QUITO – Ecuador’s police chief has resigned in the wake of an uprising by rebellious cops, who attacked President Rafael Correa and then lay siege to a hospital in this capital where he was receiving treatment.
Freddy Martinez had tried to calm tensions during Thursday’s dramatic events, in which a protest by police upset over a bill they fear would cut their pay escalated into violent incidents that the government has described an attempted coup.
The police chief told a press conference that he had submitted his resignation, which Correa is free to reject, because “a commander who is disrespected, mistreated, attacked by his subordinates cannot remain in charge of them.”
However, Martinez and the head of the armed forces Joint Command, Gen. Ernesto Gonzalez, also urged the government to reconsider the bill that gave rise to the disturbances. Correa’s administration has not yet commented on its plans for the proposed legislation.
Martinez said he suspects that the protests had been infiltrated by non-police provocateurs who covered their faces to conceal their identities.
Army and police special forces rescued Correa late Thursday night from a Quito hospital following an armed clash with mutinous police, who surrounded the facility where the head of state was receiving treatment for injuries suffered during a meeting with disgruntled officers.
Two people died during the operation, rescue team member Froilan Jimenez and Juan Pablo Bolaños, a university student who had gone with his family to the area surrounding the hospital to show support for Correa.
Government figures indicate 27 special forces members were wounded, but there is still no official word on potential injuries suffered by the rebellious police.
Calm was gradually restored Friday in Quito and coastal Guayaquil, the two cities where the biggest disturbances occurred the day before, and their airports were operating normally.
A state of emergency, which gives the armed forces responsibility for both external and internal security, was still in effect and schools remained closed.
Plaza Grande, the square outside the Carondelet presidential palace, was cordoned off by a large contingent of soldiers, while dozens of Correa supporters assembled in nearby streets.
“We came to support the president. What happened yesterday was catastrophic for the country,” said 55-year-old Luis Coronel, who traveled Friday morning from Santa Elena, 500 kilometers (310 miles) from Quito, along with 30 other residents of that town.
On the other side of the city, evidence of the clashes outside the police hospital where Correa was rescued was visible at daybreak Friday: damaged doors and chairs, bullet holes in windows and walls and blood stains.
Tear gas could still be smelled at the hospital and continued to irritate the eyes and nose.
In a speech Thursday night from the balcony of Carondelet palace, Correa thanked the loyal troops and police who rescued him from the hospital, where he had been held for much of the day, and were received with “pepper gas, tear gas and stone-throwing” by rebellious officers.
Correa said that “Lucio Gutierrez’s people” played a part in the uprising, referring to followers of a former head of state.
Speaking by telephone from Brazil, Gutierrez, who took office in January 2003 and was ousted by Ecuador’s Congress in April 2005, denied any role in Thursday’s uprising.
Attorney General Washington Pesantez, for his part, said after Correa’s rescue that his office will investigate “the conspiracy forged from outside the official barracks” that led to the uprising.
Correa and his bodyguards were accosted and attacked with tear gas Thursday by a group of protesting cops as they tried to leave the main police barracks in the capital, where the president had tried to reason with the officers.
“Gentlemen, if you want to kill the president, here he is. Kill me if you want to, kill me if you have courage, instead of being in a crowd, hiding like cowards,” an indignant Correa told the police.
The president then entered the hospital, located next to the police barracks, for treatment for tear-gas inhalation and an injury to his recently surgically repaired leg.
He later told state radio by telephone that the mutinous police had surrounded the building and were effectively holding him hostage.
“It is an attempt at a coup d’etat by the opposition and by certain entrenched groups in the armed forces and police that were also there, basically the Sociedad Patriotica group,” Correa said, referring to the political party founded by Lucio Gutierrez.
Correa said after his release that his government “never gave in” or agreed to “negotiate under any pressure” and added that there will be no impunity for those responsible for the uprising.
He told the disgruntled police officers that he felt their attitude was a “stab in the back” because no Ecuadorian government has done more for the police than his.
Since taking office in 2007, the Correa administration has doubled base pay for police officers. EFE