Ecuador’s Raid on the Mexican Embassy, Explained

Ecuadorian police special forces break into the Mexican Embassy in Quito, Ecuador to arrest former Ecuador Vice President Jorge Glas on April 5, 2024. (Photo by ALBERTO SUAREZ/API/AFP via Getty Images)

Ecuadorian police stormed the Mexican Embassy in the capital city of Quito on Friday to apprehend Jorge Glas, the former vice president of Ecuador. Glas was in the embassy seeking political asylum after having been found guilty of corruption by the current Ecuadorian government.

The raid escalates monthslong disputes between the governments of Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa and Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador. Ecuador has justified the operation by accusing Mexico of interfering in Ecuadorian domestic affairs, and Mexico has responded by breaking diplomatic relations with Ecuador. 

The fallout from the dispute is evolving, but the incident could have implications for the entire hemisphere.

Who is Jorge Glas, and why was he in the Mexican embassy? 

From 2013 to 2017, Jorge Glas was vice president of Ecuador under Rafael Correa, the country’s former left-wing leader. Correa is currently living in exile in Belgium after having been found guilty in absentia by an Ecuadorian court of accepting bribes.

Glas himself has been mired in several corruption charges and convictions. Most significantly, he was embroiled in a regional bribery scandal revolving around a Brazilian construction conglomerate that has implicated dozens of politicians across Latin America, also known as the Odebrecht scandal.

Glas was imprisoned under corruption charges related to Odebrecht in 2017 and convicted of improperly handling campaign funds in 2020. After being initially released in early 2022, he was ordered back to jail. Glas was in the process of appealing his conviction in the Ecuadorian courts when he sought asylum in the Mexican Embassy, arguing the charges were politically motivated. Ecuadorian police raided the embassy—after Mexico had granted Glas asylum on Friday—to prevent him from leaving the country.

Mexico has a long history of granting political and humanitarian asylum, some genuinely admirable. Mexico sheltered dozens of Chileans seeking refuge at their embassy during the 1973 coup, for example, and the leading candidate in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election is herself a descendant of Jews who fled to Mexico to escape the Holocaust.

But more recently López Obrador has used asylum to protect left-wing figures with whom he sympathizes. Former Bolivian President Evo Morales fled to Mexico after being widely suspected of orchestrating voter fraud in an attempt to remain in power. Former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo was intercepted en route to the Mexican Embassy in Lima after illegally attempting to dissolve the Peruvian Congress. Mexico responded by granting Castillo’s family asylum and condemning Castillo’s detainment.

Still, Ecuador’s raid on the Mexican Embassy marks a serious departure from international norms and customs.

What are the diplomatic ramifications of this dispute? 

Within a day of the raid, every government in Latin America that issued a statement had condemned Ecuador’s actions as a violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Article 22 of the convention holds that diplomatic missions are inviolable and can only be entered by the host state with the permission of the head of the mission. From 2012 to 2019, Ecuador itself relied heavily on diplomatic protections to shield Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from extradition to Sweden by harboring him in its embassy in London.

Ecuador’s legal justification that Article 1 of the earlier 1933 Convention on Political Asylum does not apply to persons accused of “common offenses” has fallen of deaf ears, meriting only an acknowledgment in Uruguay’s carefully crafted official response. 

While official disapproval of Ecuador’s actions appears to be unanimous, the extent of that disapproval has varied. Nicaragua has joined Mexico in breaking diplomatic relations with Ecuador, while statements from the foreign ministries of other countries that have had recent diplomatic rows with Mexico have been noticeably muted. 

Peru for example, whose Congress declared López Obrador persona non grata in 2023 over his support of Pedro Castillo, put out a relatively brief statement calling for Ecuador to respect diplomatic protections. Argentina, whose new President Javier Milei has been engaged in a war of words with López Obrador, put out an even shorter statement explicitly tying its rebuke of Ecuador to the 1954 Convention on Diplomatic Asylum

Argentina’s response is indicative of the bind Ecuador has put Latin America’s right-leaning governments in. Embassies are some of the only places where dissident figures in contemporary leftist regimes can seek protection: Six Venezuelan opposition aides are currently seeking asylum in the Argentine Embassy in Caracas, for example. Throwing the immunity of embassies into question risks creating unstable new conditions in each of these countries, whose governments are typically more willing to break with international law.

