The Persecuted Teacher

For almost a decade, Pepe Acacho – shuar leader, teacher, assemblyman, indigenous leader – went through procedures, hearings and defenses of a crime he did not commit. President Lenin Moreno pardoned him just a year ago, but when Acacho sees police near him, he still fears for his arrest.

Pepe Acacho is a free man, but when he sees a police car, he still gets distressed: He believes that the government has come for him. In October 2018, he received a pardon that freed him from a prison sentence and nine years of judicial persecution. Accused of the death of a man during a protest in defense of his territory and rivers, he was sentenced for “sabotage and terrorism with death” – the death of Professor Bosco Wisum, a crime that has not yet been clarified but which served to silence Pepe Acacho, a tall, strong and tough Shuar leader, as the people of his town tend to be. He has a wide nose, deep slanting eyes and a hard, silent expression. He speaks with direct phrases and the Amazonian chant of his language of Polynesian tones and Andean lilts, spoken by more than 100 thousand members of the second indigenous nationality of Ecuador – the Shuar –, is still present in his voice. “It has been a hard blow to me, psychologically, emotionally and most of all economically,” says Acacho as he drives his small maroon car, one morning in September 2019, as he goes back and forth between Macas, the capital of the province of Morona Santiago, and the rural community where he lives.

Pepe Acacho (50) has been a teacher, leader of the interprovincial federation of shuar centers, and leader of CONAIE. Photo by José María León.

Pepe Acacho likes driving his car. It is a kind of motorized peripatetism: The morning he talks about his persecution, his convictions, his days in jail, and the consequences of having the entire state apparatus against him, the Shuar leader drives. It is 6:45 a.m. and Pepe Acacho still has not departed because he is on the phone, trying to prevent some land belonging to the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH in Spanish) from being seized. He talks a lot, sitting behind the wheel, parked at the foot of a hostel in Macas, which 1,000 meters high gives the morning wind a cold and nostalgic aspect. When he finishes talking, he starts the car up and talks.

In 2013, Pepe Acacho was sentenced for the death of Shuar professor Bosco Wisum in 2009, when the Ecuadorian indigenous movement was protesting the Water Law being promoted by the government of Rafael Correa, a green-eyed socialist who became president when he had barely reached the age of forty, supported by many social organizations, including the indigenous movement. Acacho recalls that during his presidential campaign, Correa proposed an “environmental revolution.” For the native peoples – marginalized, defamed, and made invisible –,  it was impossible not to support a candidacy “of innovative proposals and changes for the country,” says Pepe Acacho.

“It was a historic opportunity to include them in the Constitution. If someone promises you something that you have already fought for, you don’t stop,”

Pepe Agacho

Correa won the 2007 elections promising to rebuild the country. He drafted a new Constitution that expanded the concepts of “multicultural and multiethnic” State that had been incorporated in the 1998 Constitution. Approved in 2008, the new constitutional text included aspects that the indigenous movement demanded be respected for years: It solemnized the Pachamama (and gave it rights), recognized forms of ancestral spirituality and designated Kichwa and Shuar as official languages of intercultural relations. Furthermore, it declared that, more than being multicultural, Ecuador was a state consisting of several nationalities – a direct recognition of the existence of the fifteen nationalities and eighteen indigenous peoples that inhabit the territory of Ecuador. “It was a historic opportunity to include them in the Constitution. If someone promises you something that you have already fought for, you don’t stop,” says Acacho without taking his eyes off the road. “On the contrary, you accelerate, speaking in terms of a driver as I am driving now.”

But all was limited to legal romanticism. “Already in 2009, we saw with surprise his drifting, his disorientation, his dissociation from his political project and his inclination to extractivism,” says Pepe Acacho, who at that time was president of the FICSH. “We began to hear about the new mining and oil concessions and we said ‘no way,’ what the constitution says differs from what is happening, where is the free, prior and informed consultation? It wasn’t respected in our territories”. That year, the government – which enjoyed an indisputable popularity – proposed a water law that, according to indigenous leaders, opened the door to water privatization.

During the ride in his car, Pepe Acacho stopped at some points on the road to show where the demonstrations occurred in september 2009. Photo by José María León.

