Ecuador Raided Mexico’s Embassy. Biden Has to Pick a Side.

On April 5, Ecuadorean police stormed into the Mexican embassy in Quito to arrest former vice president Jorge Glas. The unlawful act has put the White House in an awkward position in relation to AMLO and Ecuadorean president Daniel Noboa.

Riot police officers stand guard outside of the Ecuadorian embassy in Mexico City, Mexico, on Saturday, April 6, 2024. (Stephania Corpi / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Per Article 22 of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations, the premises of a diplomatic mission are inviolable. Unless you’re Israel, which bombed the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1. And unless you’re Ecuador, which invaded the Mexican embassy in Quito four days later.

Around 10 p.m. on the night of Friday, April 5, heavily armed police on the orders of President Daniel Noboa stormed the Mexican embassy, located across from the Olympic Stadium in the city’s downtown. After subduing chief of mission Roberto Canseco — who heroically continued to defend the building despite being greatly outnumbered — the invading forces proceeded to capture their target: former vice president Jorge Glas, who had been granted political asylum that very day.

With Glas kidnapped and a still-struggling Canseco wrestled to the ground outside of the embassy gate, the police finally withdrew, leaving the grounds in the custody of a retinue of soldiers and international law in tatters. How did we get here?

Lawfare and Law-Smear

When he entered the Mexican embassy in December 2023, it was the latest chapter in a tortuous path for Glas. Twice sentenced and facing a third set of charges, the former vice president has been on the receiving end of the same brutal campaign of lawfare that has seen the banning of Fuerza Compromiso Social — the most recent of the political parties adopted by the beleaguered movement led by Rafael Correa — the former president’s disqualification from running for office and exile in Belgium.

As for Glas — who served under both Correa and Lenin Moreno, his successor — his convictions have been snarled in a complex web of doctored evidence and dropped charges, with new ones popping up to replace them. In its communiqué announcing the granting of asylum to Glas, Mexico’s foreign relations secretariat stated that it came to its decision following an “exhaustive analysis of the information received,” and pointedly referred to Articles 4 and 9 of the Vienna Convention, authorizing the granting country the exclusive right to determine if a claim of political persecution is valid and requiring the host country to accept it.

Ecuador did not accept it. Over the next few months, it continued to pester Mexico to give up Glas; Mexico refused. Then, in his morning press conference on April 3, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) commented on the bizarre circumstances surrounding the 2023 presidential elections in Ecuador, in which candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated, seven suspects in his killing were subsequently slayed in prison, and the Correa-backed candidate Luisa González was overtaken in the second round by banana-empire heir Daniel Noboa. In response, Ecuador declared Mexican ambassador Raquel Serur Smeke to be “persona non grata,” which had the convenient effect of removing her from the scene for what was to follow.

On the heels of the assault, Mexico moved its diplomatic pieces promptly. It broke diplomatic relations with Ecuador, brought suit in the International Court of Justice, and requested that Ecuador’s membership in the United Nations be suspended. Noboa’s government resorted to repeating its argument that the previously sentenced and “flight risks” were not eligible for asylum. In a suspicious extension of the “narcopresidente” smear from two months earlier, the hashtag #narcoembajadasdeAMLO (“AMLO’s narco-embassies”) began cropping up on social media, with Ecuadorian television running stories of other alleged criminals from the Correa years to whom the Mexican government has granted asylum.

But in the end, Noboa’s tough posturing failed to produce the desired outcome. In an April 21 referendum, which conservative members of Congress referenced specifically as a motivating reason for the embassy assault, voters rejected two of the president’s key initiatives: the investor-state dispute settlement system (ISDS), which would have allowed large corporations to evade national law, and a measure to undermine important labor protections by allowing per-hour contracts.

Tipping the White House’s Hand

In the days following the storming of the embassy, the international community responded in turn, with countries around the world from both the Right and the Left condemning the action. Considering how blatant Ecuador’s breach was, it constituted a pretty low bar. Nevertheless, and entirely unsurprisingly, certain countries proved themselves unable to clear it.

