July 19, 2024

Ecuadoreans will vote on Sunday in a referendum that could give their center-right president greater powers to combat drug-related gang violence and also gauge how he would fare in his bid for re-election next year.

President Daniel Noboa, the 36-year-old heir to a banana empire, took office in November after an election season focused on drug-related gang violence, which has surged over the past five years to levels not seen in decades.

In January, he declared an “internal armed conflict” and directed the military to “neutralize” the country’s roughly two dozen gangs, which the government labeled “terrorist organizations.” The drastic move allowed soldiers to patrol the streets and prisons, many of which have come under gang control.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Noboa took the extraordinary step of arresting an Ecuadorean politician facing a prison sentence who had taken refuge at the Mexican Embassy in Quito, in what experts called a violation of an international treaty on the sanctity of diplomatic posts. The move drew widespread condemnation across the region.

Mr. Noboa defended the embassy raid, saying the politician, a former vice president, was not entitled to protection because he was a convicted criminal.

Taken together, the deployment of the military and the forceful arrest of the former vice president were meant to show that Mr. Noboa is tough on crime and impunity, political analysts say. The vote on Sunday will gauge how strongly voters support his aggressive stance.

While Mr. Noboa has high approval ratings, some human rights groups have criticized his government’s harsh response as going too far and leading to abuses of people in prison and civilians in the streets.

Still, most Ecuadoreans are willing to trade off Mr. Noboa’s stringent tactics if it makes them less likely to become victims of crimes, experts said.

“Noboa is now one of the most popular presidents in the region,” said Glaeldys González, who researches Ecuador for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank. “He is taking advantage of those levels of popularity that he currently has to catapult himself to the presidential elections.”

The referendum includes 11 questions, eight of which are related to security.

The security measures would enshrine the increased military presence into law, lengthen prison sentences for certain offenses linked to organized crime and allow the extradition of criminals convicted in Ecuador, among other changes.

A flood of violence from international criminal groups and local gangs has turned the country of 17 million into a key player in the global drug trade. Tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans have fled to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In early January, the large coastal city of Guayaquil saw a turning point in the long-running security crisis: Gangs attacked the city after the authorities moved to take charge of Ecuador’s prisons.

Mr. Noboa declared the state of internal conflict in response, and his combative strategy initially reduced violence and brought a precarious sense of safety. But the stability did not last. Over the Easter holiday this month, there were 137 murders in Ecuador, and kidnappings and extortion have been increasing.

The president said he sent police officers into the Mexican Embassy to arrest Jorge Glas, the former vice president who had been sentenced to prison for corruption, because Mexico had abused the immunities and privileges granted to the diplomatic mission.

But the move also sent a message in line with Mr. Noboa’s heavy-handed approach to violence and graft.

Even as polls show that his approval rating has fallen in recent months, it still stands at 74 percent. Most analysts expect Ecuadoreans to approve the security questions on the ballot.

“There really is an overwhelming support,” Ms. González said. “I would think that all of them are going to have a strong support for the ‘yes.’”

But some of the questions that are unrelated to security are less popular. One would legalize hourly employment contracts, which are currently prohibited. Labor unions say employers could use them to undermine workers’ rights and pay lower salaries than what is allowed by law.

Ecuadoreans can decide on each question separately, so even if they vote “no” on the more contentious ones, the overall result could still yield a robust mandate for Mr. Noboa, who is expected to seek a second term in elections in February.

“If there is a favorable vote, a resounding ‘yes’ vote, it is also a way for this to help the government argue that it needs more time in power to continue with these changes and these reforms in its general fight against organized crime,” Ms. González said.

If the security measures are approved, the results would be binding and the national assembly would have 60 days to pass them into law.

But some analysts said the referendum would serve more as a barometer of Mr. Noboa’s popularity than as an effective way to tackle the country’s security challenges.

“We do not vote for the question; rather, we vote for who asked the question,” said Fernando Carrión, who studies violence and drug trafficking at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, a regional research and analysis group.

He added that measures like increasing prison sentences were likely to exacerbate the problems of overcrowding and violence in prisons.

Voters were heading to the polls after a tumultuous few weeks, but some said they were undeterred.

“I am going to vote ‘yes’ in this referendum because I am convinced that it is the only way for Ecuador to have a change, and we can all have a better future,” said Susana Chejín, 62, a resident of the southern city of Loja.

“He is making good changes for the country, to fight crime and drug trafficking,” she said of Mr. Noboa.

Others said they thought the questions on the referendum were not enough to address the country’s insecurity.

“We are still in the vicious circle of focusing on the symptoms and not on the causes,” said Juan Diego Del Pozo, 31, a photographer in Quito. “No question aims to solve structural problems, such as inequality. My vote will be a resounding ‘no’ on every question.”

Thalíe Ponce contributed reporting from Guayaquil, Ecuador, and José María León Cabrera from Quito, Ecuador.

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