IN 1984 Julio César Trujillo ran for president in Ecuador. He did not do well, winning less than 5% of the vote. Now, as head of the Citizens’ Participation and Social Control Council (CPCCS), Mr Trujillo holds a job that makes him almost as powerful as the country’s current president, Lenín Moreno. “I don’t know whether to thank God for not having won the presidency because I would have ended up just being one of those many presidents Ecuador has had,” says the 87-year-old lawyer. From an office in Quito decorated with an Amazonian spear, two machetes and a rope whip with opossum-shaped handle, he has led a purge of officials appointed by Ecuador’s leftist former president, Rafael Correa, who governed for ten years until 2017 and now lives in Belgium. Mr Trujillo sees the work as restoring democratic institutions that Mr Correa had weakened. “Where I’ve seen rights and liberties under threat, I’ve offered to help,” he says.
Mr Correa created the CPCCS in 2008 to consolidate his influence over those institutions. Formally, its members were appointed by the electoral council, which he controlled. Among the bodies whose leaders the CPCCS had the power to choose were the electoral council itself, the banking supervisor, the attorney-general, the ombudsman and the judicial council, which in turn sacked independent-minded judges and appointed ones who would do the president’s bidding. Mr Moreno and Mr Correa were allies, but the two fell out last year after Mr Moreno’s vice-president, Jorge Glas, a protégé of Mr Correa, was accused and then convicted of accepting bribes from Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm. Mr Moreno held a referendum in February this year in which voters reinstated presidential term limits and authorised congress to appoint a new CPCCS.
In nominating Mr Trujillo to be its chief, Mr Moreno sought to give the revamped council credibility that the old one lacked. Mr Trujillo began his political career as a conservative, but became a gadfly of the establishment through his work with environmental and social movements. He advised Yasunidos, a grassroots movement which in 2014 collected 750,000 signatures to hold a referendum to stop oil development in a rainforest. The electoral council and constitutional court blocked the vote. Without Mr Trujillo, the new CPCCS would have “lacked the moral capacity to cut Gordian knots”, says León Roldós, a former Ecuadorean vice-president. Congress confirmed the choice.
Mr Trujillo’s task has been to reverse the work of Mr Correa’s CPCCS. In its new incarnation, the CPCCS has replaced the five members of the judicial council with supporters of judicial independence. Marcelo Merlo, a respected former government auditor, has succeeded Gustavo Jalkh, Mr Correa’s man, as the council’s chief. Carlos Ochoa, who as the “communications superintendent” sought to muzzle the media, has been removed from that job. Congress is discussing a law that would abolish it.
The CPCCS has sacked the five members of the electoral council; four were correistas. Its new chief, Gustavo Vega, is a non-partisan academic, though some observers grumble that he and his colleagues lack expertise in elections. The CPCCS showed its independence from Mr Moreno by rejecting his first batch of three candidates to head the competition authority, saying they had conflicts of interest.
On August 23rd Mr Trujillo’s council made its boldest decision yet, voting to remove the nine constitutional-court judges, three of whom are being investigated for money-laundering. This is contentious, even among people who support his house-cleaning. The referendum did not include the constitutional court among the bodies that fall under the purview of the CPCCS, points out Mauricio Alarcón, a human-rights lawyer. Mr Trujillo retorts that the referendum gave the council “extraordinary” powers to remove officials who obeyed Mr Correa rather than the law.
Mr Trujillo will be vindicated if the new officials act with the independence that Ecuadoreans expect. Early signs are promising. The new ombudswoman, Gina Benavides, challenged successfully in court the government’s decision to require Venezuelans fleeing their crisis-ridden country to carry passports, a measure designed to restrict their entry to Ecuador. Courts and prosecutors are pursuing alleged wrongdoing by members of the former government, including Mr Correa, who is being investigated in connection with the kidnapping of an opposition politician.
The real test will come when today’s office-holders commit crimes that require prosecution. The CPCCS will remain powerful, perhaps too powerful. Starting next year its members will be elected, which is better than the former way of choosing them. But candidates may not campaign, so voters will know little about them. Mr Trujillo thinks the CPCCS should dissolve once Ecuador has consolidated its democracy. He hopes to retire at the end of his term next year. But he’ll be back, he says, if “I have to confront abuses of power”.