Becoming Cuenca

¡Aquí No Hay Miedo! Viva Ecuador!

Jan 9, 2024

“The world bewildered by an unprecedented wave of terror in Ecuador.”

That is just one headline on Tuesday, January 9th in Ecuador. To say the least, it was an insane day in Ecuador, including Cuenca.

It all started the past weekend: a convicted leader of one of Ecuador’s most powerful drug gangs escaped from a maximum-security prison where he was serving his sentence. Apparently, he escaped a decade ago from another facility.

Ecuadorian authorities reported on Sunday that Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito” and leader of Los Choneros gang, wasn’t in his cell. As of today, they hadn’t found him or explained what had happened.

Ecuadorian media was reporting that prisoners from five prisons were holding 125 security guards and 14 administrative workers hostage.

Because of all of that, President Daniel Noboa decided to decree a national state of emergency, a measure that lets authorities suspend people’s rights and mobilize the military in places like the prisons.

It was like dominoes falling on Tuesday.

The drug “mafia” declared war on the state. Criminal groups demanded from the President to cancel martial law.

At least 13 criminals took over the facilities of the TC television channel in Guayaquil. Their takeover was recorded as it happened during a live television program in the studio.

It is not known why the invaders went to the Guayaquil television station. I never saw a list of demands.

The hostages made it out unharmed and the criminals were hauled off by the police. At mid-evening, it was reported the bad guys were 12 Ecuadorians and one Venezuelan, of which two are minors and the rest are 25 years old.

Gunshots were heard in various parts of Guayaquil, but initial reports indicated no one had been hit by gunfire.

Meanwhile, video from the University of Guayaquil on social media became viral as it showed students running from the school buildings. The “word” was shots were fired and students were fleeing.

A few hours later, an expat in Cuenca posted on Facebook that a family member, who’s at that university, was barricaded in a Guayaquil apartment because someone went onto campus and killed three people.

The unsubstantiated reports by many on social media forced the University of Guayaquil to post that “no event has occurred within the facilities, only a group of students who, out of desperation to leave quickly, formed a small stampede.”

The university added there was a move to virtuality both academically and administratively.

I cannot count the times at my North Carolina television station I had to verify what a parent’s son or daughter had told them about their school or university. There were hundreds.

About 99 percent of the time, what the son or daughter had said on Facebook and/or to their parents was incorrect.  Most of the time, their social media posts were totally baseless.  The high school or university student could be very honest, but they are not trained journalists or observers.

Just before the sun set for the day, one of Cuenca’s radio stations, Cómplice FM, tweeted, “False reports circulating on social networks about attacks in Ecuador.”

The Municipality of Cuenca had to post on social media, “The dissemination of notices or false alerts can generate confusion and chaos. Trust Canales Officials and Cuentas Institutions. Keep these recommendations in mind and let’s build one together #Cuenca Informada.”

Non-authoritative Facebook accounts had caused a major panic in El Centro.

An American expat posted on a Facebook group, “What is going on in El Centro? Lots of noise and sirens. I’m going to stay in the back of my house.”

Of course, there were videos from the area surrounding Parque Calderon, without any explanation or with hearsay. I read several Facebook posts from expats saying there was gunfire at Parque Calderon.

But no official social media accounts ever confirmed the wild rumors running rampant on Facebook.

It appeared that Cuenca had become a war zone.

If you believed social media.

So, what was going on in El Centro?

“NOTHING,” said the owner of the restaurant, Raymipampa, which is right next to the New Cathedral. “Everything is a general panic without a reason. Somebody started running at the same time a couple of police cars drive by and because the country’s situation, everybody started running and closing their businesses.”

The owner added, “I closed an hour ago without any problems… People are just sharing videos without a background or a reason and are creating general chaos. Please stay informed just with OFFICIAL CHANNELS and not what you receive on your WhatsApp or from your neighbor.”

A young American woman said on Facebook, “Don’t spread false information. There was no officially reported shooting in Cuenca. People began to panic and run in different directions because of a rumored bomb.”

An expat who lives in the heart of El Centro, added, “I live a block from Calderon. Heard no bombs or shots, but the streets are deserted.”

The newspaper, El Mercurio, reported Tuesday evening that it was an ambulance call for a medical situation at the government building by the park (People do get sick!).

If that is not enough, it seemed that every mercado was under attack. There were social media reports of violence and attacks at Feria Libre, Mercado 9 de Octobre, and Mercado 12 de Abril.

The mayor had to put those fires out by telling the media there was absolutely nothing to those social media “reports.”

“These events did not occur… This was corroborated through ECU 911 and by law enforcement agents,” the mayor said.

The mayor concluded by emphatically requesting everyone get their information through official channels.

The Municipality of Cuenca had to counteract the cascading amount of bad information: “We inform that the fall of the façade on Calle Sangurima and Padre Aguirre is due to the state of the structure, not to violent acts. The city’s historical area crew goes to secure the exterior of the building. You are urged to obtain information through official channels.”

It was like a runaway freight train as it seemed everyone was feeding off of each other’s bad information. A journalist friend of mine in Cuenca called it, “Hysteria.”

City service stations were reporting long lines of vehicles seeking to refuel, especially at the Narancay and Eucaliptos stations.

An Ecuadorian neighbor of mine had a different take on all of this social media “reporting.” He posted on our condo association’s WhatsApp group, “Given the difficult situation that our country faces, my contribution will be *NOT SHARE* any video or message from the drug traffickers since that is exactly what they want. They want to sow chaos and fear in the population. *DO NOT SHARE MESSAGES FROM NARCO CRIMINALS*”

A friend of mine, who recently moved to Cuenca, seems to agree with my neighbor. His broad strategy on Wednesday is to stay away from El Centro and large public areas, “where a maximum of fear can be generated by the gangs with their creating a public display of violence.”

