In 2008, then-Minister of Defense Javier Ponce signed a contract with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), an Indian state-owned aerospace company, for the purchase of seven HAL Dhruv helicopters for over US$45 million. Six years later, four of the aircraft have fallen out of the sky — two of these in January — and the three remaining helicopters have been suspended from their activities.
Chronology of a Deal Gone Bad
In October 2009, during a military parade celebrating the FAE’s 89th anniversary, then-Commanding General Rodrigo Bohórquez announced “a new path in rescue aviation” in the country: the arrival of the new fleet of Dhruv helicopters acquired by the institution.
Minutes later, the first accident involving the Indian aircraft happened. In the middle of the celebration, the helicopter crashed abruptly, although the pilots were unharmed.
After the event, an investigation began, and it determined that the accident took place on account of human error. However, the process detected several irregularities in the technical characteristics of the fleet.
Although the contract stated that the components of the helicopters had to be new, the Ecuadorian controller general found that the helicopters had parts from previous years: four engines were manufactured in 2007, one in 2006, and one in 2005. Moreover, the aircraft did not comply with FAR and JAR certifications, international flight-safety licenses issued by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
GAB Robins, a damage assessment service, also conducted a technical audit of the FAE in late 2009. They determined that the Dhruv helicopters were “dangerously limited” with regards to operations, presumably on account of mechanical faults.
Furthermore, they concluded it was “surprising that the helicopters were certified for any purposes, civil or military.” However, the FAE rejected the investigation and challenged the legitimacy of the company.
Later, in February 2014, the second helicopter of this kind — exclusively intended for presidential use — crashed, killing three pilots. An investigation proceeded and concluded, again, that the accident was due to human error.
Chronicle of a Fall Foretold
Jorge Gabela, FAE commander from January 2007 to April 2008, strongly opposed the purchase of these helicopters, since his view was that they did not meet the technical and operational requirements of the Air Force. The purchase was not made official until he was removed from office.
Gabela would not keep quiet, however. In 2009, he spoke to the press about irregularities in the helicopters and assured them that he was “persecuted,” since he did not authorize the purchase of Indian helicopters.
“They have no certification. Chile conducted a study to purchase the helicopters, but they failed the test … they have too many problems in the engine, the rotor,” he told local newspaper El Universo.
In December 2010, however, Gabela died 10 days after being shot at his residence, under circumstances that to this day remain unclear.
Patricia Ochoa, Gabela’s widow, publicly denounced that the investigation surrounding the death of her husband had many loopholes, and people directly related to the case — such as other FAE officers — were never subject t0 it.
“Under this government, my husband reported his persecution before the National Assembly… People this government murdered my husband,” she said.
Gabela se opone a la compra de los Dhruv, lo asesinan, se caen 4, pero no tiene nada que ver. Deben pensar que somos bien pendejos
— Arturo Moscoso Moreno (@artumoscoso) February 4, 2015
Ecuadorian attorney: “Gabela opposes to the purchase of the Dhruv, he was assassinated. 4 fall, but it has nothing to do. They must think we are all idiots.”
Roberto Meza Niella, the Argentinean criminologist hired by the Correa government in 2013 to conduct a forensic investigation into the death of former commander Gabela, reported yesterday that he was asked to delete part of his report.
He asserted that María Fernanda Espinosa — former minister of defense and current Ecuadorian ambassador to the United Nations — asked him not to include the allegations that Gabela had made about the purchase of the seven Dhruv helicopters.
In this regard, Espinosa has denied the allegations and said they constitute a lack of professionalism from Meza.
El nuevo "mentirosito" a desmentir por parte de la maquinaria oficialista: el perito argentino Roberto Meza del caso Gabela – Dhruv.
— robot ultramoderno (@jotacelira) February 5, 2015
A critic of the Ecuadorian government comments on alleged censoring of Meza’s investigation: “The new ‘little liar’ rejected by the official apparatus: Argentinean expert Roberto Meza, of the Gabela-Dhruv case.”
Ledy Zúñiga, Ecuadorian minister of justice, has stated that those involved in the investigation sought to “create false perceptions” on the matter, as she also rejected the Argentinean criminologist’s statements.
However, opposition Assemblymen Fausto Cobo and Diego Salgado are putting pressure on the investigation reopened in January, that it be thorough and examine both the Ministry of Defense and FAE chiefs. The new Audit Commission responsible for the case is set to present its first report within 90 days.
Edited by Fergus Hodgson.