From Nasty Insults to an Embassy Raid: Latin American Relations Get Personal

Ecuador was once famous for sheltering a man on the lam: For seven years it allowed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to hole up in its embassy in London, invoking an international treaty that makes diplomatic premises places of refuge.

Then, last week, the South American nation appeared to tear that treaty to shreds, sending the police into the Mexican Embassy in Quito — over Mexico’s protests — where they arrested a former vice president accused of corruption.

President Daniel Noboa of Ecuador defended the decision to detain the former vice president, Jorge Glas, calling him a criminal and citing the country’s growing security crisis to justify the move.

But his critics said it one of the most egregious violations of the treaty since its creation in 1961. They saw a more personal motive: Mr. Noboa’s political agenda.

Ecuador has been engulfed in record levels of violence, and Mr. Noboa, a young center-right leader, is eager to look tough on crime. He is just days away from a national referendum that, if approved, would give him sweeping new powers to tackle insecurity — and potentially help him get re-elected next year.

Mr. Noboa characterized the embassy raid and arrest of Mr. Glas as a way to show Ecuador that he is working hard to go after accused criminals.

But, several analysts say, his government’s decision to forcibly enter the embassy is among the most flagrant examples of a dynamic that has become all-too-familiar around the world, with Latin America being no exception: foreign policy driven less by lofty principles or national interest, and more by the personal aims of leaders hoping to preserve their own political future.

“Foreign policy has never been pure, it’s often been motivated by domestic or individual political interests,” said Dan Restrepo, who served as President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Latin America. “But in the Americas there certainly has been an intensification of the personal in recent years.”

Across the region, the diplomatic rhetoric has deteriorated, with presidents lashing out at one another with a barrage of insults that may appear petty on the world stage but have the potential to play well at home, particularly with their ideological bases.

President Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s left-wing leader, has clashed since last year with El Salvador’s right-wing president, Nayib Bukele. Mr. Petro accused Mr. Bukele of running prisons as “concentration camps,” and Mr. Bukele spotlighted corruption allegations against Mr. Petro’s son.

“Everything ok at home?” Mr. Bukele wrote tauntingly on the platform X.

Argentina’s right-wing president, Javier Milei, has sparred with Mr. Petro, whom he recently called a “murderous terrorist,” leading Mr. Petro to expel Argentine diplomats. (He later reinstated them.)

Mr. Milei has also tussled with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, calling him an “ignoramus” and once referring to his supporters as members of the “small penis club.” Mr. López Obrador in turn has labeled Mr. Milei an “ultraconservative fascist.”

The dispute between Mexico and Ecuador first emerged in December, when the Mexican Embassy in Ecuador allowed Mr. Glas to stay there after being welcomed “as a guest,’’ Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said.

Mr. López Obrador then incurred Ecuador’s wrath when he publicly questioned the legitimacy of its presidential election, leading Mr. Noboa’s government to expel the Mexican ambassador. It was the third time a Latin American country had expelled a Mexican ambassador since Mr. López Obrador took office in 2018.

The spat continued to escalate, until finally the police raided the embassy and arrested Mr. Glas last week.

At his daily news conference on Tuesday, Mr. López Obrador called the embassy arrest in Ecuador “a violation not just of the sovereignty of our country, but of international law.” (Ecuador’s action has been broadly condemned, including by the United States, the Organization of American States and countries across Latin America.)

Mexico has a long history of offering dissidents refuge. But the government did not offer much clarity on why it eventually granted Mr. Glas asylum, prompting critics to question whether Mexico’s president, a longtime standard-bearer of the country’s left, was simply trying to protect an ideological ally. Mr. Glas served in a leftist administration.

“What is the national interest being served here in terms of Ecuador’s or Mexico’s position in the world? That’s a question no one has an answer for, because there is none,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst based in Mexico City. “There’s the personal or ideological reasons of the leaders, and that’s it.”

Ecuador’s arrest of Mr. Glas seemed a stark departure from its own willingness to harbor Mr. Assange in its embassy in London for so long.

Mr. Assange is accused of violating the U.S. Espionage Act with WikiLeaks’ publication of classified military and diplomatic documents.

He was allowed into Ecuador’s Embassy by its president at the time, Rafael Correa, a leftist who had an antagonistic relationship with the United States.

But then President Lenin Moreno took office in Ecuador, and he sought to distance himself from Mr. Correa and build warmer relations with the United States. It was Mr. Moreno’s government that permitted Mr. Assange’s eventual arrest.

The WikiLeaks founder remains in British custody and is fighting extradition to the United States.

Mr. Glas served as vice president under Mr. Correa, who in 2020 was convicted on corruption charges and has escaped prison by living abroad. Mr. López Obrador recently praised Mr. Correa for his “very good government.”

(Following Mr. Glas’ transfer to a detention center, authorities in Ecuador said on Monday that they found him in a coma. On Tuesday, the prison authority announced that his condition had improved and he was returned to jail.)

Mr. López Obrador has generally prioritized domestic politics, traveling abroad infrequently and focusing instead on big infrastructure projects and social programs at home.

Much of Mr. López Obrador’s outward attention has been consumed by his relationship with the United States, in which he has gained significant leverage because of his role in managing the migration crisis.

Yet Mr. López Obrador has also been a vocal defender of governments associated with the left across the region. In 2022, he snubbed the Biden administration by refusing to attend a summit hosted by the United States because it excluded Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

In a dramatic episode, Mr. López Obrador’s government sent a military plane to bring the former Bolivian president Evo Morales to Mexico City in 2019.

Mexico also gave refuge to allies of Mr. Morales in its diplomatic premises in Bolivia’s capital — prompting the country to expel Mexico’s ambassador.

Then in late 2022, Mexico granted asylum to the family of Peru’s ousted leftist president, Pedro Castillo, who was in jail following an attempt to dissolve congress. Peru responded by kicking out the Mexican ambassador.

Mr. López Obrador later insisted that Mr. Castillo was Peru’s “legal and legitimate president,” and accused the country’s government of “racism” for jailing Mr. Castillo.

The provocative comments, experts said, were part of a pattern. While Mr. López Obrador has said the pillar of his foreign policy is not interfering in other country’s domestic affairs — and expecting others to treat Mexico the same — he’s been unafraid to voice his own views of some of his neighbors’ internal politics.

“It’s surprising that a president who says the principle of nonintervention guides Mexico’s foreign policy opines on the internal political affairs of these two countries without justification,” said Natalia Saltalamacchia, the head of international studies at the Technological Autonomous Institute of Mexico, referring to Peru and Ecuador.

The diplomatic spats have the potential to have real-world effects at a moment when tackling some of the region’s biggest issues — migration, climate change and transnational crime — requires regional cooperation.

In Ecuador, the police say that Mexico’s most powerful cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation, are financing a ballooning narco-trafficking industry that has fueled violence and death.

If Mr. Noboa’s government “really wanted to confront organized crime,” said Agustín Burbano de Lara, an Ecuadorean political analyst, “what we should have is a closer collaboration with Mexico, not this diplomatic impasse with Mexico.”

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