Almost a month after the $1.3 million robbery of a government run pawn service at Cuenca’s Social Security office, small crowds continue to gather to protest repayment terms for lost jewelry. 

The heist, which remains unsolved, occurred over Easter Weekend but was not discovered until Monday morning, Apr. 5, when Social Security offices at the corner of Calles Miguel and Gran Colombia opened for business. Thieves had knocked down a masonry wall from an adjoining building and disabled an alarm system to enter the vault containing jewelry and other valuables on pawn from more than 3,000 customers.

The issue continues to be the repayment value of lost jewelry. Two days following the discovery of the theft, the Social Security office offered to repay at a rate 140% of assessed value. Lawyers for the victims demanded more, pointing to the recent appreciation of gold and jewels and the government raised its offer to 190% of appraisal. Although about 50% of victims have settled with Social Security at the 190% rate, others continue to hold out for 240%. Lawyers for the victims, the Social Security administration and the provincial attorney general continue their meetings.

Ramiro Ordonez, Social Security regional director says that the investigation into the theft continues and he expects the culprits to be arrested. All 135 Social Security employees, plus contract workers who have access to the offices are being investigated, he says.

LAUNCH OF AIR CUENCA DELAYED UNTIL MID-MAY

Ecuador’s newest airline, Air Cuenca, has pushed back its launch date to mid-May due to a delivery delay of its first jet from France. Company officials blamed the delivery problem, in part, on European airspace closures caused by ash from an Icelandic volcano.

Delivery of the aircraft to Cuenca is now expected April 29, after which the 136-passender jet will undergo several days of testing.

Air Cuenca has been given approval by Ecuador’s Civil Aviation Council to fly routes between Cuenca and Quito and Guayaquil, as well as to Macas and Machala. The airline says it will take delivery of a second jet in September and hopes to expand its routes.

CUBAN IMMIGRANTS COMPLAIN ABOUT ‘UNFAIR’ TREATMENT

The growing number of Cuban immigrants in Ecuador, mostly living in Quito and Guayaquil, are complaining that they are not being treated fairly by Ecuadorian immigration authorities. One of the major complaints is that citizens from the U.S., Canada and Europe are receiving preferential treatment.

A group of more than 500 Cubans protested near the Quito airport on Apr. 17. Spokesman for the group, Carlos Ruben, complained that the 90 days granted to tourists by immigration officials is not enough time for those wishing to apply for permanent residency. He also complained about tightened restrictions for Cubans who marry Ecuadorians and then seek residency or citizenship.

“We see gringos flying through the process but it is very difficult for Cubans. All we seek is justice,” Ruben said.

Immigration officials responded that all tourists and all applicants for residency are treated equally. “We do not care if you are Cuban, French or Canadian, you will be treated the same,” said Rafael Gonzalez, immigration office spokesman. “In this respect Ecuador has one of the most progressive immigration policies in the world.”

Gonzalez acknowledged that some rules have been tightened within recent months because of foreigners over-staying the 90-day tourist limit. “At one time, it was easy to get an extention of the 90 day limit but because more people are coming to Ecuador we are now enforcing the existing rule more strictly.”

He also said that marriages of foreigners to Ecuadorians are being looked at more closely than before. “There have been many cases of arranged marriages for the purposes of gaining citizenship so it is necessary to verify that marriages are legitimate before we grant foreigners full rights.”

Immigration officials refused to comment on complaints from Cubans that they being unfairly labeled, en masse, as criminals. "We won't speculate on this," Gonzalez sais.

ECUADOR’S INTERNET CONNECTIVITY GROWS WHILE RATE OF CELL PHONE USE IS HIGHEST IN LATIN AMERICA

According to the National Telecommunications Secretariat, the number of broadband internet subscribers in Ecuador has increased 600% since 2007. The number of subscribers, according to the secretariat is approaching two million, representing more than 11% of the population.

The Secretariat also reports that Ecuador has one of the highest rates of cell phone use in Latin America, with more than 12 million subscribers. The country is tied with Colombia with 88% of the population having cell service. Rates for other countries are Peru 69%; Bolivia 43%; Chile 86% and Brazil 76%.

Photo caption: Crowd gathers outside of Cuenca's Social Security office