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President of Ecuador Daniel Noboa speaks at the Police School in Quito, Ecuador, on January 22. (José Jácome/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock via CNN Newsource)

Ecuadorians head to polls for crime referendum

April 21, 2024

By Abel Alvarado, CNN

(CNN) — More than 13 million Ecuadorians are expected to head to the polls Sunday for a referendum dominated by security issues, in a vote that could shape the political future of President Daniel Noboa and his tough-on-crime agenda.

Noboa, the son of a banana tycoon, swept into office last November as the youngest president in Ecuador’s history on the back of a promise to rein in the rampant crime that has transformed the once tranquil country into one plagued by violence and turf wars between drug cartels.

Since then he has embarked on an uncompromising agenda in which he has declared “war” on more than 20 criminal gangs he has labeled as “terrorists,” declared a 90-day state of emergency, and authorized a highly controversial raid on the Mexican embassy in Quito to capture a fugitive Ecuadorian former vice president accused of corruption.

Experts say Sunday’s vote will reveal a lot about how much public backing there is for Noboa and the decisions he’s made in the past six months and could well be a deciding factor in whether he seeks another term when his current one ends in May 2025.

The referendum will ask 11 questions, five that will modify the Constitution if approved and six that are advisory. More than 13 million of Ecuador’s population of nearly 18 million are eligible to vote – and in Ecuador, voting is obligatory.

Among the biggest proposals are measures to allow the military to patrol with police to combat organized crime (something that can currently only happen under a state of emergency, which has a 90 day limit); to allow the extradition of Ecuadorians (currently prohibited by the Constitution); and to raise the penalties for those found guilty of violent crimes.

“We require urgent reforms that allow us to protect our security,” Noboa told a military event in March. “This process can only continue, it can only be sustained, if we give the National Police and the Armed Forces the clear and firm support that we are proposing in the referendum.”

Descent into violence

Ecuador, home to the Galapagos islands and a tourist-friendly dollar economy, was once known as an “island of peace,” nestled between the world’s two largest cocaine producers, Peru and Colombia.

But the country’s deep ports have made it a key transit point for cocaine making its way to consumers in the United States and Europe. Rival criminal organizations are locked in a battle to control these trafficking routes.

This violence is increasingly spilling over into the public sphere in brutal fashion. According to figures by the Ecuadorian National Police, the murder rate in 2016 was 5.8 homicides per 100,000 people. By 2022, it had spiked to 25.6, a similar level to that of Colombia and Mexico, countries with a long history of drug cartel violence.

It was Ecuadorians’ growing discontent with the deteriorating security conditions that led Noboa’s predecessor Guillermo Lasso to call a snap election last year.

Noboa, a relative political novice at the time, won that election in a run-off vote with a tough-on-crime message that gained further resonance when anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated at a campaign event.

Just a few weeks into Noboa’s term, he declared a nationwide state of emergency after the security situation deteriorated in spectacular fashion following the escape of the notorious gang leader Adolfo Macias, also known as Fito, from a prison in Guayaquil, the country’s biggest and arguably most dangerous city.

In response to the escape, the government deployed more than 3,000 police officers and members of the armed forces to find Fito. It was unsuccessful.

Criminal groups then responded by embarking on a wave of violent attacks – including taking over a TV station that was broadcasting live on air – in a show of strength meant to discourage the crackdown.

Hours later, Noboa took the unprecedented step of declaring an “internal armed conflict” and ordered Ecuador’s armed forces to “neutralize” the members of more than 20 gangs, which he labeled as terror groups.

“I declared war on terrorists. These are not conventional gangs. They are terrorist groups. They are highly organized, structured, armed forces that terrorize complete regions and have had control in the past few years of our nation’s prisons,” Noboa told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in January.

Embassy controversy

Noboa burnished his credentials as an uncompromising enforcer this month when he ordered police to raid the Mexican Embassy in Quito to arrest former Ecuadorian Vice President Jorge Glas, who was facing embezzlement charges and had been seeking asylum there. Glas has denied the charges, which he claims are politically motivated.

The raid made waves internationally as, under diplomatic norms, embassies are generally considered protected spaces.

Mexico decried the raid as “an outrage against international law,” and has since severed diplomatic ties. Various other Latin American countries have rallied around Mexico while the United Nations has also voiced concern.

Noboa, on the other hand, claims to have no regrets, saying the security crisis in Ecuador called for “exceptional decisions,” and that he could not allow a convicted criminal to escape justice.

What else is on the agenda?

In an open letter published recently, Noboa tied the embassy raid to the upcoming referendum, claiming “a vast majority of Ecuadoreans” would defend his decision with their vote.

Some experts have told CNN they believe the raid will grant Noboa a “spike of popularity.”

It’s unclear though if support for Noboa will be blunted by an energy shortage that has led him to order 8-hour nationwide power cuts and a complete shutdown of the private and public sector for a two-day period.

The crisis has been sparked by low reservoirs levels, as Ecuador relies largely on hydropower. However, without showing evidence, Noboa has blamed “saboteurs” and says he has ordered an investigation.

Beyond security, other proposals in the referendum include measures that would enable companiesto hire workers on hourly wages and the recognition of international arbitrage to resolve investment disputes.

The referendum has met opposition among some groups who claim the matters can be dealt with in the National Assembly.

All proposals can be approved or rejected individually.

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