Re: Guadalupe de Heredia, Alejandro Ponce Villacis, Julio Marcelo Prieto Mendez, and others, members of the legal team representing indigenous communities in legal action against Chevron Texaco
To: Dr. Felipe Vega de la Cuadra (Minister)
From: Isabel Stramwasser
Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (‘LRWC’) calls your attention to the break-in of the law office of Julio Marcelo Prieto Mendez, in Quito, Ecuador.
In the early hours of May 19, 2006, security guards informed Julio Marcelo Prieto Méndez that his office had been broken into. Apparently, nothing was taken, despite the fact that the office contained expensive equipment. However, someone had gone through the paper files. Julio Marcelo Prieto Méndez filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office in Quito on May 28, 2006.
Julio Marcelo Prieto Méndez is a lawyer working on a US$6 billion lawsuit against Chevron for pollution in the Amazon.
The lawsuit is a class action representing 30,000 aboriginal plaintiffs in remote areas of the Amazon for damage to the environment and damage to the health of individuals allegedly resulting from Chevron’s twenty-six years of oil exploration.
In 1993, plaintiffs filed a complaint in a U.S. Federal Court in New York, but the case was dismissed after nearly ten years of litigation under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, which meant that litigation belonged in Ecuador.
On May 7, 2003, representatives for 30,000 plaintiffs filed a new complaint against Chevron in the Superior Court of Nueva Loja, Ecuador, seeking a complete environmental clean-up or remediation.
The claim is that Chevron, to save an estimated US$3 per barrel for a total of US$4.5 billion between 1964 to 1990, systematically dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste into unlined pits and into swamps, streams and rivers. The allegation is that the pollution was not caused by a one-time spill, as in Exxon Valdez, but by a conscious decision by Chevron executives. At the height of its operation in the Amazon, Chevron was allegedly dumping 4.3 million gallonsof toxic waste per day .
Chevron allegedly left behind at least 627 open pits of toxic waste in the rainforest, some the size of football fields. Over the years, the contents of each pit have allegedly contaminated groundwater and surrounding streams and rivers on which the population depends for drinking. The pollution has allegedly caused an array of cancers, miscarriages, and other health problems for thousands of local residents. In addition, the five indigenous groups in the area have been forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands, traditional methods of subsistence like fishing and hunting have been affected due to the deterioration of the animal and fish populations, and indigenous cultures have been irrevocably changed. The Cofán, who numbered nearly 15,000 when Chevron arrived in the Amazon, are now nearly extinct, with only 800 survivors.
ONGOING THREATS AND HARASSMENT
According to Amnesty International and other credible sources, the break-in of of the law office of Julio Marcelo Prieto Mendez is the latest in an ongoing series of threats and harassment of the plaintiffs’ lawyers and staff, including:
1. October 14, 2005: Pablo Fajardo Mendoza (lawyer for the plaintiffs) received a death threat from an unidentified individual claiming to be responsible for a series of extra-judicial, politically-motivated killings in the Lago Agrio area.
2. Mid-October, 2005: Ermel Chavez (lawyer and president of the Coalition for the Defense of the Amazon (‘FDA’), the lead plaintiff organization), was surveilled by self-identified “Rayo 24” military officers at his home and at his office. An officer confronted Chavez’ wife at their home and demanded information about Chavez’ work.
3. October 24, 2005: Luis Yanza (lawyer for the plaintiffs) was contacted by members of the National Police, who informed him that his phones were being tapped by military intelligence and that the FDA had been infiltrated by a military spy.
4. October 28, 2005: The Quito office of Alejandro Ponce Villacís (lawyer for the plaintiffs) was broken into and robbed. A disk of back-up files and three computers used for work on the Chevron case were stolen, but cash and valuable office equipment were untouched.
5. November 11, 2005: The wife of Alejandro Ponce Villacís (lawyer for the plaintiffs) received a threatening phone call at their home, in which an unidentified man threatened, “Is your alarm system switched on now?”
6. November 14, 2005: An unidentified man and a women broke into the Coca home of Luis Yanza (leader of the plaintiffs’ organization), and attempted to kidnap his nine-year-old daughter.
7. April 21, 2006: A female friend of Guadalupe de Heredia’s (press officer for the FDA) came to visit her at her home and was attacked by two men as she came through the gate. One of them beat her about the head, while the other stole her notebook. Guadalupe de Heredia’s family found their friend bleeding from head wounds. Amnesty International posits that the men may have mistaken the woman for Guadalupe de Heredia. She reported the attack to the police the same day.
8. April 29, 2006: An unmarked van attempted to run de Heredia and her 11-year-old daughter off the road close to their home in Quito, until other drivers intervened. The van sped off.
LRWC and Amnesty International are not the only international organizations concerned with these threats against lawyers and their staff.
On November 17, 2005, Hina Jilani, United Nations’ Special Representative for Human Rights Defenders, urged Ecuadorian authorities to to protect the plaintiffs’ lawyers and investigate allegations of threats and harassment.
On December 22, 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States called on the Ecuadorean government to protect the plaintiffs’ lawyers and investigate allegations of threats and harassment.
On April 28, 2006, international organizations petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to extend existing precautionary measures to Guadalupe de Heredia, press officer.
On June 14, 2006, the International Commission of Jurists sent a letter to the Ecuardorian authorities stating that “the harassment of these lawyers is a violation of international standards on the administration of justice” and noting its particular concern that “it appears that Government officials might be involved in some of the acts of harassment.”
RESPONSE OF THE GOVERNMENT
LRWC is informed by credible sources that the government of Ecuador has not yet taken any concrete steps to investigate the above-noted incidents or protect the complainants.
LRWC is informed that the government has responded as follows:
On December 01, 2005, Ecuador made public a contract between Chevron and the Ecuadorian military. Chevron executives and lawyers occupy a villa on the “Rayo 24” military base in Lago Agrio and the military provides them with security and labour services. In return, Chevron pays the military US$3,000/ month and will donate the villa to the military after the trial.
On July 5 and 6, 2006, members of the Ecuadorian national police interviewed Lupe de Heredia, Luis Yanza and Julio Prieto. After taking their complaints, the police instructed them on how to protect themselves.
THE GOVERNMENT’S ROLE
LRWC is gravely concerned that the government of Ecuador is not fulfilling its responsibilities under international law to:
1. Investigate the above-noted allegations of threats and harassment;
2. Protect plaintiffs’ representatives and their families; and,
3. Ensure that the Chevron case is heard in a fair, independent and impartial manner, in accordance with international standards.
How is the government of Ecuador addressing these three concerns?
LRWC respectfully awaits your response.