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Ecuador expels US ambassador

QUITO, Apr 6 – President Rafael Correa claimed that the United States has infiltrated Ecuador\’s armed forces and police, shortly after he ordered the US ambassador out of the country over a leaked Wikileaks diplomatic cable.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino earlier announced that the US ambassador, Heather Hodges, was sent home over the leaked cable that quoted her as saying Correa knowingly appointed a corrupt chief of police.

Correa said that the US cable in question, first published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, "includes considerable information from inside the police, which shows that these people have infiltrated the Armed Forces and the police, which is already an open secret."

"But for it to be turned around and made use of institutionally by the US ambassador in Ecuador really is bald-faced, so this woman has been declared persona non grata and will have a few days to leave the country," the president said in a radio interview.

In Washington, the State Department said it "deeply" regretted the decision by the South American country.

Hodges is "one of our most experienced and talented diplomats," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

In the July 2009 cable the ambassador was quoted as saying Correa had named as police chief general, Jaime Hurtado, a man she said had a reputation for being corrupt. She alleged that Correa knew of his activities.

Hurtado remained in the post from April 2008 to June 2009.

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The Ecuadoran president said relations with the United States "had been just fine," but lamented that "behind the scenes things like this could be going on, spying on our police and trying to link the president to corruption which was on the part of one government worker."

"I hope that this does not damage relations between the United States and Ecuador. But if it does, then what a shame. We are going to have our sovereignty respected," Correa stressed.

The foreign minister earlier said he told Hodges his government "was surprised and the president was absolutely indignant, and wanted to know the truth about that information."

Patino said Hodges "simply said that this document had been stolen and she had no observation to make, no comment, no clarification," calling her response "absolutely insufficient and unsatisfactory."

He also expressed his concern to the top US diplomat for Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela, before talking to the ambassador.

But he stressed the matter was "the direct responsibility of a person, of the ambassador, and is not an issue that has to do with the US government.

According to the cable, Hodges said the embassy had "multiple reports that indicate (Hurtado) used his positions to extort bribes, facilitate human trafficking, misappropriate public funds, obstruct investigations and prosecutions of corrupt colleagues, and engage in other corrupt acts for personal enrichment."

"Some embassy officials believe that President Correa must have been aware of (his activities) when he made the appointment," she added. "These observers believe that Correa may have wanted to have an ENP (national police) chief whom he could easily manipulate."

Ecuador\’s "irresponsible" expulsion of Hodges "is both whimsical and impulsive, and comes at a great cost to his own people," said Eliot Engel, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives.

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Engel, a senior member of a House subcommittee that deals with Latin America, said Correa "has seriously undermined the possibility" that trade preferences "will be reinstated in the foreseeable future."

"While I expect the United States will respond in kind, I can only hope that this diplomatic dispute will be short-lived," Engel said in a statement.

The Ecuador case was the second involving a US diplomat in Latin America embarrassed by a leaked cable on WikiLeaks.

On March 19, the US ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, resigned in what Washington said was a move to avoid damage to bilateral ties.

The classified cables depicted the Mexican military leadership as unprepared when President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers in a bloody crackdown on drug trafficking in December 2006.

In one of the cables, Pascual said the Mexican navy captured a top drug trafficker with information supplied by US agents, but the Mexican army had failed to act when earlier given the same information.

The cable\’s assessments contrasted with Calderon\’s insistence that Mexico was gaining ground over the drug gangs.

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