Jaime Roldós Aguilera

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Jaime Roldós Aguilera
Roldos aguilera.png
33rd President of Ecuador
In office
August 10, 1979 – May 24, 1981
Vice PresidentOsvaldo Hurtado Larrea (1979–1981)
Preceded byAlfredo Poveda
Succeeded byOsvaldo Hurtado Larrea
Personal details
BornNovember 5, 1940
Guayaquil, Ecuador
DiedMay 24, 1981(1981-05-24) (aged 40)
Huairapungo Mountain, Celica Canton, Loja Province, Ecuador
Cause of deathPlane crash
Political partyConcentration of People's Forces
Martha Bucaram
(m. 1962; died 1981)
Alma materUniversity of Guayaquil

Jaime Roldós Aguilera (November 5, 1940 – May 24, 1981) was 33rd President of Ecuador from August 10, 1979 until his death on May 24, 1981. In his short tenure, he became known for his firm stance on human rights.

Early life and career[edit]

Roldós was born in Guayaquil on November 5, 1940. He attended high school at the Vicente Rocafuerte National School. He studied law and social sciences at the University of Guayaquil. He was an excellent student and won many awards, medals and scholarships.

At the age of 37, he ran for president on a populist platform. In the first round, he received the greatest number of votes, but not the 50% plus one needed to avoid a runoff.[1]

In December 1978, during the nine-month interval between the first and second rounds of the election, an alleged plot to assassinate him, supposedly by eight Americans (who were later charged with archeologic relics trafficking) was reportedly foiled by the military government.[2]

He won the second round of elections against Sixto Durán Ballén, and assumed office on August 10, 1979 in a ceremony attended by several world dignataries, among them American Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (with First Lady Rosalynn Carter accompanying) and Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez.[3]

Presidency (1979–1981)[edit]

On October 10, 1979, Roldós signed a decree reducing the workweek to 42 hours. On November 2, 1979, he issued another decree doubling the minimum wage, to 4,000 sucres per month. ($160 in 1979 US dollars). On March 8, 1980, he established the National Development Plan. On April 15, 1980, he established a committee of notables to search for a solution for the power struggle in the National Congress, presided over by his former mentor Assad Bucaram.

He named 1981 the "year of advances". In late January and early February 1981, there were border skirmishes with Peru, in the Cordillera del Cóndor. Clashes occurred in the regions of Paquisha, Mayaycu, and Machinatza. With great skill and diplomacy he left the territorial dispute to the arbitration by the Organization of American States.

Roldós's most important accomplishment was his policy in support of human rights, in an era in which most Latin American countries were military dictatorships. In September 1980, Roldós met with the democratically elected presidents of the Andean region (Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru), proposed the signing of a Charter of Conduct, in which the principles of universal justice and human rights were re-affirmed, signaling protection of human rights as a more important principle than non-intervention. His stance on human-rights led him to clash with fellow Latin American leaders: in one instance at a summit in Colombia, El Salvador’s José Napoleón Duarte (US-backed dictator who came to power with the coup that set off the Salvadoran Civil War) mocked Roldós of being young and inexperienced. Roldós answered: “I may be inexperienced, but my government perches on a mountain of popular votes, while yours is perched on a mountain of corpses.”[4]

This policy was questioned by American conservatives, who considered it an excuse to justify Soviet meddling in the region, especially in Central America. The United States condemned the "Roldós doctrine", as they did that of Panamanian Omar Torrijos, who also died in a plane crash several months later. Following the 1980 U.S. presidential elections appointing Ronald Reagan, bilateral relations with the USA became strained; Roldós declined to attend Reagan's January 1981 inauguration on these grounds. His foreign policy initiatives also attracted the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and with the Frente Democrático in El Salvador, which opposed the military regime in that country.


