Threats from organized crime and government inaction in Ecuador prompt exile of journalists

The departure of two journalists from Ecuador after receiving death threats because of their feature stories is the most recent evidence of the deteriorating security situation for media professionals to do their work in the country. Karol Noroña, from the digital media outlet GK, is one of them. In an interview with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR), she spoke about the context, which has been documented by civil society organizations, of the strengthening of organized crime and the inaction of state institutions that should protect journalists and the entire citizenry.

“It has become increasingly hostile to do journalism, now that the entire Ecuadorian State has been permeated by organized crime,” Noroña said. She has been covering organized crime and the prison system in the country for years. She left Ecuador on March 24, shortly after learning from her sources that there were plans for an "imminent" attempt on her life.

woman standing and looking at the camera

Equatorian journalist Karol Noroña. (Photo credit: Karen Toro)

“We know from experiences in other countries that when organized crime has a foothold, it permeates not only government officials, but also the Attorney General's Office and the National Police. This leaves us in a state of complete defenselessness,” she said.

A month after Noroña's departure, the organization Periodistas Sin Cadenas [Journalists without chains], dedicated to the defense of investigative journalism and freedom of expression, announced that another Ecuadorian journalist had left the country because of death threats and lack of state protection.

According to the organization's report, this person, whose identity has not been released, “has received repeated threats that were brought to the attention of the Attorney General's Office, the Communication Council, the Ministry of the Interior, and the General Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency eight months ago.”

“However, none of these institutions nor their various authorities have attended to this case during all this time with the prominence it deserves. As a consequence, we must regret this permanent departure from the country,” Periodistas sin cadenas stated.

In a press release dated April 24, the organizations Periodistas Sin Cadenas, FundamediosVoces del SurRed Leal, and IFEX-ALC stated that, “the lack of State protection has produced a hostile environment where organized crime and delinquency directly target Ecuadorian journalism.” The two recent cases of exiled journalists “are examples that the State has not been efficient in protecting and guaranteeing a free and safe journalistic practice.”

Intimidation with threats and explosives

In addition to the exile of at least two journalists after receiving death threats, Ecuador has recorded a new type of attack on press workers this year — explosive flash drives. On March 20, at least five journalists from different media (TV and radio) had USB sticks sent to their offices inside envelopes, and at least one of them also contained a note with written threats. The devices contained explosives, and one of them detonated when inserted into a computer, but no one was injured.

According to the Spanish newspaper El País at the end of March, initial police investigations revealed that the sender of the five explosive flash drives was the same man, who had sent the envelopes to newsrooms located in Quito and Guayaquil from the town of Quinsaloma in the coastal province of Los Ríos. However, up to that moment, the suspect had not been captured.

Fundamedios recorded 79 attacks against freedom of expression in the country in the first quarter of 2023 — in the same period in 2020, there were 16 recorded attacks, and in 2022, there were 57. “The increase in attacks against the press is not only in numbers, but also in the type of attacks, which has been getting worse,” the organization stated in its latest quarterly report, titled “La violencia y el crimen organizado acallan al periodismo en Ecuador [Violence and organized crime silence journalism in Ecuador].

Among the instances registered by Fundamedios are the case of independent journalist Julio César Ramos, in Babahoyo, Los Ríos province, who on March 7 woke up in the middle of the night to see two men setting fire to his car. Also, Vinces TV in Huaquilas, El Oro province, informed its audience that it would stop covering crime and police topics after receiving threatening messages from criminal groups. And there was also journalist Karen Minda of the La Voz del Pueblo web page, who received death threats against her and her family due to her coverage of one of the leaders of a criminal group in El Triunfo, Guayas province.

March also marked five years since the murders of journalist Javier Ortega, photographer Paúl Rivas, and driver Efraín Segarra of the El Comercio newspaper, and the impunity for these crimes. The three professionals were kidnapped and killed in the province of Esmeraldas, on the border between Ecuador and Colombia, by dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, by its Spanish acronym) while covering violence in the region. Since then, family members, human rights defenders, and press freedom advocates have rallied around the "Nos Faltan 3 [We’re missing three]" campaign to demand that the Ecuadorian and Colombian states hold those involved in the crimes accountable and declassify reports on the case.

“Impunity regarding Nos Faltan 3 fuels a context of new threats and attacks on journalists,” wrote Periodistas Sin Cadenas. Fundamedios said that it is a “double attack on freedom of expression,” due to the lack of responses from the Ecuadorian and Colombian States. “The recurrent human rights violations of family members is outrageous,” the organization said.

