Who is Leonidas Iza, the indigenous leader leading the protests in Ecuador?

The tension in Ecuador has no truce. After a 2020 pandemic and a 2021 marked by prison violence and criminality, this 2022 finds the country involved in nationwide protests and a state of emergency.

And behind this wave of protests, which include clashes and road closures, is Leonidas Iza, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), who claims for the prices of fuel and farm products, the unemployment and crime, among other demands.

On Tuesday, on the ninth day of protests —with a balance of at least four deaths—, Iza rejected the call for dialogue that President Guillermo Lasso had already accepted, arguing that certain conditions must first be met, including the repeal of the state of exception.

But who exactly is this indigenous leader who has the government and the country on edge?

The beginnings in Cotopaxi and the growth of Leonidas Iza

Leonidas Iza Salazar was born in 1982 in the San Ignacio community, in Cotopaxi, and is the son of the historic indigenous leader José María Iza Viracocha, who participated in the protests in the early 1990s, according to the Efe agency.

Those mobilizations, also known as the Inti Raymi Uprising, took place during the government of President Rodrigo Borja and included the taking of the Santo Domingo church in Quito. They were also the first great demonstrations of Conaie, founded in 1986.

Iza studied environmental engineering at the Technical University of Cotopaxi, and before becoming leader of Conaie he was president of the Indigenous and Peasant Movement of Cotopaxi (MICC). His ideas are linked to mariateguism, derived from the work of the Peruvian thinker José Carlos Mariátegui and who links Marxism with indigenism.

According to the Conaie website, Iza is a member of the Kichwa nationality and is part of the Panzaleo people.

The Kichwa, named for the language also known as Quechua, are based in the highlands of Ecuador, and the Panzaleo people make their home in the province of Cotopaxi, one of the centers of the current protests.

The 2019 protests

Iza later gained notoriety during the violent indigenous protests against former President Lenín Moreno in 2019.

Those mobilizations against the controversial decree 833 –of economic adjustment– lasted 11 days, and left a balance of seven deaths, 1,340 wounded and 1,152 detainees.

On the protests, Iza published in 2020, together with Andrés Tapia and Andrés Madrid, the book “Outbreak. The October rebellion in Ecuador”, which shows the perspective of the movements that took to the streets.

Iza’s arrest during the latest protests

These latest indigenous mobilizations began on Monday, June 13, in various provinces of Ecuador, and a day later Iza was arrested by the Ecuadorian National Police for presumption of committing crimes.

Specifically, the Prosecutor’s Office alleged that Iza was allegedly found cutting a highway, affecting the right to free mobility and free movement.

In a subsequent statement, Conaie said that it considered Iza’s detention illegal since it did not comply with due process. While the leader’s defense rejected the accusation and insisted that at the time of his arrest the road had not been obstructed.

Finally, Judge Paola Bedón ordered Iza’s “immediate release” on Wednesday. As an alternative, the judge also ordered the prohibition of leaving the country and the periodic presentation before the Prosecutor’s Office on Wednesdays and Fridays, in order to defend himself in freedom from the accusations against him.

Dialogue with the Government

On Thursday, Iza said that he would not accept a dialogue where there are no results and assured that he would coordinate the mobilization of indigenous bases to Quito if there are no answers to his requests.

A day later, the president of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, signed the state of emergency decree in the provinces of Cotopaxi and Pichincha (later extended to Chimborazo, Pastaza and Tungurahua), and the Conaie leadership said it would continue with the protests, time that Iza called for a peaceful demonstration and assured that their mobilization does not have vandalism overtones.

On his Twitter account, Lasso said in turn that he will not allow disorder in the protests and targeted those who, according to him, want to remove him from power.

“They seek chaos, they want to throw out the president, I am here, I am not going to escape,” he considered.

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