“Our parents voluntarily collectively worked 2 km lands, sweated over finding the way to get water. They opened the street to lay the pipes and hoses. When the liquid finally arrived there was a party, it was an achievement,” said Roberto Yamberla – president of the Corporation of Independent Communities of the Antonio Ante district, in the Andean province of Imbabura – in 2009. In response to the law, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE in Spanish) – the organization that groups federations, leaders and groups of Ecuador – called for a national strike in all provinces. Thousands of people mobilized to Quito and others traveled from their communities to the cities of the Sierra and the Amazon region. In Macas, five thousand people arrived, Pepe Acacho estimates.

The request of the indigenous movement at that time was clear: Withdraw the Water Bill from the Assembly. During the first days of protest, there was an alleged dialogue between the CONAIE leadership and government delegates, so protesters on the ground felt betrayed, says Acacho. “There were people who, in order to come to make their demonstration, traveled for two or three days in canoes by river, walked by road, in the mountains. They spent days under the sun or rain, with no water or food.” When they arrived, they were told that the protest was cancelled even though the law had not been withdrawn, says Pepe Acacho.

“We reached an agreement: We would lift the de facto measure if they withdrew the Water Law from the National Assembly, annulled the mining concessions within our territory, and agreed not to prosecute our leaders, among other things”

Pepe Acacho

The strike ended in several provinces of the country, but not in Morona Santiago. A delegate of Correa’s government traveled to Sucua – a district of Morona Santiago, where the headquarters of the Shuar Federation is located – to meet with its leaders. Pepe Acacho was one of them. “We reached an agreement: We would lift the de facto measure if they withdrew the Water Law from the National Assembly, annulled the mining concessions within our territory, and agreed not to prosecute our leaders, among other things,” he recalls. The president’s representative went back to Quito with the agreement under his arm, saying he had to show it before signing it.

Andres Wisum – a Shuar and former combatant of the Cenepa War – was part of the negotiation commission together with Pepe Acacho. He says that the agreement included that, after two hours, they would go and tell the protesters that they had reached an agreement and that the protest would be ended up. But just twenty minutes later, the protesters who were still resisting called Acacho to inform him that more police had arrived. “Pepe told them to be calm, that they had surely come to provide security, that we had already reached an agreement,” Wisum recalls. But the policemen were armed. In the documentary entitled “Why Did Bosco Wisum Die?,” there are images of that afternoon: Pepe Acacho – with a crown of red and yellow feathers, and as a co-pilot in a white van – was talking on his cell phone, angry:

– The government’s advisor was useless. This just got worse.

They were going to the bridge over the Upano River, at the entrance to Macas, where most of the protestants were gathered. It was September 30, 2009. When they arrived, Bosco Wisum had already been shot in the forehead. Ten years later, Pepe Acacho stops his car at the curve before the bridge, gets down and points to a bushwood:

– This is where Bosco Wisum fell.

On the curve of the road before reaching the Upano river bridge, Pepe Acacho slows down to point out the exact place where shuar professor Bosco Wisum died.

***

In 1992, after the first major indigenous uprising, the then President Rodrigo Borja – a social democrat much more democratic-minded man than his successors – had sat down with the leaders of the movement to agree on the recognition of the ownership of the communities’ ancestral lands through legal titles. He received them at the Carondelet palace, a colonial building transformed into the official seat of government and presidential residence, to discuss the mechanism to recognize the lands. It was a historic moment: Never before had a President received the country’s native peoples.

“Let’s hope that we end that up quickly and the indigenous comrades realize that they are being used” by the right wing

Rafael Correa, ex-president of Ecuador.

Almost two decades later, the leadership was returning to Carondelet, after the death of Bosco Wisum by a pellet shot that the government insisted did not come from the police, but from the indigenous people. It was the final break between the government and its indigenous allies: The relationship between Correa and CONAIE had been deteriorating since 2008, when some twenty people from Dayuma, a small community in the Amazon oil province of Orellana, demanded road works. The 2009 protests, which initially had not had a strong call and had been underestimated by Correa (“Let’s hope that we end that up quickly and the indigenous comrades realize that they are being used” by the right wing, said the President), gained strength as a result of the proposed Water Law and the death of Bosco Wisum.

