Agreement Ends Violence in Oil-Producing Ecuadorian Province

Feb. 24, 2006
Violent strikes put businesses on edge in province
Development: At midnight on 22 February the government and protesters in the impoverished oil-producing province of Napo came to an agreement to put an end to three days of violent demonstrations.

Significance: The protests had appeared to be spiralling beyond the control of their organisers, who the government claims are in league with imprisoned former president Lucio Gutierrez. It is not clear whether the strike negotiators will have the power to call off all the industrial action. Oil is now pumping through the state-owned pipeline, the SOTE, but the situation surrounding the privately-owned OCP is still unclear. The protesters are demanding the government and oil companies hand over funds earmarked for infrastructure projects in the region.

At least three demonstrators and two policemen were seriously injured as the protests in Napo continued into a third day. The two policemen were injured in an explosion after demonstrators hurled sticks of dynamite at them. Ecuadorean TV showed images of police shooting at rock throwing protesters; three of whom were subsequently treated for bullet wounds as police defended a pumping station of the OCP. On 21 February, the demonstrators had stormed the station and held 24 employees hostage, and shut down the pipeline. The OCP, which is owned by the major foreign oil companies operating in Ecuador, has a capacity to transport 450,000 bpd, but at the time of the stoppage it was carrying 160,000 bpd. Ecuador produces 530,000 bpd.

On 22 February the hostages were released unharmed. The police arrested 11; among them the prefect of Napo, Gina San Martin, and two mayors belonging to Gutierrez's Sociedad Patriotica. Gutierrez was born in Tena, one of the major towns in Napo, and retains significant support in the region. The day before the government had declared a state of emergency, which is still in force. The decree means the suspension of citizens' rights, including the right to free assembly, and a curfew. The army shut down three radio stations in order to stop the demonstrators co-ordinating their strike. The presidential secretary, Jose Apolo, described the demonstrators actions as almost paramilitary and wondered aloud whether it was a coincidence that two of the mayors behind the protests were members of Gutierrez's SP.

So far the government has failed to find a solution to the crisis, partly because those talking to the government do not necessarily control the actions of the strikers. We want the government to talk to us because this situation is getting out of hand, Julio Perez, a spokesman for the protesters, said. We did not order people to invade the pumping station. In the past, however, President Alfredo Palacio has shown a willingness to back down in the face of protests. The government's fear is that the unrest will spread to the neighbouring provinces, which are also oil rich but severely impoverished.