1981 Ecuadorian presidential plane crash
Date24 May 1981 at 14:55 p.m. CET
SummaryCFIT of disputed cause, officially pilot error
SiteHuairapungo Hill, Loja Province, Ecuador
Aircraft typeBeechcraft Super King Air 200
OperatorEcuadorian Air Force
RegistrationHC-BHG (civil)
FAE-723 (military)
Flight originMarsical Sucre International Airport, Quito
DestinationMacará Airport, Loja

On Sunday, May 24, 1981 a Beechcraft Super King Air, carrying the president and an entourage of his to a military ceremony in honor of the fallen in the short war with Peru, crashed into Huairapungo Hill, near the town of Guachanamá, in the Celica Canton of Loja Province. The crash, at 2360 meters over sea level (7800 ft.), left no survivors: killed along with the president were First Lady Martha Bucaram, the Minister of Defense Marco Subía Martinez and his wife, two aide-de-camps, a flight attendant and both pilots. The bodies were reportedly burned beyond recognition.[5]

Investigation and irregularities[edit]

The controversy about the cause of the crash began immediately, when the Accident Investigation Committee (Junta Investigadora de Accidentes, JIA) of the Ecuadorian Air Force attributed the crash to navigational pilot error.

Arosemena inquiry (first investigation)[edit]

A parliamentary commission formed months later, led by then-MP and former President Otto Arosemena, following pressure from the families of the victims and political groups allied with the president, found contradictions and inconsistencies in the JIA report, but could not reach definitive conclusions especially since the aircraft that was purchased by the Air Force to operate as a VIP transport lacked black box equipment. A team of the Zurich Police also conducted an investigation, and concluded that the plane's motors were shut down when the plane crashed into the mountain. This opinion, which contradicted the Air Force Report, was not investigated further by the Ecuadorian government.

Granda inquiry (second investigation)[edit]

A second parliamentary inquiry, led by socialist MP Victor Granda, was formed in 1990 to review the findings of the Arosemena commission and the military investigations. The final 26-volume report, published in August 1992, found several inconsistencies and voids in the initial findings but didn’t establish a definitive conclusion. It criticized the Arosemena commission for its lack of further investigation into the Zurich police findings. Granda has also questioned former President Osvaldo Hurtado (who had succeeded Roldós) for its failure to question or expose the failures of the Ecuadorian Air Force flight security protocols that led to the crash.[6] Specifically, the Granda commission found that in the contracting process of the King Air bought by the Air Force, several high ranking Air Force officers stated that the black box equipment wasn’t acquired with the plane because it was considered “optional” among other spares and equipment (when it should have carried one as it was functioning as presidential transport). The investigation reportedly found that the two additional pages of the acquisition expedient, the ones with the optional equipment list, weren’t rubricated by any officer; so the commission asked the Air Force to demand a certification from Beechcraft to certify if the equipment had indeed been acquired. The Air Force relayed Beechcraft’s response: that they didn’t held any knowledge or registry of having sold or not the black box. According to Granda, this is an element of doubt, as a black box equipment “may have existed”.[7]

Theories on Causes of Death[edit]

US involvement[edit]

The American author and activist John Perkins, in his book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, asserts that Roldós was assassinated, because his plan to reorganize the hydrocarbon sector would have threatened U.S. interests. The economic relations were strained by Roldos' plan for a new hydrocarbon law not favored by US firms, which reportedly engaged in a lobbying and public relations campaign against Roldós' government amongst Ecuadorean and US politicians, as well as with the religious class; to the point that Roldós accused (without credible evidence) missionaries from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) of colluding with oil interests, before expelling them from the country. Shortly after sending his legislative package on the oil sector reform, in early 1981, Roldós warned foreign interests that if they wouldn’t contribute to the progress of the Ecuadorean people, they would have to leave the country.[8] Additionally, the aforementioned pact on human rights, reached with Colombia and Peru, was seen by the Reagan administration as a tilt toward the Soviet Union.