At one end of the Upano river bridge, at the entrance to Macas, Bosco Wisum died with a shot in the forehead. Photo by José María León.

Thousands of indigenous people had marched, with flags, horns and spears, to the main square of Quito, at the foot of the presidential palace, chanting The united Shuar will never be defeated, the water is not for sale, the water is defended and here we are, the nobodies – an allusion to Correa’s rhetorical outburst who had said that the indigenous leaders were “nobody, nutcases who represent 2% of the population.” Already seated at the table of a tense dialogue, Pepe Acacho spoke in Shuar to Correa, who was flanked by the top members of his administration (including his then Vice President, successor to power and capital enemy, Lenin Moreno). In the end, Pepe Acacho said in Spanish:

–Mr. President, with all due respect, I would like that a translator from the presidency translate the words I expressed to you, with all due respect.

A smiling chubby translator came out and babbled a few words in Shuar. “She doesn’t speak well,” said someone sitting at the tables. The translator said something in Correa’s ear and left, also smiling.

–Mr. President, with all the respect you deserve, that’s the kind of translators you have, and it’s that kind of translators that are misinforming you, said Pepe Acacho.

–But to solve the problem, speak in Spanish, comrades, Correa replied with a half-smile.

Pepe Acacho followed:

–They tell you that we are calling for an uprising. Do you realize how they make you make mistakes?

An indigenous laugh burst out all over the room. Probably never before have so many people laughed in derision at the president in Carondelet.

– Well let’s do one thing, so… You are Pepe Acacho, right?

– Pepe Acacho greets you.

– Let’s do one thing, come on, you provide the translator and let us be translated, and if there’s a call for violence, we’ll prosecute that because that’s a crime, do we agree? An agreement, fourth point of agreement,” says Correa, doing the number with his hand.

Pepe Acacho continued to speak. The Shuar have declared Morona Santiago an ecological province, free of extractivism. Correa did not look at him: He made notes while the Shuar leader spoke.

– I ask you, where is it in the Constitution that the Shuar Federation can declare a province free of extractive activity? In any case, I am ready to accept your requests. I can do it by decree, I think –the President said, consulting with some advisor –. I am ready to accept your request: Morona Santiago free of extractive activity, but in the same way do not demand electrification, drinkable water, healthcare, housing, school, roads of us, because where are we going to get the money from? That’s the counter-proposal, comrades.

Several indigenous leaders replied: Alright, they wanted that decree. Correa objected: We had to consult with settlers and mestizos as well. One leader told him something more or less obvious: In the cities of the province, there is electric power, but in the jungle the Shuar do not need it.

The meeting ended up without agreement, with Correa standing up, telling them that perhaps outside the indigenous world there are solutions.

Pepe Acacho concluded by telling Correa that they do not want mining or oil activity because “they contaminate the water sources.” The meeting ended up without agreement, with Correa standing up, telling them that perhaps outside the indigenous world there are solutions. From that day on, Pepe Acacho, a teacher, community leader, former president of FICSH, former Vice President of CONAIE, former provincial assemblyman, says he fell under the radar of the political enmity of Rafael Correa’s administration and his persecution began.

Photo by José María León.

Today, Pepe Acacho is a free man because the government that came after Correa broke with him and pardoned Acacho. But Pepe Acacho still gets distressed when he sees a police car passing by: He does not know if it is the Government that is coming for him. In Latin America, the government always seems to come for environmental leaders.

***

Pepe Acacho was always a leader. He began as a teacher in his community, Santa Elena, in Zamora Chinchipe, a province south of Morona Santiago. He was 18 years old. “The professor was firstly a teacher, but also a doctor; he could cope with some emergencies,” says Acacho, behind the wheel of his small car. “The professor was a lawyer too; he was involved in a litigation or community issue. The professor was a leader because he supported the leaders in matters of management, preparation of papers, hearings, and interviews. I was the multifaceted teacher.

Over the following twenty years, the multifaceted Pepe Acacho became the health leader of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH), vice president of that organization, vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and an assemblyman for the province of Morona Santiago.

