Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Ecuador Asks US Envoy to Leave As Soon As Possible

Ecuador Asks US Envoy To Leave As Soon As Possible

By Mercedes Alvaro

QUITO (Dow Jones)--Ecuador has declared the U.S. ambassador in Quito, Heather Hodges, persona non grata and asked her to leave the country immediately, over the release of diplomatic cables via WikiLeaks that discuss alleged police corruption in the Andean country.

Ecuadorian Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patino said Tuesday the U.S. ambassador has been asked to leave the country as soon as possible.

"The government decided to declare Hodges as persona non grata. We have asked her to leave the country as quickly as possible," Patino said.

In Washington, the State Department said Ambassador Hodges is one of the U.S.'s most experienced and talented diplomats and that her "expulsion" is "unjustified."

"The Department will examine its options to respond to Ecuador's action," added the State Department.

Meanwhile, in the afternoon, according to Ecuador's state news agency, Andes, President Rafael Correa said his government expected the United States to take reprisal for the Hodges expulsion, and that the "intrusion" by the U.S. embassy into the internal affairs had been "very serious."

"The United States will retaliate," Correa said, adding that his government will respond at a regional level, through the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR.

"I am sure that UNASUR will give Ecuador its total support in this case," Correa said.

Local analysts said the decision by Correa will affect the relationship between the U.S. and Ecuador.

Hodges told reporters in Quito the order "left me saddened tremendously, both personally and for this country."

In 2009, a secret diplomatic U.S. embassy cable said there was widespread corruption in Ecuador's police, and that former Commander General Jaime Hurtado Vaca had used his power "to extort cash and property, misappropriate public funds, facilitate human trafficking, and obstruct the investigation and prosecution of corrupt colleagues."

According the cable, the U.S. Embassy also said it had information from numerous sources that Hurtado Vaca received payments from police to give them protection so they could continue illegal activities.

Interviewed on Tuesday by Dow Jones, Hurtado Vaca denied any act of corruption and said the cable was not proof or evidence.

"Police chiefs generally always have people against them," he said.

The cable also said that some members of the embassy had speculated that Correa knew of the corruption allegations when he named Hurtado Vaca police commander, but that the president believed this would make him more easy to manipulate. Hurtado Vaca was police chief from April 2008 to mid-2009.

At a press conference, Patino said Ecuador's government had asked Hodges for an explanation, but the ambassador said the WikiLeaks documents are considered to be stolen goods and, therefore, would not comment.

Patino said the decision wasn't against the government of the U.S., "but against an official who made serious declarations."

He said the meeting with Hodges lasted only two minutes and called Hodges's answers to their questions "unacceptable, insufficient and unsatisfactory."

Hodges is a career foreign-service officer who became ambassador to Ecuador in 2008.

Declaring someone persona non grata means they are unacceptable to the host government.

Hodges is the third U.S diplomat to be expelled by Correa's administration since he took office in early 2007.

In February 2009, Correa ordered the expulsion of a top U.S. diplomat, Armando Astorga Jr., and the Embassy's first secretary, Mark Sullivan, accusing them of treating the country like a colony.

Ecuador's request for the U.S. ambassador to leave is the second diplomatic flap in Latin America due to WikiLeaks revelations.

Last month, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico resigned after publication of several WikiLeaks cables in which the U.S. envoy questioned Mexico's institutional capability to tackle organized crime.

-By Mercedes Alvaro, Dow Jones Newswires; 5939-9728-653; mercedes.alvaro@dowjones.com

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