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Ecuadorian clinics allegedly use abuse to 'cure' homosexuality

By By Rafael Romo, CNN Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 1:13 PM EST, Wed January 25, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paola Concha says she was beaten at clinic trying to "cure" her homosexuality
  • The clinic director denies they try to change sexual orientation
  • The Ecuadorian government says other people's stories support Concha's
  • More than 30 such clinics have been shut down since July, an activist says

Quito, Ecuador (CNN) -- Paola Concha is openly homosexual and is not afraid to speak about her sexual orientation publicly. But the 28-year-old Ecuadorian woman says her family didn't feel the same way.

Five years ago, when she was 23, she says, her family contacted a center that promised to cure Concha of her homosexuality. That, she says, is when her nightmare started.

"On December 8 of 2006, they stormed into my house, overpowered me, they put me inside a van and took me to a so-called 'therapeutic' center. By the time I got there, I was already handcuffed and beat up," Concha said.

The clinic was called Puente a la Vida, or Bridge to Life. In December, CNN was granted limited access to the clinic. It looked like a mid-level tourist resort with buildings, houses and meeting rooms where patients were treated. The facility is located on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador's capital.

Concha says she endured all kinds of demeaning and abusive treatment during the 18 months she was held there.

"I was kept in handcuffs for more than three months. I would be left without food for more than three or four days. They would handcuff me in a bathroom to a toilet bowl facing a toilet that was used by 60 people at the center," Concha said.

While we were there in December, one of the clinic's directors by the name of Luis Zavala declined to speak specifically about Concha's allegations. But he did deny that their goal was to change the sexual orientation of their patients.

Their objective, Zavala said, was "to modify all inadequate behaviors that are causing a particular individual to take inadequate attitudes."

Government officials say this case is not isolated. In fact, they have found dozens of clinics that illegally offer treatments to "cure" homosexuality. Some of these clinics operate as addiction treatment centers, but they offer homosexuality cures in a clandestine way. Some are located in urban settings, officials say, but many others are set up in ranches or houses in remote areas and attract clients by word of mouth.

After the first allegations were made, Bridge to Life was targeted for an investigation last year. But officials could get only enough evidence to cite the clinic on a technicality.

"They say they found expired products. I would venture to say that the government has an ulterior motive," Zavala said.

Juan Moreira, Ecuador's undersecretary of health, says expired products were indeed found in the women's area of the clinic, so they closed that section. But that was only the beginning.

"That was really not the most serious violation," Moreira said. "What concerns us is that we have reports about their methods to change a person's sexual orientation and treatments that include torture and human rights violations."

Since CNN visited Bridge to Life, the Ecuadorian government says, two raids were conducted at the clinic. More than 40 people were freed and the clinic was finally shut down for alleged human rights violations.

Moreira says people being held there were reluctant to speak at first, apparently afraid of being punished by clinic personnel if they spoke about the treatment center in a negative way. But then, one by one, patients started telling investigators horror stories. Their testimonies, Moreira says, mirror Paola Concha's story.

After the clinic was shut down, CNN's efforts to reach its director, Zavala, for a comment have been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Concha has become a spokeswoman for the movement against clinics that claim to cure homosexuality and is working with organizations that aim to raise awareness on this issue.

One such organization is Artikulacion Esporadika, a gay rights group in Quito. Cayetana Salao, the organization's director, says that thanks in part to their efforts on this issue, the government has investigated and shut down 30 such clinics since July.

"These are all private clinics. They reflect our society's biases and misconception about homosexuality. We still have a lot of homophobia and misogyny," Salao said. "Many people still consider lesbianism a disease and a psychiatric disorder."

A change in leadership at the Health Ministry is also good news for gay rights organizations. Carina Vance, a former executive director of Fundacion Causana, a gay rights group, and a respected gay rights activist in Ecuador, was named health minister earlier this month. Under her leadership, three raids have already taken place in the Quito area, and dozens of women have been rescued.

Moreira, the health undersecretary, says new regulations for addiction treatment centers were implemented last year. Out of 302 centers they have investigated, 208, or 69 percent, were found to be in violation of one or more of the new regulations.

The government, Moreira says, is aggressively investigating reports of clinics supposedly offering to cure homosexuality. As a matter of policy, the undersecretary says, Ecuador does not recognize it as a disease and therefore anybody offering to "cure" it is in violation of the law.

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