Via the media and social media, Cuenca Mayor, Cristian Zamora, asked the population for “peace of mind in these difficult times that the country is going through.” He guaranteed normality in municipal services in the canton.

For everyone’s safety and out of an abundance of caution, state institutions and other public entities closed their doors and sent their workers home to ensure their safety.

Around 10:00 Tuesday night Cuenca posted on social media, “We inform that attention to the public in all the services provided by the entities that make up the Municipal Corporation remain at REGULAR HOURS. #Love Cuenca.”

On Wednesday, Joanna and I, along with our Cuencano facilitator, will be at the municipal offices in El Centro to pay our taxes. We will be careful, but we are not afraid to continue living our lives.

The country’s largest grocery store closed their stores late Tuesday afternoon. At the time of this post, the company had not made a decision about Wednesday.

The city’s law enforcement, Guardia Ciudadana, was at the airport and the bus terminal to make sure things ran smoothly and that everyone would be safe.

City buses ended service before sunset as well as the Tranvía shutting down for the day. Officials were taking extra precaution because of the numerous incidents in Guayaquil and on a smaller scale in Quito.

Guardia Ciudadana posted on X (Formerly Twitter), “There are no new developments and activities are developing normally.”

Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito immediately imposed security measures for passengers: “Only people with their documents and airline tickets will be allowed to enter. Passage is restricted to those who are going to drop off or receive passengers, and random checks will be carried out on the vehicles.”

An American friend of mine, who owns a coffee farm and nature retreat in northern Ecuador, posted on Facebook around midnight, “Things are as normal as ever here far away where we live. We just had a guest fly in from Germany last night and drove down from Quito today without any problems.”

No doubt Guayaquil was the worst area for violence from what the president calls, terrorist organizations. Quito had gunshots, with police responding to several areas including near the presidential palace.

A Quito newspaper reported “a strong military contingent is registered in the streets of the Historic Center of Quito” to provide security. “Our people are suffering, and we cannot allow that,” the newspaper said.

The city tweeted, “1,460 traffic agents and inspectors will be distributed throughout the city 24 hours a day. We work for your well-being and that of all Quito residents.”

Their presence seemed to work as my American friend in the capital city said to me, “I was about five miles north of my home in Centro Histórico when everything started to close. I got home on foot and didn’t see any riots or violence. People were just trying to get home. Businesses were closing in my barrio, but no panic- there were several neighbors hanging out and chatting in the street as usual.”

There was so little violence in Quito that my friend said to me on Wednesday, “This morning, people are out and about on my street, but I don’t know how many businesses will be open (but it’s early). The gas truck just went by, which is a good indication of normalcy.”

Cuenca seemed to pale in comparison, though images appeared on social media of what was a taxi that had been blown up by a bomb and a car torched. But those images may not have been in Cuenca.

“I think those car bombings are from the Guayaquil area,” said an American expat. “The buildings in the photos have air conditioning units.” No one in Cuenca has air conditioning.

And there was no official word from the authorities concerning these images.

My condo’s association’s board had an emergency meeting to address our security and the national crisis. Deliveries will be limited and access to our buildings will be more restricted.

And of course, we have a national curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Needless to say, no matter what political leaning one has or what their agenda is, everyone seemed to be united against the narco terrorists.

“We are working in unity,” says the president of the National Assembly, Henry Kronfle. He was referring to the urgent meeting he held with the legislature about the violent crisis that the country is experiencing.

In exile in Belgium since 2017 and unable to return to Ecuador because of his convictions, former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa stated, “President Daniel Noboa has all our total and unrestricted support. Please do not give in. We will discuss our political differences the day after the victory.”

Will people believe that? It is hard to say as many Ecuadorians believe that Correa is behind the narcotics traffic in this country.

President Noboa posted on social media, “COSEPE has just been installed. We will not allow terrorist groups to break the peace of the country.”  COSEPE is the Public and State Security Council.

The commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces ordered soldiers to “neutralize” the militants without entering into negotiations with them. Noboa did add they would follow international law.

CONAIE – Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador – has been very anti-government with the last few presidents, but it posted a long statement Tuesday evening: “Faced with the wave of violence of organized crime that Ecuador is experiencing, we find ourselves in a situation of unprecedented violence, caused by organized crime, drug trafficking and mafias.”

The indigenous organization went on to blame the previous administrations (‘failed governments”) for incubating the problem, but they did ask for all Ecuadorians to work together against the common enemy.

“Given this panorama, we call on the peoples and nationalities to keep the community guards active, control the entry into their territories and protect the life and integrity of the communities,” CONAIE said. “Likewise, we call for national unity, to add efforts between all sectors of society, social organizations, civil society, peoples and nationalities, that allow us to overcome this crisis.”

Tonight, everyone is safe.

For the most part, the streets are empty.

It is very quiet in Cuenca. As one expat said, “In our neighborhood even the dogs are silent.”

Mine too,” chimed in another expat.

That is good.

CONAIE speaks for many of us when it said, “Fear and threat should not defeat us, since the future of our country is at stake.”

A Cuencano may have said it best on Facebook tonight, “This is my home, and I am proud to be a part of it. I refuse to be afraid. I refuse to spread rumors, and I refuse to allow scumbags and gangsters to make me cower. ¡Aquí no hay miedo! Viva Ecuador!”

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigo.

 

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.