After a full day of radio silence from the State Department, spokesperson Matthew Miller — who has become well known in recent months for his smirkingly ghoulish spin on Palestine — came out with a statement condemning “any violation” of the Vienna Convention and paternalistically encouraging Mexico and Ecuador to resolve their differences, thus equating aggressor and victim. For its part, Canada chose a different way to hedge: by expressing deep concern at Ecuador’s “apparent” breach of the Vienna Convention before tailing off into a carbon copy of US language on resolving differences.

And there things might have remained but for another interesting move on Mexico’s part. At his press conference on April 9, AMLO screened the closed-circuit footage from the night of the embassy incursion, which laid bare the Ecuadorian police’s assault in all of its brutality. In a none-too-subtle reference to the United States, the president added: “No government does this unless it feels itself to be supported by other governments or powers.” That same day, the White House came out with a stronger statement of its own. “We have reviewed the security camera footage from the Mexican embassy and believe these actions were wrong,” said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. “The Ecuadorian government disregarded its obligations under international law as a host state to respect the inviolability of diplomatic missions and jeopardized the foundation of basic diplomatic norms and relationships.”

Not only had AMLO forced the Biden administration’s hand, but had driven a wedge — at least rhetorically — between the White House and the State Department, which continued to cling to its tepid statement from the Saturday prior.

A Strategic Beachhead

From a geopolitical standpoint, the US and Canadian attempts to downplay the Ecuadorian embassy invasion is understandable: if they were to condemn it in too clear terms, that would lead to the obvious question: Why there and not in the case of the Israeli bombing of the Damascus consulate, which killed seven?

But in a regional and economic sense, the interest is even clearer. Canada has nearly $2 billion in mining investments in Ecuador, despite stiff resistance from organizations such as the Frente Nacional Antiminero (National Anti-Mining Front) and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). In March, Noboa visited Justin Trudeau in Canada to launch talks toward a free-trade agreement between the two countries; while there, he took the opportunity to use the podium at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada to promote Ecuador as a “mining destination.”

For the United States, Ecuador is even more than a zone of resource extraction. In January, following the jail escape of an organized crime boss and the takeover of a television station in the city of Guayaquil by armed subjects, Noboa declared a state of emergency, enhancing military powers. Two weeks later, US Southern Command in the figure of General Laura Richardson showed up “to bolster Ecuador’s efforts to combat transnational criminal organizations in the wake of a recent surge in violence.” (The SouthCom leader has previously spoken covetously of Latin America’s abundant natural resources, concluding “we have a lot of work to do”). Richardson has since declared that it is only a question of time before fentanyl becomes an epidemic in Latin America: the perfect pretext to spread the “war on drugs” across the region, ideally from a strategic beachhead such as Ecuador.

As if to oblige, Noboa in mid-February ratified a pair of laws providing US forces with “privileges, exemptions, and immunities” to operate on Ecuadorian soil and territorial waters (a previous decree providing for air cooperation with the United States had previously been signed by the outgoing government of Guillermo Lasso).

The laws provide the United States with freedom of movement, the inspection-free importation any equipment or technology, the use of the radio spectrum and telecommunications frequencies, immunity from damages, and, crucially, jurisdiction over its own personnel, giving them carte blanche to act without fear of local prosecution. A humiliating cocktail of measures, in short, that represent an utter negation of Ecuador’s national sovereignty. In this context, it was not lost on anyone that, instead of staying and dealing with the fallout of the embassy invasion, the US-born Noboa quickly scuttled off for several days in his home city of Miami.

At the same time, what the United States does not want is for an affaire such as the embassy invasion to have the unintended effect of promoting a form of Latin American unity that it cannot control. In addition to international organizations, regional bodies as dissimilar as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Community of Carribbean and Latin American States (CELAC) have since added their condemnation, with a number of Latin American states taking the further step of recalling ambassadors or canceling bilateral cooperation with Ecuador. If Ecuador refuses to allow Glas to take up his asylum in Mexico, despite its own courts’ ruling that his detention was illegal and arbitrary, there could well be more of this on the horizon.

As for Mexico, it is a question not just of condemning the invasion of its embassy, but of defending a long and honorable history as a grantor of asylum. In a “rules-based order” where the so-called rules routinely subvert international law, it is a tradition well worth defending.