But these diplomatic protections cut both ways. The autocratic regime of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has been even more flagrant in granting protections to corrupt officials than Mexico has. Nevertheless, Ecuador’s actions could put present and future dissidents in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua in danger if raiding embassies becomes the norm.

What are the security ramifications of this dispute? 

Another part of Ecuador’s justification is that it is currently undergoing an “internal armed conflict” with transnational criminal groups. Ecuador has been in a state of emergency since early January after criminal gunmen stormed and took over a live television broadcast in the port city of Guayaquil. Mexican cartels, especially the Jalisco New Generation cartel and the Sinaloa cartel, are heavily involved in Ecuador’s criminal scene, giving local gangs more firepower and funds in their battle against the police.

Ecuador’s actions will have two significant repercussions for its fight against criminal groups in its territory. First, any intelligence sharing or security agreements between Mexico and Ecuador that were either in place or being negotiated will grind to a halt. Since 1990, Mexico and Ecuador have been in a bilateral committee to combat narcotrafficking that coordinated intelligence, extradition, and penal sentencing related to narcotics related offenses. The committee was reauthorized as recently as 2022, but as long as diplomatic relations remain severed, Ecuador’s ability to target transnational cartels will be impeded.

Second, on April 21 Ecuadorians will vote on 11 security measures proposed by Noboa that include expanded powers for the police and military, as well as longer sentences for criminals convicted of offenses related to organized crime. Noboa’s security strategy is very popular, with an estimated 70 percent of Ecuadorians currently approving his stance on crime. However, if Noboa mismanages the international fallout of the Glas raid, his referendum could become collateral damage.

How could this affect immigration issues?

Mexico is the most important transit state for hemispheric migration to the U.S., and this dispute comes at a time when Ecuadorian migration is spiking. Encounters with Ecuadorians at the U.S.-Mexico border increased by 96 percent in the last half of 2023, rising from 41,906 to 81,969. For its part, Mexico is amid a crackdown on irregular migration, with Venezuelans in particular being held back on the Mexican side of the border. 

If Ecuadorian migration continues to rise as diplomatic relations are cut off, Mexico will not be able to deport any Ecuadorians and will face a difficult choice. The potential for xenophobic violence against Ecuadorian migrants already in Mexico will escalate, which could further inflame relations between the two countries. 

What happens from here? 

The Organization of American States, the largest multilateral body in the hemisphere, has come out against Ecuador’s actions and will hold an emergency meeting among its Permanent Council to address the dispute. Mexico has also stated its intention to file a complaint against Ecuador in the International Court of Justice. As a result of these actions, Ecuador could find itself internationally isolated and potentially even excluded from future multilateral projects.

Additional countries may also break diplomatic ties with Ecuador, with Venezuela and Cuba being the most likely candidates. Whether other left-leaning governments in weak democracies (such as Bolivia) do so will be a benchmark for how serious this diplomatic crisis will become.

Within Ecuador, Noboa’s latest statement has thrown the gauntlet down and tied the April 21 security referendum as a proxy for approval of his actions. If the referendum passes with the high level of support Noboa was enjoying prior to the raid, it could boost him domestically and aid his reelection chances. But the political situation remains volatile: Glas was hospitalized on Monday, allegedly after refusing food during his detainment. If Glas dies in custody, Noboa’s domestic opposition will make him a martyr and his international detractors will paint him as a despot.

So far, the public response from the Biden administration has been tepid. The State Department’s press release on the matter refers to the storming of the embassy as an “event,” condemns Ecuador’s actions in the abstract, and refers to both countries as “crucial partners” of the United States.

Regardless of where the U.S. lands, the Biden administration will face a difficult decision between potentially alienating either López Obrador, whose cooperation is essential for controlling migratory flows, or Noboa, who represents one of America’s most critical security partners in the region.

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