Just months after Roldós died, another Latin American leader who had been at odds with U.S. interests in the control of the Panama Canal, Panama's Omar Torrijos, died in what was allegedly just a plane crash, which also is perceived by some to have been a CIA-conducted assassination, again according to Perkins. It is worth noting that Roldós had applauded Jimmy Carter on his stance regarding the return of the Panama Canal after the Torrijos–Carter Treaties.[9]

Niall Ferguson, a historian known for his controversial mostly conservative views, has described Perkins's allegations as implausible. Ferguson notes that that US economic involvement in Ecuador was minimal (less than .5% of foreign aid went to Ecuador, and Ecuador purchased less than .5% of American exports) and inadequate to motivate such drastic action as assassinating a head of state.[10]

Operation Condor[edit]

The documentary The Death of Jaime Roldós, which premiered in 2013 explores Roldós' death using interviews, archives and documentary research.[11] It was directed by Manolo Sarmiento, who is close to the Roldós family. According to the film, the Ecuadorian military was heavily sympathetic, if not directly involved, with Operation Condor, the regional repressive apparatus set up by the military dictatorships of the Southern Cone countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay). Consequently, and according to Richelieu Levoyer; who happened to be Commander-in-Chief of the Ecuadorian Army at the time of the crash, Argentinians and Chileans involved themselves in the conspiracy to end Roldós’ regime, as they saw it sympathetic to left-wing causes and governments.[12]

New inquiries, revelations and theories[edit]

Almost immediately after the screening, Attorney General Galo Chiriboga announced his decision to reopen the investigation. In April 2015, he announced to the National Assembly that, based on an alleged CIA document declassified in 2014, Ecuador had joined Operation Condor in mid-January 1978. According this document, participation would had occurred through the intelligence services of the Armed Forces; for this purpose, it is alleged (and also reported in the documentary) that “an Argentine general would have visited Quito and installed, in the Ministry of Defense, a telecommunications system (named “Condortel”). The Navy was in charge of telecommunications, while the Air Force was in charge of psychological warfare.” Additionally, an offer by Chile’s Augusto Pinochet to train Ecuadorian personnel at the Military Intelligence School in Santiago would have followed.[13]

In May 2016, on the 35th anniversary of the crash, Attorney General Chiriboga announced the discovery of several documents, audiovisual and material evidence that was used in the first official inquiry, in an Ecuadorian Air Force depot. Reportedly among the evidence were some small remains of the ill-fated Super King Air. Chiriboga announced that some of that evidence would be sent to Brazil for further analysis; and that he would embark on further investigation, among military installations, to look out for more remains from the aircraft. The Roldós family asked to be kept informed on the new investigation.[14] Chiriboga said that up this discovery collaboration from the Armed Forces had been “cold”, but that “better disposition” now existed. It is worth noting that former Defense Minister Fernando Cordero had declared in 2015 that despite documentation having been declassified in 2013, several files had been incinerated and other documents lost, a fact that his institution would investigate. Cordero added that previous information requests by the Attorney General had been obstructed by missing or disorganized investigation records.[15]


Jaime Roldós Aguilera on a 2014 stamp of Ecuador

Despite a downturn in his popularity during the last months of his administration, due to the post-war economic measures, Roldos’ death immortalized the last words of his famous speech delivered on the day of his death; at Atahualpa Stadium in front of a crowd of thousands, in which he called for national unity just before departing in his fatidic last journey to Loja, where he was meant to attend another ceremony for the fallen soldiers during the war with Peru:

"We have worked 21 months under a constitutional government when in countries like ours, having a democratic stability means conquering it daily".
"Ecuadorians, we were honest. We continue to be honest in each and all of our actions. Actions, not words, will prove our intentions. It’s the time of work and solidarity, not the time for strikes, threats or rumors. Let’s prove we love our country by complying our duties. Our great passion is and should always be Ecuador. Our great passion; listen to me, is and should be Ecuador".
"We don’t want this Ecuador to be enmeshed in the insignificant but in the most important, in the untiring, building up a destiny of nobility; a heroic Ecuador that won in Pichincha, an Ecuador with brave people, brave fighters from Paquisha, Machinaza and Mayaicu. A heroic Ecuador of the Cóndor Mountain Range. An eternal and united Ecuador in the defense of its territory. A democratic Ecuador capable of teaching humanism, work and liberty. This Amazonian Ecuador, forever and always. Long live this nation."[16]