On September 25, 2019, Pepe Acacho drives his car through Downtown Macas and says that two years ago he did not run for the primary elections of Pachakutik – the indigenous political party – because he was in prison serving the sentence that was always unfair for him. Less than a year ago, that injustice became evident, he says.

During Correa’s ten years, thousands of people who participated in social protests against the government were brought before prosecutors’ offices, courts and tribunals.

The accusation against Pepe Acacho was brought a few days after Bosco Wisum’s death. The crime: sabotage and terrorism. During Correa’s ten years, thousands of people who participated in social protests against the government were brought before prosecutors’ offices, courts and tribunals.

From August 2014 – when the new Criminal Code came into force in Ecuador – until April 2017 – a month before the end of Correa’s presidency –, 2187 people were accused of the crime of attack or resistance. In the same period, 198 people were accused of bringing public services to a standstill. Another 43 were accused of terrorism.

In an office in Quito’s downtown, with black metal filing cabinets and many manila folders, Julio Cesar Sarango, Pepe Acacho’s lawyer, says the State rode roughshod over his client and violated his rights.

Pepe Acacho was accused of three different crimes in nine years. He spent 24 days in jail for a crime he did not commit. Photo by José María León.

Pepe Acacho’s judicial process lasted nine years. Between 2009 and 2018, he was accused of terrorism and sabotage, organized terrorism with death, and finally, bringing public services to a standstill.

In 2011, he was arrested in Macas, taken to Quito and spent eight days in the Inca prison. He was released because it was proven that he had not violated any of the precautionary measures – leaving the country or disposing of property. According to Acacho, he was imprisoned because he had just finished his term as president of FICSH and they thought he would run away.

The second time he was in prison was just a year ago. The last sentence for the crime of bringing public services to a standstill was issued in July 2018. Eight months in prison and a fine of USD 44. “I had to be a fugitive, hidden for four months until the sentence expired,” says Pepe Acacho.

In September, he stopped hiding and a few days later, while he was making arrangements at the land terminal in Macas, some police approached him and arrested him: The arrest warrant against him was still in force. He spent 16 days in prison until October 3, when President Lenin Moreno pardoned him.

Since the beginning of his government in May 2017, Moreno has given amnesties and pardons to some indigenous leaders. He did so because that was the condition for the CONAIE to sit down and dialogue with the newly-elected president. He also did so to break with his mentor and ally that brought him to the presidency, Rafael Correa.

The dialogue was lukewarm and, according to many indigenous leaders, no agreement was reached.

The dialogue was lukewarm and, according to many indigenous leaders, no agreement was reached. This lack of attention to their demands was one of the causes of the recent national strike in October 2019, which mobilized thousands of indigenous people in the capital.

For the two arrests without legal grounds, Pepe Acacho filed complaints for moral damages against the State. “They showed us up saying that we were terrorists, dangerous, negative and convulsive people” and misapplied justice. Neither prospered.

Pepe Acacho’s hearings were attended by government employees, says Sarango. “There was a whole arsenal of public officials, even ministers and assistant secretaries, from the Judiciary Council, who watched and pressured the judges to do what they said to the letter,” he says.

Sarango reports that on one occasion, a judge issued a preventative detention order without notifying them and revoking the alternatives to detention (such as appearing before a judge periodically or carrying a tracking device), without a request from a prosecutor. “This is prohibited by law. It is prevarication. He was captured in a military-police operation, illegally. During Correa’s administration, accusations of lack of judicial independence were persistent.

The entrance to the amazon city of Macas. Photo by José María León.

***

In July 2019, the suspicion of Pepe Acacho and his lawyer, Julio Cesar Sarango, was confirmed: The executive branch – presided by Rafael Correa – had intervened the judicial branch – also controlled by Rafael Correa. The lack of independence was evident in four emails leaked by a former official arrested on corruption charges. The epistolary exchange was between President Rafael Correa’s advisor, Pamela Martinez, and his staff. The emails were dated 2012 and 2013. Pepe Acacho remembers them while driving:

– “A few messages have come out about my case,” he says while driving.

