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The Administration of Justice

The court system consisted of the Supreme Court of Justice, which sat in the capital; superior courts in the capitals of ten provinces; 35 provincial criminal courts; 87 cantonal courts; and 445 parish courts. Parish judges tried minor civil matters and misdemeanors, their verdicts being subject to review by cantonal courts. Cantonal judges also could conduct preliminary hearings and make recommendations in criminal cases. Nonetheless, provincial courts were the courts of first instance in such cases, except those involving government officials. Provincial criminal judges had the authority to try criminal cases for which, according to the penal code, the punishment did not exceed three years in prison.

Criminal proceedings consisted of summary and plenary parts. The first of these usually took place before a local court and the second before a provincial criminal court. The summary assessed whether or not an offense had been committed and if a trial were warranted; the plenary determined the guilt or innocence of the accused.

After an arrest, except for minor offenses, the police were required to turn the suspect over to the judge of the local cantonal court, who would conduct an investigation to determine if there were sufficient grounds for trial. According to the law, the findings of the investigation had to be forwarded within fifteen days to the provincial criminal court holding jurisdiction over the case.

When the summary proceedings had been completed, the record was delivered to the public prosecutor so that he could prepare the accusation. If, in the opinion of the presiding judge, the information contained in the summary did not warrant a continuation of the proceedings, the judge could release the suspect on bail. Dismissal of the case would be final if the public prosecutor could not find merit in the accusation or if the judge felt the existence of an offense had not been absolutely established. If the case warranted a trial, it then went to the Tribunal of Crimes, a five-member body presided over by the judge of the provincial criminal court. Upon the completion of arguments, the tribunal retired in secret session and then announced its verdict. Except in special cases, such as those involving a breach of morality, trials were public. Ecuador did not use the jury system.

Defendants could call witnesses on their own behalf, crossexamine witnesses, and refrain from testifying against themselves, and could appeal sentences to intermediate or higher courts. Accused persons were entitled to legal counsel as soon as arrested. Although a public defender system is mandated by the 1979 Constitution, it had not been introduced as of 1988. Persons who could not afford counsel faced the longest period of pretrial detention. Detention without charge for more than forty-eight hours was prohibited by the criminal code, but the requirement was frequently violated in practice. Habeas corpus could be invoked by mayors or municipal council presidents who had the constitutional right to order the release of detainees. This power tended to be exercised liberally, regardless of the severity of the charges.

According to the Department of State's human rights reports, the judicial system was inefficient and corruptible, in part because of inexperienced and poorly paid judges. A chronic backlog of cases meant that detainees might be forced to wait two years or longer for trial. According to the Special Commission on Human Rights, approximately 50 percent of all prisoners as of 1988 had not been charged or sentenced. Time spent awaiting trial counted toward completion of a sentence, but that did not help long-term detainees who were eventually acquitted.

In the late 1980s, Ecuador recorded significant levels of urban crime. The increased crime rate, particularly notable in Guayaquil and to a lesser extent in Quito, was linked to the steady rural to urban migration. Most migrants lacked the skills necessary to obtain employment in the cities. Many, in order to provide for themselves and their families, turned to crime. The country's economic setbacks during the latter half of the 1980s created an increasingly desperate situation for adults unable to find legitimate employment. Although muggings, assaults, pickpocketing, and burglaries were the most prevalent forms of crime, since 1985 there had been an upsurge of robberies of banks and private companies by well-armed gangs, as well as of kidnappings and sexual assaults. Some robberies were connected with the AVC or the Colombian M-19, but most appeared to be the work of professional criminals.

Data reported to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) indicated there were approximately 26,000 crimes committed in Ecuador in 1984. This number included 400 homicides, more than 500 rapes, almost 500 serious assaults, approximately 2,400 robberies and violent thefts, more than 6,000 other robberies, almost 700 car thefts, approximately 600 cases of fraud, and almost 200 drug offenses. Ecuador had a crime ratio of 292 per 100,000 population. Such a rate would be considered very low on an international scale, beneath that of many countries with a reputation for a low incidence of crime, such as Japan. Some observers speculated that many offenses reported to the police were not classified as crimes, or that many crimes were not brought to the attention of the police. For example, the Indian population customarily dealt with crimes within its own communities without recourse to the Ecuadorian police.

Data as of 1989

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Ecuador Table of Contents