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Pilot error seen in Ecuador official's air crash

January 26, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Preliminary evidence points to pilot error as the cause of a helicopter crash Wednesday night that killed Ecuador's Defense Minister Guadalupe Larriva, her teenage daughter and five military personnel, officials in that country said Thursday.

The death of the Cabinet member, a confidant of newly inaugurated socialist President Rafael Correa, has stunned the nation and stirred the already tense atmosphere surrounding the leader's struggle with Congress over his agenda to "reinvent" Ecuador.

Radio talk shows Thursday and scattered demonstrators raised suspicions that the accident was an attack to prevent Larriva, also a socialist, from taking control of the armed forces. Ecuadoreans have been apt to consider conspiracy theories since President Jaime Roldos was killed in a plane crash in May 1981 under suspicious circumstances.

But Adrian Bonilla, a political scientist at a graduate studies center in the capital, Quito, known by its Spanish initials, FLACSO, said such notions were being put forth by "extreme leftists.... There is no evidence so far that permits a hypothesis of a conspiracy."

Larriva, 50, was sworn in by Correa as Ecuador's first female defense minister immediately after his inauguration Jan. 15. A native of the southern city of Cuenca, Larriva was formerly president of Ecuador's Socialist Party and head of the nation's teachers union. She admired Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez, as does Correa.

The accident occurred when another helicopter collided with the one in which Larriva and her daughter were riding, as her aircraft was returning to the Manta military base after an aerial tour of the coastal city, said a high-ranking Ecuadorean military officer who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

"She was going along on the sortie to see how beautiful it was to fly at night," the officer said. "She was on the way back to the base to get her flight back to Quito when the crash happened."

Larriva's daughter Claudia Avila, 17, initially survived the crash, but died of her injuries at a hospital.

Correa declared three days of mourning and ordered an investigation. Funeral services for Larriva, a widow who is survived by two other children, were held Thursday at the Eloy Alfaro Military College in Quito. She was to be buried later in the day in Cuenca.

The crash added an ominous note to a tense week of politics in the capital. Correa suffered a setback Tuesday when the nation's electoral tribunal refused his request that it authorize a March plebiscite on whether to elect an assembly to rewrite Ecuador's constitution. The majority of the tribunal's judges said that only Congress could approve such a vote. Correa had hoped to circumvent Congress to schedule the plebiscite.

His proposal for a constitutional assembly is crucial to his campaign promise to reform Ecuador's corrupt and inefficient party system and to concentrate more power in the presidency.

But opposing congressional leaders have threatened to put the plebiscite proposal in the "deep freezer" unless Correa gives sitting legislators representation in the constitutional assembly. The president said such a deal would compromise his principles.

Polls show that 73% of Ecuadorean voters back Correa and his reforms, Bonilla said.

"The scenario we are facing is one of institutional rupture," Bonilla said. "There is a total standoff because the sides are not negotiating."

chris.kraul@latimes.com

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