After Roldós's death, his children left the country and the National Congress named Roldós's brother, León Roldós, as Vice President of Ecuador for the remainder of what would have been Jaime Roldós's term. León Roldós was later a candidate for president in 1992, 2002, and 2006. Jaime Roldós's daughter, Martha Roldós Bucaram, was a presidential candidate in the 2009 elections. Jaime Roldós's son, Santiago Roldós Bucaram, is a journalist and playwright. Jaime Roldós's brother-in-law, Abdalá Bucaram, founded the populist Ecuadorian Roldosist Party and was elected president of Ecuador. He governed from August 1996 to February 1997, when he was removed by the National Congress on the grounds of "mental incapacity". Martha Roldós has said that the Ecuadorian Roldosist Party has corrupted her father's ideals.[17]

Jaime Roldós's most important legacy was his support for human rights. The Roldós Doctrine holds that the international community's concern for a country's internal human rights situation is not a violation of the country's sovereignty.


  1. ^ La Junta ecuatoriana a la segunda ronda electoral. El País. August 12, 1978
  2. ^ "Americans Still Held in Ecuador". New York Times. December 23, 1978. Retrieved April 7, 2018 – via United Press International.
  3. ^ "Synd 14 8 79 Inauguration of New President of Ecuador, Jamie Roldos". AP Archive. July 24, 2015. Retrieved April 7, 2018 – via YouTube.
  4. ^ "Did someone kill Ecuador's 30th president?". El Telégrafo (in Spanish). May 15, 2013. Retrieved February 25, 2018.
  5. ^ "Ecuadorean Leader Dies in Plane Crash". Retrieved April 7, 2018 – via The Associated Press.
  6. ^ "El ex presidente de la comisión de investigación del caso afirma que existieron versiones inconsistentes en el proceso". www.ecuadorinmediato.com (in Spanish). June 11, 2013. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  7. ^ "Víctor Granda en muerte de Jaime Roldós: A lo mejor sí existió caja negra, sospechas falta de rúbrica de dos páginas del contrato del avión presidencial (Audio)". www.ecuadorinmediato.com (in Spanish). May 25, 2015. Retrieved February 23, 2019.
  8. ^ Perkins, John (February 9, 2016). The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. p. 164. ISBN 9781626566750.
  9. ^ ibid
  10. ^ Ferguson, Niall (2008), The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-14-311617-2, pp 295–295
  11. ^ "Did someone kill Ecuador's 30th president?". El Telégrafo (in Spanish). May 15, 2013. Retrieved February 25, 2018.
  12. ^ [1][dead link]
  13. ^ "Attorney General states that Ecuador was part of the "Plan Cóndor" (Video)". ElCiudadano.gob.ec (in Spanish). April 14, 2015. Retrieved February 25, 2018.
  14. ^ "Aparecieron restos de la nave en que se accidentó Jaime Roldós Aguilera". May 24, 2016. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  15. ^ "Piezas 'extraviadas' de avión en que murió Roldós, en poder de Fiscalía". May 12, 2016. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  16. ^ "Ecuador marks 35 years of President Jaime Roldós Aguilera's death". Andes. May 24, 2016. Retrieved February 25, 2018.
  17. ^ Ayer se recordó el fallecimiento de Roldós y su esposa. El Universo. May 25, 2005.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Alfredo Poveda Burbano
President of Ecuador
August 10, 1979 – May 24, 1981
Succeeded by
Osvaldo Hurtado Larrea