“@PoliciaEcuador arrested Leonidas I. in Pastocalle, Cotopaxi province, for alleged crimes,” Ecuadorian police tweeted on Tuesday without specifying the nature of these crimes.

The area of ​​Pastocalle, about twenty kilometers south of Quito, is one of the hotspots of protests by the indigenous movement against rising fuel prices and the cost of living.

The indigenous leader “is in police custody in order to go to a flagrante hearing”, said the police who were deployed around the court in Quito.

Leonidas Iza is the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), the largest organization of indigenous peoples, which has been the source of popular protests for several weeks.

It confirmed the “illegal” arrest of its leader and called in response to a “radicalization” of the demonstrations.

“Elite police and army groups illegally arrest Leonidas Iza, President of Conaie. We call on our organization to radicalize its actions to secure the release of our leader,” La Conaie said on Twitter.

Mr. Iza, a 39-year-old agricultural engineer, has been elected head of Conaie since June 2021. A Kichwa-Panzaleo native, he is from the province of Cotopaxi and the former president of the “Indigenous and Peasant Movement” of this same province.

Charismatic, with often fiery speeches, he always wears a black felt hat and a red poncho, characteristic of his community.

The organization led violent protests in October 2019 (eleven deaths) and participated in the uprisings that overthrew three presidents between 1997 and 2005.

The natives are about one million in Ecuador, out of 17.7 million inhabitants.

– “A few vandals” –

In power for a year, President Guillermo Lasso has warned for the past two days that he will not authorize the blocking of roads or the occupation of oil wells located in the Amazon jungle where demonstrations are also taking place.

In an intervention published overnight on Twitter, he justified the arrests in response to “acts of vandalism prohibited by law and the Constitution”.

“The burning of police vehicles, the invasion of farms, the attack on an oil installation, the rupture of water supplies in communities (…)”, detailed Mr. Lasso .

“Their intellectual and material authors must answer for these violent acts before the law (…) they have been arrested. It is now up to the Prosecutor and to justice to do their job. Ecuadorians cannot be the victims of a few vandals which only aim to cause chaos”, concluded the head of state.

Monday evening, the authorities had not yet reported any violence, speaking of a “situation completely under control” and a weak mobilization of nearly 4,000 protesters, spread over makeshift roadblocks concentrated in Pichincha (around Quito) and in the neighboring provinces of Cotopaxi (south) and Imbabura (north).

“The government is wrong in its control strategy” of the protest movement, commented on Twitter a local human rights NGO, Inredh.

“The detention of President de la Conaie will provoke greater outrage and could lead to a wave of violence,” the organization warned.

The powerful Conaie is protesting against the rise in fuel prices but also against the lack of jobs, for a control of the prices of agricultural products, and against the granting of mining concessions in indigenous territories. It also demands a renegotiation of farmers’ debts with banks and a one-year moratorium on their repayment.

Since 2020, the price of a gallon (3.78 liters) of diesel has almost doubled, from $1 to $1.90, and that of gasoline has increased by 46%, from $1.75 to $2.55 .

La Conaie, which has held several dialogues with the government, is asking for a drop in prices to $1.50 for diesel and $2.10 for gasoline.