QUITO, Ecuador, April 19 -- Military police used tear gas and high-pressure water hoses to restrain tens of thousands of protesters Tuesday night during the fiercest confrontation yet between the government and those demanding the ouster of president Lucio Gutierrez.
As police tried to quell the escalating unrest, in which several people were reportedly injured, officials today cast the blame on an unusual source: a local radio station that has directed the public to an estimated 200 demonstrations in the past six days.
Students clash with police during an anti-government protest in Quito. The president blames a radio station for encouraging the massive demonstrations.
(Cecilia Puebla -- AP)
"The radio station is the one that is calling all of the protests -- not the people," charged Ivan Ona Velez, communication secretary for Gutierrez.
Massive street demonstrations have swept the capital since Gutierrez disbanded the country's 31-member Supreme Court on Friday for the second time in five months. He first removed the justices in December, saying they were politically aligned with parties opposing his rule. They were replaced with justices who the opposition says are allies of the president. After Gutierrez declared a brief state of emergency last Friday, thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand his impeachment.
Throughout the crisis, a local FM station -- Radio La Luna -- has regularly informed listeners where and when demonstrations would occur. During the height of tonight's chaotic demonstrations, the station provided directions for protesters wishing to navigate street closures and avert police blockades to reach the presidential palace.
The station's signal was cut for several hours Monday, during the evening, when most street actions have been organized. The government blamed the outage on an electrical failure at a transmission tower and said several stations were affected, including a state-run television station.
But many Ecuadorans who oppose the president said they believed the government was targeting La Luna, a small station that has adamantly criticized the government's handling of the crisis and has called for the dismissal of Gutierrez. The station's director said his family had received death threats that prompted him to move his wife and children out of Quito, the capital.
"It's the government of Lucio Gutierrez that is doing this, of that I'm absolutely certain," Paco Velasco, the director of La Luna, said Tuesday "On Sunday, they interfered with our signal. . . . Six different times we've been cut off."
The public outcry against the government reached a fever pitch this month when the newly appointed Supreme Court absolved several politicians of corruption charges, including an exiled former president, Abdala Bucaram. Many demonstrators said they believed the court change was part of a presidential and congressional alliance with Bucaram, under whom Gutierrez served as a military aide.
Congress voted Sunday to begin the process of replacing the court, but opposition party members said they would try to impeach the president for carrying out what they called an unconstitutional manipulation of the judicial system.
It remained unclear whether the impeachment drive had gained sufficient congressional support to succeed. Hearings must be supported by a majority of the 100-member body, and a two-thirds majority is needed to oust the president.
In the streets, many of the protesters continued to call for a complete overhaul of the political system -- including the dissolution of Congress and the holding of new elections.
"It's the people in the streets who have the power to be vigilant and make sure stability can be retained," said Ernesto Alban Gomez, one of the Supreme Court justices who was dismissed in December. "We must be the only country in the world right now without a Supreme Court, but it is worth it if it results in changes that help the country."
Before he joined a protest this morning against Gutierrez, Stalin Coronel, 23, listened to Radio La Luna for information on upcoming street actions. Then he and about 150 other demonstrators -- mostly college students -- marched to the radio station's modest offices in northern Quito to show support for the broadcasts.