Life on the run in Amazon jungle for journalist charged with defaming president

For Ecuadoran journalist and political activist Fernando Villavicencio, life on the lam has meant wading through jungle rivers to avoid police checkpoints, dining on crocodile and monkey meat, and penning his latest book from a series of safe houses.

Villavicencio went underground in March after an Ecuadoran court upheld his 18-month prison sentence for defaming President Rafael Correa. Villavicencio initially found refuge with an Amazon tribe, but with government forces closing in he fled the community and is now moving about Ecuador to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

Sarayaku, the account of his life as a fugitive and what he calls a campaign of government persecution against him, was published in November after he managed to deliver the manuscript to his wife, Verónica Sarauz, who edited the text and sent it to his publisher. He named the memoir after the tribal territory where he took shelter.

“If I don’t keep writing I will die,” an exhausted-looking Villavicencio, who is 50, said in a two-hour interview with CPJ in a safe house in November.

Villavicencio is used to sparring with the government. At age 18, he founded a newspaper, Prensa Obrera (Workers Press), that focused on labor rights, and he was detained for two days by the country’s then-ruling military dictatorship for suspected ties to Marxist rebels.

After working at the state-run EP Petroecuador oil company, he wrote numerous books and articles for Ecuadoran newspapers and magazines about corruption and environmental contamination linked to the booming petroleum industry. His expertise and access to government documents made him a valued source for journalists covering the oil beat, Christian Zurita, a reporter for the leading Ecuadoran daily El Universo, told CPJ.

It also made him a target. Government agents raided Villavicencio’s home in the capital, Quito, on December 26, 2013, and confiscated his computers and thousands of documents. Correa accused Villavicencio of hacking government emails after the journalist reported on internal messages related to the government’s handling of a long-running lawsuit against the company Chevron. Villavicencio described the raid to CPJ as a fishing expedition to confiscate potentially embarrassing information about the government and find out the names of sources. So far, no charges have been filed and the documents and equipment have not been returned.

His current legal problems stem from a September 30, 2010 police uprising in which disgruntled officers trapped Correa in a police hospital for several hours. Correa claimed a coup was in the works and, in an army operation to free the president, at least five people were killed.

At the time, Villavicencio was working as an aide to Cléver Jiménez, an opposition legislator and Correa critic. The two men and Carlos Figueroa, a doctor and union activist, asked the attorney general to investigate the president’s responsibility for the violent operation. In a legal complaint they described Correa as “promoting political chaos” as well as “perpetrating crimes against humanity,” by ordering an armed assault on a hospital where civilians were present.

But the attorney general refused to investigate the uprising and a judge later called their complaint “malicious and reckless.” Correa, whose government has carried out a broad crackdown on the press including lawsuits and the passage of a restrictive communications law, then filed a defamation lawsuit against the men.

That led to convictions and 18-month sentences for Villavicencio and Jiménez, and a six-month sentence for Figueroa. The men were also ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fines and apologize to Correa.

Villavicencio told CPJ that the language in the complaint, which was written by Jiménez and suggested Correa had committed crimes against humanity, may have been exaggerated. Still, he said, it’s absurd that he and his colleagues have been condemned while many of those responsible for the bloodshed during the police uprising have not been prosecuted.

“We may have been imprecise in our language but we didn’t shoot anybody,” Villavicencio said. He added that they were not suing Correa, and had just wanted the president’s actions to be investigated.

Besides the use of criminal defamation laws, which human rights bodies have long criticized as a major hindrance to free speech, the judicial process of the three men has been shot through with irregularities, said Pamela Sevilla, a lawyer for the Quito-based press freedom group Fundamedios.

As a legislator Jiménez has parliamentary immunity but this protection was ignored. Sevilla added that the attorney general had earlier served as Correa’s personal lawyer and should have recused himself. In addition, the Correa government ignored a finding by a human rights commission from the regional group, the Organization of American States, that the detention order against the men should be suspended to avoid grave violations of their rights.

“This is a clear effort by the government to go after people who are in the opposition,” Sevilla told CPJ.

But Patricio Barriga, a former spokesman for the government’s Communications Secretariat who now heads Cordicom, Ecuador’s state-run information regulatory council, praised the integrity of the judicial system and denied that Villavicencio had been convicted for his opinions.

“This case has nothing to do with free expression,” Barriga told CPJ.

When the arrest warrant was issued in March, Villavicencio was in the U.S. and could have applied for political asylum. But he returned to Ecuador in an act of solidarity with Jiménez and Figueroa.

“It would have been a lot easier to stay put,” Villavicencio told CPJ. “But I was not going to let my friends go to jail while I was living in gilded exile.”

All three took refuge in Sarayaku, home to the Kichwa Indians who garnered international attention for their successful campaign to prevent oil exploration on their land. In 2012, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights ruled that Ecuador’s government had no right to drill for oil in Sarayaku without prior consent and barred security forces from entering the territory.

It seemed an ideal refuge, even if conditions were difficult. The men often dined on jungle birds, fish, crocodiles, and monkeys. Villavicencio’s wife, Sarauz, said when she visited her husband he was covered in bug bites. At night, when he tried to read or write, large jungle bats attracted by the light sometimes flew into his tent.

“Fernando is a city boy,” Sarauz told CPJ. “He got eaten up by insects.”

More problematic was the response by Correa. He accused the Kichwa of acting above the law and demanded they turn over the fugitives. With government helicopters and planes over Sarayaku, the men decided they were causing too much trouble for their hosts and departed. Villavicencio recalled wading through Amazon tributaries in the dark for about five hours to evade police checkpoints.

Figueroa was captured near Quito in August after visiting his mother, who was being treated for cancer. He is currently serving his prison sentence. But Villavicencio and Jiménez remain in hiding. Sarauz claimed that Interior Ministry agents have been shadowing her and have sometimes driven alongside her car.

In this interview, Villavicencio acknowledged that life on the run was taking its toll. He misses his children. With no income except for a small amount of book royalties, his family have moved from house to house and now live with his sister-in-law. But Villavicencio remains defiant.

“The president wants me to get down on my knees and apologize,” he said. “But I will never do that.”