Quito (AFP), June 15 – Ecuadorian police clashed with protesters on Tuesday hours after authorities arrested the leader of an indigenous movement, as his organization called for a popular uprising following nationwide roadblocks to protest high prices fuel.
The arrest of Leonidas Iza, leader of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), sparked outrage, with authorities deploying police in riot gear and soldiers to stand guard outside the prosecutor’s office where he was being held pending a hearing.
Protesters gathered outside the building with signs reading “Freedom for Iza!” and “We are not violent people, we are people in resistance.”
In the capital Quito, police vehicles were torched and protesters set fires in the streets.
Unrest also broke out in the Andean town of Latacunga, where members of the indigenous movement said several people were injured when police deployed tear gas.
Police said a group of officers were attacked and held captive, although officials did not say how many. “Their whereabouts are unknown,” police said on Twitter.
Iza, a leader of the Kichwa-Panzaleo community, had been arrested in Pastocalle, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Quito, on suspicion of “sabotage”, according to the interior ministry.
Pastocalle was a flashpoint of protests called by Conaie against rising fuel prices and the cost of living, which saw protesters block roads across the country on Monday, some of which remained clogged the next day.
La Conaie confirmed the arrest of Iza, 39, condemning his detention as “arbitrary and illegal” and calling for a “radicalization” of the protests.
“We call our organizational structure to a great indigenous and popular uprising,” Conaie tweeted after Iza’s arrest. “Long live the social struggle!
In 2019, Conaie-led protests killed 11 people and forced then-president Lenin Moreno to abandon plans to eliminate fuel subsidies. The group is also credited with helping to overthrow three presidents between 1997 and 2005.
Oil producer Ecuador has been hit by rising inflation, unemployment and poverty – tensions exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
President Guillermo Lasso warned on Sunday that the government would not allow Ecuador’s roads or oil facilities to be taken over by protesters.
But Iza insisted the protests would continue for as long as necessary.
– ‘Disorder, chaos, vandalism’ –
Beginning Monday morning, protesters burned tires and barricaded roads in at least 11 of Ecuador’s 24 provinces, authorities said, partially cutting off access to Quito.
Authorities estimate that 6,000 people took part in Monday’s protests, although Iza accused them of “playing down” the protests.
Lasso denounced “acts of vandalism”, including “the burning of patrol cars, invasions of farms, the breaking of windshields of private and school vehicles, the attack on an oil pumping installation, the cut off of community water supply, closure and severe damage to national roads.
Several security ministers have denied there was an attack on the oil pumping facility in the Amazon region of Ecuador.
China’s PetroOriental said on Tuesday that protesters occupied and crippled some of its wells in the Amazon province of Orellana, causing a loss of 1,400 barrels of crude per day.
Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo said five people, including Iza, had been arrested.
He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Iza’s lawyer, Lenin Sarzosa, told reporters the arrest had been “violent”.
Carrillo accused the protesters of “paralyzing, looting, kidnapping, attacking” in such a way that “disorder, chaos, vandalism causes social unrest”.
– Sterile discussions –
La Conaie participated in several rounds of unsuccessful talks with Lasso’s government.
Fuel prices have risen sharply since 2020, nearly doubling for diesel from $1 to $1.90 per gallon (about 3.78 liters) and from $1.75 to $2.55 for gasoline .
Lasso froze fuel prices last October after a series of Conaie-led protests that saw dozens of arrests and several people, including police, injured in clashes.
But the freeze failed to quell the simmering anger in a country that exports crude but imports much of the fuel it consumes.
The protesters also demand that the government address the control of the prices of agricultural products and mining concessions granted in indigenous territories.
They also called on the government to create more jobs and renegotiate farmers’ debts with banks.
Indigenous peoples represent more than one million of Ecuador’s 17.7 million inhabitants.