“In Galapagos a political system similar to feudalism rules,” says a former defender of the people in the islands, who denounces pressure his investigative work has received

Milton Castillo was removed from office on July 2. He questioned the investigation of a case of turtle trafficking, now he too has been questioned.

July 9, 2021 – 2:06 p.m.
Jonathan Palma
jpalma@eluniverso.com

Milton Castillo, who was removed from office on July 2. The lawyer worked as Ombudsman in Galapagos. Video conference capture.

Milton Castillo believes that his removal as delegate of the Ombudsman’s Office in Galapagos is due to pressure for the actions he undertook in his official functions to ensure human and nature rights; this includes his intervention in the most recent case of protected wildlife trafficking in which a policeman was sentenced to three years in prison, but which, according to the lawyer by profession, other lines of investigation have not been taken into account.

On July 2, 2021, he was notified by the Quipux system of the cessation of his functions [in the position] as decided the Vice Defender of the People. His position is of free removal.

How long were you in office?

Two years. From July 15, 2019 to July 2, 2021. They asked for my removal, I am currently out of that position.

How were you notified, what was the case for removal, and who made the decision?

Dr. Zaida Rovira (Vice Defender of the People who assumed the management of the institution that watches over human rights). It was through the Quipux route, the public sector computer system. The reason was that my position is of free appointment and free removal, and that it depends on the head of the institution that appointed it.

What actions were you developing in Galapagos and were pending as part of your position when you were notified?

Last week, on Thursday, July 1 or June 30, the judge of the Multicompetent Unit of Santa Cruz issued the sentence in writing in the case of the turtles that were trafficked and found at the Baltra airport on 26 March of this year. In that process I went on behalf of nature by express faculty of article 30 of the Cogep (General Organic Code of Processes) and tried to be the private accuser of the issue; the Galapagos National Park opposed my being the private accuser. I said there was a conflict of interest in the park. Because the main custodian of the species is the park and the primary person responsible for the trafficking of species by action or by omission.

So I asked to be the private prosecutor. In addition, I questioned the actions of the Prosecutor’s Office in that process because it used a procedure that was not the best for this issue. From a procedural point of view, it could have used an ordinary procedure, that is, a longer time to provide all the necessary evidence, but the prosecutor in the case, who is the same prosecutor who knows the issue of the disappeared plane in Isabela, considered that they should go through a direct procedure because there was a flagrante delicto and when there is flagrante delicto the next line they have to go to a direct procedure.

She was the one who chose that procedure. Legal attribution has. She chooses which procedure to use. So, I questioned that this direct procedure, which has only 20 days for the fiscal investigation, was very short, because from the investigative point of view, several expert opinions were needed. For example, one that is momentous. The former Minister of the Environment, when the turtles were discovered at the airport, issued several tweets, the former Minister (Marcelo) Mata. In those tweets, he says that the turtles could not have left the breeding centers, but were taken from the wild.

So I assumed that the Galapagos National Park was going to act under that line of investigation, under that theory of the case: demonstrate that they came out of the wild and therefore had to do some expert reports, but they did not ask. I had to ask.

Were they granted?

They did not grant them to me. These expert reports last a long time. The expertise that I requested is an accounting expertise of the turtle breeding centers, so that it can be seen from the last three years how the birth of individuals has been.

If you have a center where turtles are born, raised, etc., we wanted them to tell us how many were born in 2018, 2019, 2020 and what was in 2021, but they did not present that, they only presented a report, by the managers of the breeding centers, from what was from 2020 to March 2021 and they said those are the turtles there are. And that was the argument to rule out then that they disappeared from the breeding centers. I rebuked the prosecutor for that and asked two things: that they consider me as a private accuser and that they change the ordinary procedure, so that more time is given to the investigation. And what the park said is that I had an insolent attitude and that I cannot be the private accuser because they are the only exclusive defenders of nature within the Special Regime of Galapagos and the judge agreed with them.

What other lines of investigation could be addressed?

Within the trial hearing we have discovered that there were other people too; there was other news the day they found the turtles that was reported by an employee of the Ecogal company, who had detected in the suitcase of another passenger, a suitcase with the same physical characteristics to the suitcase that was with the turtles and warns of that suitcase to a park official. 

And between the park official and this Ecogal employee, they asked the airline to get the owner of that suitcase off the plane and, when getting [the passenger] off the plane, they take pictures of her, her identification card, the suitcase, herself and the contents of the suitcases. The suitcases had little bags, gloves and caps embroidered with the Galapagos National Park logo and she replied that it was for a relative. 

This person should have been called for investigation and was not called. So, during the trial, I asked both the Ecogal employee and the park official in greater depth to tell us about the issue and the park official said: Yes, I do know this girl, I don’t remember the name. I have the photos on my cell phone and I know that this girl is the daughter of Mr. So-and-so (which is in the file and has to be investigated) and this man owns land; or apparently that’s what he said. And what the population knows is that indeed the man owns land and ranches where there are turtles. Ranches that you can visit to enjoy the beauty of these protected animals. 

