there domestic motivations behind the behavior of Mexico and Ecuador?

It is clear that AMLO and Daniel Noboa are using this latest incident to bolster their domestic support. Mexico has elections coming up in June, although AMLO himself will not be a candidate. His party’s candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum, holds a strong lead in the polls, so it hardly seems necessary for AMLO to deepen this particular diplomatic spat, as so far Mexico has received most of the diplomatic support, especially from the Latin American left. 

Mexico has broken off diplomatic relations with Ecuador, although in reality, relations between the two governments had been frosty even prior to the embassy incident. Ecuador was irritated when AMLO suggested last week that the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio last year helped Noboa win the elections. This resulted in Ecuador declaring the Mexican ambassador, Raquel Serur, persona non grata. Moreover, there are already some seven individuals associated with the Correa government who have sought asylum in Mexico

What are the broader implications of the Mexican embassy incident?

The storming of the Mexican embassy is only the most recent transgression by Ecuador. Back in 2020 a former minister, María de los Ángeles Duarte, had sought asylum in the Argentine embassy. Then-president President Guillermo Lasso would not allow Duarte to leave the embassy under diplomatic protection, and Duarte spent two years living in the Argentine embassy with her son. Finally, in early 2023, she was smuggled out.

A similar situation was faced by the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama, where former president Ricardo Martinelli has sought refuge. Nicaragua requested safe passage for Martinelli in order to transport him out of the country, but Panama has refused. All these cases raise questions as to whether there is an increasing tendency by politicians seeking to avoid justice to exploit the use of diplomatic immunity.

Because the storming of an embassy is so rare, and so clearly contravenes established international norms, the case is being debated at various international levels. Separate requests from Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia will result in emergency meetings of the Organization of American States on 9 and 10 of April. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States is meeting this week, and Mexico also says that it will take the case up at the International Court of Justice. These discussions are aimed not only at sanctioning Ecuador, but at ensuring that the diplomatic tradition of inviolability as stated in Article 31 of the Vienna Convention remains in place. Otherwise, the risk is that the growing trend for flouting international norms could affect the normal conduct of consular affairs throughout the world.

More broadly, however, the case reveals the emerging division of Latin America into what could broadly be termed a left-right axis. Although practically all countries have condemned Ecuadorian actions, the toughest words came from the left, and in fact Nicaragua followed Mexico’s lead by breaking off relations with Ecuador. 

At the same time the issue outlines the tension that is emerging between peoples’ desire for law and order and the creeping authoritarianism that those who claim to fight crime have embraced. The 80 percent approval ratings enjoyed by El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele is a tempting standard for others in the region (and beyond), but it has come at the expense of respect for human rights and habeas corpus. It was clear after last January’s upheaval that President Noboa would attempt to walk that fine line, declaring a 60-day state of emergency which would give him powers to lock people up (this state of emergency was later extended). Noboa’s gamble paid off, and he was able to restore order to the streets, gaining increased levels of popularity in the process. Noboa’s stance on Glas, then – “Justice is not negotiated”, he said – is consistent with his hard line on corruption and crime. Should he be successful, we are likely to see more such leaderships emerge in the region, and a public willing to sacrifice some liberties in favor of a sense of increased security. 

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