BOGOTA — Ecuador on Tuesday asked U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges to leave the country "as soon as possible" after a diplomatic cable provided by WikiLeaks revealed that she had speculated that President Rafael Correa was turning a blind-eye to rampant corruption in the police department.
The dust-up comes after Spain's El País newspaper on Monday published the comunique from 2009 in which Hodges laid out corruption charges against the former commander general of Ecuador's police, Jaime Hurtado, and requested that his U.S. visa be revoked.
Hodges also speculated that Correa must have known about Hurtado's corruption when he appointed him, but "may have wanted to have a (police) chief whom he could easily manipulate."
On Tuesday, Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said Correa was "surprised and offended" by the allegations and questioned how the U.S. Embassy had obtained internal police documents.
Patiño said he called Hodges into his office on Monday to demand an explanation. According to Patiño, Hodges said because the cable "was stolen" she refused to provide any additional information.
Patiño emphasized that Ecuador was not expelling Hodges and was not breaking diplomatic ties with the United States but had declared her persona non-grata.
"There is no reason this should interrupt the cordial relations between our two nations," he said.
The U.S. State Department said it was examining its options.
"Ambassador Hodges is one of our most experienced and talented diplomats and the department considers her expulsion unjustified," State Department Spokeswoman Tanya Powell said in a statement.
Hodges had been ambassador in Ecuador since July 2008 and previously held posts in Venezuela, Guatemala and Peru.
If Hodges is not replaced, that would leave Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador without U.S. ambassadors. Bolivia and Venezuela expelled the U.S. ambassadors in 2008 amid charges that they was conspiring with the opposition.
Correa, a pragmatic populist who has strong ties with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, was seen to be mending his relationship with the United States after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Andean nation last year.
Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, called Ecuador's decision irresponsible and impulsive and said it threatened the extension of trade preferences, which lapsed last month.
"If President Correa would like to separate himself from Chávez and Morales, now is the time to do so," Engel said in a release. "I can only hope that this diplomatic dispute will be short-lived, and Ecuador will not become the third country in South America with which the United States will share a lengthy Ambassadorial absence."
In the WikiLeaks document, Hodges said there was evidence that Hurtado was taking kickbacks, involved in a police ring that trafficked Chinese immigrants to Central America, and may have acquired a property in Ecuador by having officers threaten the rightful owner.
Hurtado, who was commanding general of the police from 2008 to 2009, also shut down attempts to investigate him by moving personnel and firing the officer directly in charge of the investigation, the memo said.
"Hurtado's corrupt activities were so widely known within the upper ranks of the (Ecuadorian National Police) that some Embassy officials believe that President Correa must have been aware of them when he made the appointment," Hodges wrote in a "note" section of the communiqué. "These observers believe that Correa may have wanted to have a (police) chief whom he could easily manipulate."
On Tuesday, Patiño said the country would investigate the allegations against Hurtado.The WikiLeaks website began releasing more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables in November. Many have been highly compromising but the diplomatic fallout has largely been contained.
But last month, Mexico demanded the resignation of U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual after WikiLeaks publicized his memos in which he criticized that nation's counternarcotics effort.