It was evident that this fact should draw the attention of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the park so that it is also investigated, but they did not. The Ombudsman’s Office demanded that he do so and asked the judge to initiate an investigation against all those who have omitted this line of investigation.

What would that have contributed?

Instead of being a rich debate to meet all those who helped the policeman who is on trial (on May 18, a judge sentenced the policeman involved in the case of trafficking of protected species in Galapagos to three years in prison), it wasn’t done; that is, there are other people in the Prosecutor’s Office if it began to investigate and I understand that it has initiated an investigative file, but they have not notified me. (Those people) were supposedly visiting the policeman. I myself also asked the prosecutor to investigate them and gave her details of a person who was known by the alias of Pokémon, who was permanently visiting the defendant.

So they started investigations against this other man. If the case that I mention the owner of that suitcase has nothing to do with the matter, it should be ruled out in the investigative process, but why was it ruled out prima facie (at first glance). That I have denounced. And that has generated all the animosities against me. I am very concerned, I understand that the Prosecutor’s Office is very interested in having me removed from the province of Galapagos for these things.

# ATTENTION | # Galapagos : based on the evidence presented by # FiscalíaEc , the police officer Nixon PD was sentenced to 3 years in prison and to the payment of 10,000 dollars as comprehensive reparation for the crime against flora and fauna in the Santa Cruz canton. # FiscalíaContraElDelito pic.twitter.com/H4lVonJeWL

Ecuador Prosecutor’s Office (@FiscaliaEcuador) May 19, 2021

Why do you think this is so? Is it just about this topic?

On January 1, 2020, there was a flagrante delicto hearing for an alleged crime of sexual abuse in San Cristóbal. The relatives of the detainee, the alleged aggressor, who was detained only by the police without a legal arrest warrant, went to the Ombudsman’s Office to tell me that their relative was detained. I went looking for the victim first to make sure. I didn’t find her, I didn’t have access to the victim. It was on December 31 that they told me this and the lawyer and the relatives of the detainee asked me to be present at the hearing for the formulation of charges. I went to the indictment hearing and there was neither a prosecutor nor a judge. They had left the province and within the judicial unit the citizen was being processed by telephone from Cuenca.

I informed the Office of the Ombudsman, the Office of the Ombudsman institutionally filed a habeas corpus and the National Court of Justice agreed with us and said that judging reason and the right by phone, and that judicial officials who they did that. The Constitutional Court then selected that sentence for its jurisprudence: the Constitutional Court saying that what happened in Galapagos is relevant because the processing systems must be improved and that it is incredible, more words, fewer words, that a person has been prosecuted for via telephone.

This happened on January 1 and on January 2, this same prosecutor who tried by phone led to an investigation against me for the alleged crime of influence peddling that I would have committed. In what circumstances? On one occasion, some citizens of Santa Cruz denounced me, as well as many others, that the Santa Cruz notary charges fees on the values ​​allowed by the Judicial Council.

So I went with the injured to the notary’s office and asked the notary for an explanation of why he charges what he is charging, because I have the power to do so as an ombudsman, it is called informal management, which is in article 6 of the law. Do you know what happened? That this man filed a complaint with me for alleged influence peddling. Then, the prosecutor activated this and, in parallel, both the prosecutor and those who defended the judge – who tried by telephone – persuade the alleged victim of this sexual abuse to put measures of protection against me as an ombudsman. protection, saying that in the hearing she felt psychologically violated by the ombudsman. And they put some protection measures before the Cantonal Board for the Protection of Rights of San Cristóbal, which were granted.

And the judge of San Cristóbal, who is now suspended for three months because she released the defendants on a drug issue, that same judge considered that I was a psychological assailant of a victim for having intervened as a delegate in this due process and ratified measures. Three times I have asked that judge to review those measures and she has refused to review those measures, until I had to appeal her and she is challenged. This is what happens inside the Galapagos. And so today I am seeing documents that come from the Prosecutor’s Office of all these things that would be the reasons why they are telling me that I should not continue to be the ombudsman in Galapagos.

But it does not matter, I am going to defend myself in whatever scenario, rather what I ask is that the Prosecutor’s Office continue to deepen the investigations if it believes that there is a crime of that, I have no problem.

You say that the Prosecutor’s Office is interested in having you taken out of the Galapagos. How do you support it, do you fear that you will be expelled from the islands?

This issue has also been a reason for interpellation on my part, the Galapagos migratory system must be investigated in depth because in many cases it has ended up being a tool of persecution before people who work honestly and who are expelled. In fact, the Ombudsman’s Office already took away my status as a temporary resident and I am filing today (July 7) a protection action to ask a judge to protect me, because I should change my immigration status to tourist in order to continue within the islands, because the institution no longer sponsors me.

When Zaida Rovira decides to take me out, he completely tramples my rights and puts me in a situation in which I can be expelled from Galapagos because being a tourist prevents you from doing an economic activity, you cannot do an economic activity. And I am a lawyer who lives by his profession and I have lived on my salary honestly. I have a moral and legal obligation to earn every penny, and since I value every penny I earn, then I do my job with the same passion and responsibility.

