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Diana Salazar, the prosecutor spearheading Ecuador’s fight against ‘narcopolitics’

In World
January 21, 2024

Attorney General Diana Salazar is the leading figure in Ecuador’s fight against “narcopolitics”. As the country’s top prosecutor, her revelations have already led to the arrest of several high-level officials, including judges and other prosecutors accused of involvement in organised crime linked to drug trafficking. 

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Ecuador is waging a war against the rise of “narcopolitics” and the powerful drug gangs who have infiltrated the country’s political system. Leading the fight is Attorney General Diana Salazar, who has launched what she described as the country’s “largest operation against corruption and drug trafficking in history”. 

Nicknamed the “Ecuadorian Loretta Lynch” after the US attorney general who served under Barack Obama, Salazar launched “Caso Metastasis” – a vast investigation into collusion between drug traffickers and government officials – following the October 2022 death in prison of powerful drug lord Leandro Norero.

More than 900 people took part in the investigation, which resulted in more than 75 raids and 30 arrests in mid-December. 

Ecuador has descended into chaos in recent weeks, with drug gangs going on a violent rampage. Hundreds of prison staff were taken hostage, a TV station was attacked live on air and explosions were reported in several cities. The latest violence erupted soon after the escape from prison of notorious crime boss Jose Adolfo Macias, known as “Fito”, the leader of Los Choneros, the country’s biggest gang. Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa said earlier this month that the country was in a “state of war” against the drug cartels behind the violence.

Most recently, a prosecutor investigating the brief siege of the TV station was shot dead on Wednesday in the port city of Guayaquil. 

In a statement on X following the murder, Salazar vowed to continue Ecuador’s fight against drug gangs, saying “organised crime groups, criminals, terrorists will not stop our commitment to Ecuadoran society”. 

Ecuador’s first Black, female attorney general 

A well-known figure on Ecuador’s anti-corruption scene, Salazar, 42, is the country’s first Black woman to hold the position of attorney general.  

She comes from the northern Andean city of Ibarra, where local media says she grew up in a modest family, raised by a single mother of four. 

Salazar moved to Quito when she was 16 for high school. At the age of 20, while still a law student at the Central University of Ecuador, Salazar began working as an assistant prosecutor in the Pichincha provincial prosecutor’s office. By 2011 she had become the public prosecutor for the southern part of the province. 

Salazar, who later started handling cases involving organised crime and corruption, came to prominence when she led the investigation into the “Fifa Gate” affair in 2015, resulting in a 10-year prison sentence for Ecuador’s former football chief Luis Chiriboga for money laundering.   

Salazar also helped prosecute Ecuador’s former vice president Jorge Glas, who was implicated in a corruption case against Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. 

Led by Salazar, the investigation revealed that Glas, who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2017, received $13.5 million in bribes from Odebrecht. 

“The Odebrecht affair was a real test for Diana Salazar,” said Sunniva Labarthe, a doctor in political sociology at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. “A lot of people thought she would be quickly removed from office as a consequence, but she’s managed to hold her ground … It shows that she is a credible and stable figure.” 

Salazar was elected attorney general for the first time in 2019. “In Ecuador, the attorney general position – known as ‘the fiscal’ – has become extremely important and scrutinised since the ministry of justice was abolished in 2018,” Labarthe said.  

Salazar even went after former president Rafael Correa (2007-2017) who in 2020 was sentenced to eight years in absentia for corruption and who later fled to Belgium

In 2021 Salazar was given an Anti-Corruption Champions Award by the US State Department, which said her “courageous actions in tackling these cases have made immense contributions to transparency and the rule of law in Ecuador”. 

Operation Metastasis

In a video message addressed to the public in December 2023, Salazar said that her office had uncovered a “criminal structure” that involves judges, prosecutors, prison officials and police officers, following the investigation into Norero’s death.

Salazar’s team scoured chats and call logs from Norero’s cellphone and found links to high-ranking state officials who handed out favours in exchange for money, gold, prostitutes, apartments and other luxuries.  

The operation revealed the extent of the corruption and infiltration of drug trafficking into the highest levels of government in Ecuador. 

“Salazar deserves credit for having carried out her operation in the utmost secrecy, so as to prevent the drug traffickers from being informed of the arrests,” said Emmanuelle Sinardet, professor of Latin American civilisations at Paris Nanterre University.  

“Managing to keep an investigation confidential is no mean feat in a country where corruption and the influence of drug trafficking are deeply rooted in state institutions,” she said. 

Regularly receiving death threats, Salazar has since largely kept out of the public eye, only appearing on occasion in a bullet-proof vest or surrounded by security.  

Ecuador’s top prosecutor, however, remains undaunted.  

“Now come and kill me,” she taunted her enemies at a recent hearing requesting prison terms for eight suspects. 

“Salazar’s courage, knowing full well that she is risking her life to fight corruption, makes her popular and appreciated by Ecuadoreans,” according to Sinardet. 

While Salazar has been criticised for her ambition and her alleged connections to powerful interests, “in the face of the threats to her and her family, the public sees her as a figure of integrity and dedication to the common good”, Sinardet says. “She is seen as the judicial arm of the state’s fight to restore authority and order to the streets.”  

Labarthe said the threats against those battling drugs and corruption are real, and widespread.

“We must not forget that all the other people involved in the fight against corruption – including lawyers, judges, investigators and journalists – are also under threat,” Labarthe said, adding: “We can only hope that Diana Salazar stays alive.” 

This article was translated from the original in French.

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