On June 1, 2012, Martinez forwarded to an advisor a report from two presidential officials informing her of the status of the Bosco Wisuma trial. Two of the judges (a sort of substitute judges, according to Ecuadorian law) resigned from their positions before hearing the case. In order for the trial to take place, the officials explained to Martinez that “the necessary steps” were being taken to set up a tribunal to judge Acacho.

“It should be noted that after our supervision and management, both the Nullity Appeal and the petition for Appeal were resolved and denied on June 26, 2012; so the SUMMON TO TRIAL AGAINST THE PROSECUTED was confirmed,” says an email from 2012.

Martinez “suggests” two options for judges to be at Pepe Acacho’s trial hearing.

The subject of the email is Bosco Wisuma Case. It is written by Martinez and addressed to Gustavo Jalkh, then private secretary to President Rafael Correa and subsequently president of the Judiciary Council, the body that administers the appointments of judges in Ecuador. Martinez “suggests” two options for judges to be at Pepe Acacho’s trial hearing.

In the email, Martinez refers to the appeal that attorney Sarango filed in 2013, after a judge sentenced Pepe Acacho to 12 years in prison for the crime of sabotage and terrorism.

In another email dated April 29, 2013, advisor Laura Teran forwards an email with a document named ‘Despacho 26 de abril de 2013.docx’. In a box identified as A3 and with the bolded heading BOSCO WISUMA, it says “In view of the inaction of the Ministry of Justice and since there is an instruction from you, I spoke with C.J., who asked me to make the people do their work, so in one week we were able to appoint the Morona Santiago provincial delegate, the three judges were appointed (two have already signed their personnel form) and we expect the Trial Hearing to take place in the first week of May.”

Between hearings and proceedings – which six years later proved to have an intention –, Pepe Acacho was forced to spend more time defending himself and less time fighting for the territory where his people want no extractivism.

***

In downtown Macas, Pepe Acacho meets a friend who greets him by calling him “terrorist”. Photo by José María León.

In Downtown Macas downtown, Pepe Acacho drives at 25 kph with the window down. “Amigo!” he replies to the person who recognizes him and greets him from a sidewalk. When he meets an acquaintance in front of the city’s central park, the person greets Pepe Acacho: “Hello, terrorist”. Pepe Acacho laughs, and asks “See?”

Hours before, while driving from parish to parish, leaving orders at home and stopping for breakfast – chicken, ayampaco de paiche, boiled yucca –, Pepe Acacho retells moments of his life of the last decade. “There are good people, friends, some of them making fun of me, others joking, who have given me a nickname. They call me a terrorist. He is also called Pepe, Pepin, Pepe Luis.

“I have a clear conscience that I got that nickname not because I am bad but because I am a fighter, because I stand up against unfairness, because I am a defender.”

Pepe Acacho

–“I see the funny side of it, I don’t mind. I have a clear conscience that I got that nickname not because I am bad but because I am a fighter, because I stand up against unfairness, because I am a defender.”

Ten years later, there are still no known perpetrators of the murder of Bosco Wisum. A report on judicial harassment of indigenous leaders published by Humans Right Watch in 2018 says that after consulting the trial documents, “including transcripts of testimony, and it did not find credible evidence to justify the conviction of Acacho.” According to the international organization, during radio interviews, “Acacho urged community members to demonstrate, but said nothing that could reasonably be interpreted as incitement to violence.”

According to the report, the only evidence that the Prosecutor’s Office presented to the court that Acacho had incited violence was the testimony of three witnesses of dubious credibility given that “they had links with public officials, and one of them worked for a mining company that Acacho had opposed as president of FICSH, which casts doubts as to whether they could have been unduly pressured to change their statement in favor of the Prosecutor’s Office.”

Humans Rights Watch further stated that witnesses said they heard the interviews where Acacho called on the protesters to bring poisoned spears to the protests. “However, the original recordings of these interviews were never played during the trial, and it seems that the court never had the recordings in Shuar,” says the report, which also explains that a fourth witness “who spoke Shuar and had no ties to either the government or the mining company gave a completely different statement about the content of the radio broadcasts in that language, and said that Acacho had not called for violence.