What are your plans on the islands?

Look, I’m going to be here as long as necessary to defend myself and I’m also going to use all the legal arguments to stay here, because I made a life project when I was appointed delegate. If I have, as in fact there have already been, some insinuations that I have not yet accepted about working for an institution or company, I will. There are groups of environmentalists who support me, who are asking why they are attacking me as a defender of nature. People appreciate me and I plan to continue working here with my head held high.

And if things start to get uncomfortable or risky, I will ask for the protection of the Police and I will have to speak with the President of the Republic so that he knows what is really happening in Galapagos, because there is an issue that catches my attention. The new Minister of the Environment ratified the same director of the park. And the previous Minister of the Environment had asked the Ombudsman’s Office to remove me from my position, regarding all these issues that I have started to investigate. Dr. Mata asked that I be removed from my position and the new minister, who has had nothing against me, and who indicates that there is going to be a renewed activity in Galapagos, even though he knows the subject of turtles and all the dark side of the subject, he continues maintaining the gentleman director of the park.

Well, all I ask is that an in-depth investigation be carried out, that the issue of this trial of the turtles be put into the national debate. If it is that the ombudsman has to go to jail – I mean myself – for having questioned the honorability of park officials, I will go, I have no problem with that; but please let us investigate.

Baby turtles, taken from # Galapagos islands by sea to Piura ► https://t.co/rgVsFHrQEU pic.twitter.com/C4lamGAXPY– The Universe (@eluniversocom) 

September 17, 2019

Cases of species trafficking have been recurrent in Galapagos. In 2017, 2018 and now in 2021. THE UNIVERSE revealed one of the species trafficking routes: Galapagos-Guayaquil-Piura-Lima, managed by a Chinese citizen in complicity with several fishermen, according to a source; and a finding of two turtles in a garbage can at the Guayaquil airport that was not reported by the authorities on duty from the Ministry of the Environment.

Galapagos is also in the crosshairs of people who would be benefiting from bycatch and the huge Chinese fleet.

For example, on the presence of Chinese ships in Galapagos, on this issue, the Ombudsman’s Office also spoke out. In fact, before the Chinese ships arrived, I already foresaw what had to be done. In July of the previous year, the Defensoría, this defender was the only public official who did something legal for the presence of Chinese ships.

The action that we did was to put before the Prosecutor’s Office the request for an urgent act, which consists of requesting that the Prosecutor’s Office go with the National Navy, with experts on the subject and protected by the Comprehensive Penal Code, the New York Convention, the Convemar (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), to inspect the holds of Chinese ships, because there is a precedent of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng, of 2017, whose crew was prosecuted because it was found in the marine reserve holding hammerhead sharks with the rest of its catch, and they were prosecuted for the crime of affecting the flora and fauna.

So, protected species, animals, nature are subjects of law, according to the Constitution and we have to enforce that constitutional principle, anchored to these other norms, such as international conventions and local criminal legislation. We have to intervene because we have the right to inspect each and every Chinese ship. They cannot refuse because the treaties also protect the species. And then each ship can be investigated, but they have not done so.

In this year, what we suggest is that they act by applying the New York Convention, making this a diplomatic issue and, if necessary, and if there is not enough clarity, they can with the Prosecutor’s Office, with the Foreign Ministry, with the Navy inspect the Chinese ships.

Despite being in international waters?

[Yes] even though they are in international waters because there is a principle: the rights of nature do not recognize borders. I legally maintain that Ecuador has protective legislation that considers nature a subject of law, protected species that do not recognize borders must have the nationality of the country that protects them. The fact that they are in international waters does not mean that they are not subjects of law, that they should not be protected, because for that there are international conventions also for the protection of these species. Then, the principle of extraterritoriality is applicable, protected by another principle, that of the universality of the rights of nature. Everything is a matter of political will because the rules do exist.

What could be implemented to strengthen that control and give a greater presence of the State in the islands in the field of justice, for example?

Galapagos should have an environmental prosecutor’s office, there should be a small legal reform or a regulation where when an environmental crime is known, the Attorney General, the Galapagos National Park and the Ombudsman’s Office are informed to intervene. So there are more eyes; when there are more eyes, there can be less corruption, that’s what I think.

Those extra eyes could help combat potential cases of impunity.

I have said that the opposite of democracy is not tyranny, the opposite of democracy is impunity. That is what we have been used to here in Galapagos, for the civil servants to be short-term and if there is an official who bothers the power structure, they leave. Because in Galapagos there is a very weak democracy, the political structure more similar to what happens in Galapagos is feudalism than democracy (…). Democracy must be strengthened, because with weak democracy, impunity is greater. (I)

Read the original coverage from El Universo at https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/ecuador/en-galapagos-rige-un-sistema-politico-parecido-al-feudalismo-afirma-exdefensor-del-pueblo-en-las-islas-quien-denuncia-presiones-por-su-labor-investigativa-nota/


Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
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