Byron Guatatuca, a member of the Kichwa community from San Jacinto, Puyo, a town in the Ecuadorian Amazon, was killed in a police operation while participating in a peaceful demonstration that was part of a national indigenous strike called by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. On the night of 21 June 2022, the Ecuadorian national police and military began to clear roads blocked by the demonstrators. Security forces fired tear gas canisters, causing panic and choking among the crowd, including elderly people, women, and children. A tear gas canister fired from close range hit Guatatuca in the face, fractured his skull, and entered his brain, causing his death. He was shot from the front and at a short range. The impact from the canister had a grave effect on the cerebral region, which produced a haemorrhage, loss of consciousness and, ultimately, his death.
Videos posted on social media and local news show clouds of tear gas, choking and running civilians, and chaos. Guatatuca is seen as he is hit by a tear gas canister and falls to the ground, smoke pouring from his head. Mia Sonovision, a local media outlet, interviewed a demonstrator who was standing next to Guatatuca, who stated: “The boy was killed when he got shot from the front. He was next to me. I tried to take the canister out of his eye.” The witness then showed his arm, stained with Byron’s blood.
The police issued a statement arguing that Guatatuca died from “handling an explosive device,” an account that was later supported by the Ministry of the Interior. However, shortly thereafter, images of the CT scans performed on Guatatuca at the Puyo Regional Hospital were posted on social media, showing a tear gas canister lodged in his skull. This evidence not only undermined the official account but showed that it was a deliberate falsification. The veracity of the medical studies was confirmed by the director of the Puyo Hospital.
The attack on Guatatuca represents an excessive and illegal use of force and led to a request for the State Attorney General’s Office to open a criminal investigation. The Attorney General’s Office of Pastaza Province involved more than 80 police officers in the preliminary investigation but has not yet made progress on key elements such as the list of officers who were carrying weapons capable of firing tear gas canisters.
According to Jessika Delgado–the local lawyer who is leading the case alongside the Regional Human Rights Advisory Foundation (INREDH) –the attorney general’s office seems to be deliberately delaying the investigation. Two months have elapsed and only six statements have been taken, none of which came from officers who admitted to being at the scene. Byron Guatatuca was 42 years old and had four children. His family and several organizations continue to demand a thorough investigation to determine criminal liability and the chain of command and to hold those responsible accountable for the use of force, including the use of so-called “less-lethal weapons.” Guatatuca’s case makes clear that tear gas canisters can cause serious injury and even death, depending on how they are fired. Accordingly, they require far greater regulation and scrutiny than they currently receive.