The protest spiraled into violence, and the indigenous movement said that its march had been infiltrated by outside agents who were intent on destabilizing the government of Lenin Moreno.

Ten years later, a new indigenous protest would shake Ecuador to its foundations. In October 2019, CONAIE mobilized thousands of its members to Quito to protest the elimination of the fuel subsidy, which they see as a measure that damages their small economies. The protest spiraled into violence, and the indigenous movement said that its march had been infiltrated by outside agents who were intent on destabilizing the government of Lenin Moreno. Eight people died after eleven days of fighting, which only ceased when the government agreed to repeal the elimination of the subsidy and target it before removing it.

The Ombudsman’s Office has said the police violated human rights by excessively repressing the protesters. According to the Ombudsman, Ernesto Carrion, from October 3 to 13, 1192 people were arrested. Of these, 76% was not prosecuted and were immediately released. “These apprehensions were arbitrary and illegal to the point that the prosecutor’s office did not file charges and they recovered their freedom,” he said. Many indigenous leaders have said that they were not only marching for the subsidy, but also for the lack of respect for their land and their willingness not to allow mining or oil extraction on it. They say that, despite the pardon of the persecuted, Lenin Moreno’s government has not listened to them for two and a half years. Some things simply do not change – no matter who governs.

Pepe Acacho says he is now calm. But Andres Wisum says the impact of nine years of trials and uncertainties have affected Acacho. “He says he is calm, but Pepe is not who he used to be. That time was terrible, do you know what it’s like to have the whole state behind one person?” he says, breaking down.

Shuar and former Cenepa combatant Andres Wisum was in negotiations with the government in october 2009 after the death of Bosco Wisum. Photo by José María León.

A few minutes earlier, Pepe Acacho stopped his small car in the highest part of Macas: At the foot of the city church, run by the Salesians, the Catholic congregation that arrived decades ago to Southern Ecuador and established the first sustained contact with the Shuar people. The afternoon is cloudy and the breeze is still soft and slightly cold. Down there, between the mountain and the church, is the Macas’ central park, where Pepe Acacho will meet some friends.

Pepe Acacho still lives in his land, coming and going, restless, from one side to the other.

Conduce el pequeño tramo que hay entre punto y punto y se estaciona de cualquier modo al pie del parque. Se baja y se para en la vereda, donde enseguida lo reconocen. “Pepe”, “Pepito”, “señor Terrorista”, le dicen con afecto y genuina admiración. Los shuar son altos, compactos, contundentes, pero en ese momento Pepe Acacho luce un poco más grande —como si el reconocimiento de la gente lo engrandeciera, literalmente. Entre quienes los saludan está Andrés Wisum. Acacho conversa un poco con ellos, intercalando frases en español y shuar. Habla de pendientes y proyectos por hacer. La vida, su vida, después de todo, parece seguir. Pepe Acacho está aún en su tierra, yendo y viniendo, inquieto, de un lado a otro.  Unos quince minutos después, se despide del grupo y señala con la llave de encendido a su pequeño carro, en el que ha recorrido durante casi siete horas la ciudad, sus alrededores y los últimos nueves años de su vida, y, sonriendo, le dice a un amigo: “Vamos a dar una vuelta”.

He drives through the small stretch from point to point and parks anyway at the foot of the park. He gets off and stands on the sidewalk, where he is immediately recognized. “Pepe”, “Pepito”, “Mr. Terrorist,” they call him with affection and genuine admiration. The Shuar are tall, compact, forceful, but at that moment Pepe Acacho looks a little bigger – as if people’s recognition literally magnifies him. Among those who greet him is Andres Wisum. Acacho talks a little with them, in Spanish interspersed with phrases in Shuar. He talks about pending issues and projects to be done. Life, his life, after all, seems to go on. Pepe Acacho still lives in his land, coming and going, restless, from one side to the other. About fifteen minutes later, he says goodbye to the group and points with the ignition key to his small car, in which he has driven for almost seven hours through the city, its surroundings and the last nine years of his life, and, smiling, tells a friend: “Let’s go for a ride.”

Tierra de Resistentes

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