Ex-Ecuador president detained in COVID-19 corruption raid

FILE - In this April 27, 2005 file photo, Ecuador's former President Abdala Bucaram leaves the Foreign Ministery in Panama City, where he sought political asylum after fleeing his country amid massive protests that forced the ouster of President Lucio Gutierrez. Bucaram was detained at his home in Guayaquil, Ecuador on June 3, 2020, during a search warrant ordered by the Prosecutor's Office investigating alleged embezzlement through a contract for hospital medical supplies. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File) (Arnulfo Franco, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

QUITO – A former Ecuadorian president has been detained after authorities raided his home Wednesday and found a gun and medical supplies including masks as part of a wider investigation into corruption during the pandemic.

Prosecutors and police charged into the home of ex-President Abdalá Bucaram, 68, in Guayaquil, the coastal city that became one of the earliest cities in Latin America to see a sudden surge in COVID-19 infections.

Investigators said the raid was conducted in connection with an ongoing probe into suspected embezzlement at a large public hospital. Though no charges have been filed, Bucaram was detained after authorities found an unlicensed gun, in addition to some 5,000 masks and 2,000 coronavirus test kits.

“A lot of medical supplies were found,” chief prosecutor Diana Salazar said.

Bucaram was elected president of the small South American nation in 1996 and ousted by Congress less than six months later for “mental incapacity.” He was accused of corruption and nepotism during his brief time in office.

Throughout Latin America, multiple officials and business leaders have been charged or forced to resign amidst reports of fraudulent purchases of ventilators, masks and other equipment aimed at helping to confront the pandemic.

Prosecutors in Ecuador carried out 37 raids Wednesday in Guayaquil and the capital of Quito, detaining 17 people suspected of overcharging for supplies, influence peddling and criminal organization. Those captured include five people tied to Quito’s public water company, the ex-director of the Teodoro Maldonado Carbo Hospital in Guayaquil, and the prefect of Guayas province, which includes the port city of 2.6 million.

Salazar said her office estimates $12 million in overcharging.

Images shared by prosecutors showed investigators in black protective masks searching through documents in a room with a glass chandelier.

“Long live the homeland!” Bucaram shouted to local media as he was taken into custody, a blue medical mask drawn down around his chin.

Prosecutors have opened 45 corruption cases in Ecuador related to the acquisition of medical equipment to confront the pandemic in recent weeks. In one incident, officials were charged $150 for body bags that should cost $15.

Bucaram rose to power with the votes of Ecuador’s poor and indigenous groups and became known as “El Loco” or “The Crazy One” for his many bizarre acts. He once shaved his Charlie Chaplin-like mustache on a telethon to earn money for poor children and liked to compare himself to great world leaders who had been assassinated.

His family came to his defense Wednesday, calling the raid illegal and saying he needed the pistol because he is regularly threatened. They also said that he had rightfully purchased the masks and test kits found in his possession.

“This is an ABUSE!!!” his son, Dalo Bucaram, wrote on Twitter.

Ecuador has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with about 40,000 confirmed cases and nearly 3,500 deaths. The actual toll is likely much higher, because many people were not tested before they died with COVID-19 symptoms. Guayaquil was so inundated with cases in early April that patients were turned away from hospitals. Many died at home, where it initially took authorities upward of nearly a week to retrieve their bodies.

Authorities vowed to press forward in holding those accused of wrongdoing accountable.

“Getting rich off a tragedy and at the expense of the most needy isn’t just illegal,” Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner said. “It's despicable."