'How can I trust?,' questions Noroña

From exile, Karol Noroña told LJR that she was working at El Comercio in 2018 and was a colleague of Ortega, Rivas and Segarra when they were kidnapped and murdered. “I had to leave on the fifth anniversary of the death of these guys with total impunity, with no answers,” she said. She carried out an investigation on the case in 2021, in partnership with journalist Mayra Prado, which was posted on the website of Periodistas Sin Cadenas.

“I can say out loud that this case has been cloaked by impunity due to a lot of cover-ups and interests, not only from Ecuadorian authorities, but also from Colombia. There have been other cases as well, but the case of these guys was the most emblematic.  When there’s impunity, it opens the way for what is happening to us now to come to nothing,” Noroña said.

Until April 29, more than a month after Noroña's departure from Ecuador, no authority had made a public statement about her case. However, according to her, the Public Ministry sent her an email when her exile became public. The office offered her two options, Noroña said: That she formally report the threat she had received and an investigation would begin, or that the Public Ministry would begin an investigation on its own, with her cooperation.

Noroña said she responded to the email by refusing to file a complaint or collaborate with the investigation. Guided by her lawyer, she included in her response the assertion that, according to Ecuador's Constitution and Criminal Code, the Public Prosecutor's Office has the duty to investigate on its own when it learns of cases like hers, without the need for a prior complaint or collaboration from the victim.

“How can I trust in filing a complaint, when a colleague who did so for eight months had to leave in exile all the same, in terrible conditions?,” she questioned, referring to the case of the other journalist who left the country after her.

“When I saw the news about my colleague, more than ever, despite personal costs, I knew the only thing I could do was to leave the country, because what else could I do? I investigate the police, so was I going to accept that the only thing they could do was to have two policemen watch over me, who can’t even do that job? Because the Ecuadorian Prosecutor's Office has a system of protected witnesses that has no budget and that does not provide protection for us either. How was I going to investigate the police with policemen watching over me?,” she said.

Three weeks after the disclosure of Noroña's exile, a mission of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and representatives of Fundamedios met with representatives of the Ecuadorian government and the Public Ministry “with the goal of seeking ways to improve the conditions of professional practice” of journalism in the country,” Fundamedios wrote.

The head of Ecuador's Public Ministry, Diana Salazar, said that “the institution she heads has limited powers, since security depends on the Police, and that in order to proceed with an investigation it is necessary to file a complaint,”   Fundamedios reported. Salazar also said that the Victim and Witness Protection program suffers from “lack of economic resources to enable it to operate, which is why it has requested that it be declared an emergency. But its request has not been granted by the government.”

She suggested establishing “a type of support with civil society organizations,” so they would be the ones to alert on denunciations of people who feel threatened professionally but do not want to report directly to the Public Ministry, Fundamedios reported.

Sebastián Corral, Secretary General of Public Administration in Guillermo Lasso's government, told the representatives of Fundamedios and CPJ that “the entire country is experiencing an unprecedented security crisis, of which not only journalists, but also prosecutors, police and citizens in general are victims.” The organizations said that Corral committed to work so the Communication Law be regulated and that the regulation include resources for the operation of a Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists, foreseen in the law.

‘Regional Look’

Noroña said she never imagined having to resort to exile to protect her life. “That word for me, who has followed the journalism [careers] of many colleagues at the international level, is something I never imagined would happen to me at this point of my life. I was just beginning,” she said. Noroño is 28 years old and has eight years of journalism experience.

She believes that the situation Ecuador is experiencing today, with the strengthening of organized crime, needs to be told from a “regional perspective,” since it is something that happens transnationally and involves several countries in the region.

“Much of what is happening in Ecuador is evidently related to a reconfiguration and empowerment of criminal organizations at all levels,” she said. She also stressed that “organized crime does not exist without the State.”

“Yes, cartels and illicit economies are there, but that does not happen without the complicity of the State, without the direct complicity of public officials at all levels (...) We have to talk about corruption, because that is what prevents us as journalists, at least, and the people as well, from denouncing this to the authorities, because we know they are corrupt. If not all of them, the great majority,” Noroña said.

For her, the outlook is "bleak," but it is important not to get carried away with pessimism. “In order to continue doing journalism, we have to join forces and we have to join forces not only as journalists within Ecuador, but also across Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico, to create an international network so that all this becomes more visible. Because it cannot be that we’re condemned to silence ourselves because of this (...) To tell stories in a context of death is precisely to fight to continue telling stories about life. At least that has been our intention in Ecuador: To create a collective memory, so the people who are dying — who are adolescents, children, colleagues — are not lost, and to name these lives,” she said.

Banner image: view of Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Kiyoshi/Unsplash.