On April 20, 2005, a nonviolent movement known as los forajidos forced president Lucio Gutiérrez out of office in Ecuador. Several events culminated the previous year, triggering the pro-democracy mobilization. Gutiérrez took inflammatory actions to consolidate his party’s power through the courts, and several corruption and embezzlement scandals left thousands of unarmed Ecuadorians with no choice but to pressure Gutiérrez to leave office.
A decade later, in February 2016, Bolivian president Evo Morales ordered a referendum to evade the constitutional norm that restricted him from running for a fourth term. With 51 percent of votes not going his way, the referendum did not pass. Yet the constitutional court still allowed him to participate in the next elections, which came at the end of last year. On October 24, 2019, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared him as winner of the first ballot. As a result, thousands of Bolivians accused him of electoral fraud and of disdaining OAS’s recommendation to carry out a second ballot to resolve the dispute. When first the police and then the military backed the protests, Morales decided to flee the country in November 2019, adding a new twist to a political conflict that continues today.
In both cases, these presidents were unable to complete their terms because of growing waves of civil resistance, but also one decisive factor in particular: military defections. This blog post analyzes military defections in a way that hopefully other civil resistance movements worldwide may distill some insights.
In their analysis of 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns between 1900 and 2006, Chenoweth and Stephan found that nonviolent movements have a 46 percent higher chance of succeeding if they obtain military support. They also found that the largest nonviolent campaigns had a 60 percent higher chance of producing security force defections. With this general picture in mind, why did defections happen in Ecuador and Bolivia in particular? We group the possible causes around three main points.
Unity and cohesion within the police and military forces are disrupted when movements’ actions are essentially nonviolent. Since the “enemies” of those in uniform are not using violence, the conflict becomes asymmetric—police and military wield their arms against peaceful and seemingly defenseless people. This asymmetry appeals to human emotion, causing some in uniform to defect from the side which they now perceive as unjust. What is known as the “backfire effect”—or when outcomes undercut the perpetrator’s original intentions—accounts for these loyalty shifts (see here for more information).
During the April 2005 confrontation in Ecuador, Gutiérrez declared a state of emergency on national television in the absence of head general Luis Aguas. His absence was a clear sign of the divisions among military forces. The next day, thousands of Quito residents understood the message and rode bicycles as a sign of protest, without any intervention from the army.
During the 2019 conflict in Bolivia, insubordinate police officers explicitly joined nonviolent movements: “…They cannot buy us, our unity has no price,” said a female sergeant in defense of the mutiny.
In both cases, each one with their own characteristics, nonviolent resisters confronted the police and military forces with a dilemma, because they knew the latter’s unity was frail. Although some head commanders were removed from their positions, withdrawal of support from these presidents was by and large due to social pressure coming from both the streets and from within headquarters.
Since its return to democracy in 1979, Ecuador forces have enjoyed high levels of acceptance and respect among the population. However, the 2005 conflict tarnished their image for a period of time, as indicated by poll results (see here and here). Obeying the president’s orders to repress nonviolent movements with tear gas diminished policy and military forces’ legitimacy that year.
In Bolivia, head military officers feared losing legitimacy during the November 2019 events. This fear was exacerbated by judiciary consequences for military officers that followed their violent repression of nonviolent activists in October 2003 (see below). Between 2002 and 2003, Latinobarómetro surveys showed a sudden increase in public distrust of the military institution (from 63 to 78 percent). Although the army recovered people’s trust later, LAPOP surveys show that people lost trust in the military again during Evo Morales’ second presidential term (2010-2014).
In both countries, the militaries faced the predicament of supporting either the decisions of the elected president or the constitutional mandate. In both cases, they chose according to their institutional interest in order to maintain popular support.
Police and military in both countries knew that human rights violations could mean possible trials and even imprisonment for several years. In Ecuador in 2005, they carried a special status whereby a military court would decide such cases instead of a civil one. However, the experience of Chilean and Argentine militaries—where this was also the case, but officials were still prosecuted years later—made them think twice (according to author interviews with three army generals and two army colonels in 2017 and 2018).
In the Bolivian case, repression in February and October 2003 did not prevent then-president Sánchez de Lozada’s term from being interrupted. Still, some ministers were prosecuted and sentenced to up to three years of prison, while ex-commanders of the military were given sentences as lengthy as 15 years. This brought shame to their institution.
Without a doubt, this was one of the main reasons why the military decided to withdraw their support from Morales’ presidency in 2019. On November 14, after Morales left Bolivia, the interim president Jeanine Añez issued a decree temporarily pardoning the military for criminal responsibilities while in the duty of restoring internal order. With this formal support, the institution did not hesitate to act, despite being the subject of national and international critique.
It is important to reflect on the possible consequences for the military and police of these countries when they decide to withdraw their support from the president. In both cases, officers encountered no negative consequences for their decision to defect. In Ecuador both police and military had a special safeguarding status and felt shielded, because no personal or institutional consequences resulted from past officers’ decisions to withdraw support from the president (for example against Abdalá Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad). In the Bolivian case, rumors spread that the military had staged a coup d’état—a claim that led to an inconclusive, infructuous public debate that only ended up downplaying the relevance of nonviolent popular resistance against Morales’ re-election.
Military defections may occur more frequently and in more varied ways than we think. In both countries, police and military forces aimed first at defending their institutional interests, constitutional missions, and acquired privileges. The unconstitutional acts of governments on the one hand, and on the other, ordinary people’s nonviolent discipline as they continued demanding respect for the rule of law, confronted officers with a dilemma—and in the end, officers decided to defend the constitution instead of the ruling government.
María Belén Garrido is a research lecturer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, a researcher at FLACSO, Ecuador, and a Ph.D. student at the Catholic University of Eichstätt/Ingolstadt. Her main expertise is in peace and conflict studies.Read More
Theo Roncken is a Dutch community psychologist with on-the-ground experience in Bolivia (1993-2019) and Nicaragua (1985-1991). He developed community-based psychosocial support for traumatized children and conducted action research with a variety of local stakeholders and a focus on social justice.Read More