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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A country awash in violence backs its leader’s hard-line stance

Soldiers patrolling Durán, a suburb of Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is dominated by groups linked to drug trafficking, on May 31, 2023. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

By Genevieve Glatsk

Ecuadorians voted Sunday to give their new president more powers to combat the country’s plague of drug-related gang violence, officials said, supporting his hard-line stance on security and offering an early glimpse of how he might fare in his bid for reelection next year.

President Daniel Noboa, a 36-year-old heir to a banana empire, took office in November after an election season focused on the violence, which has surged to levels not seen in decades. In January, he declared an “internal armed conflict” and ordered the military to “neutralize” the country’s gangs. The move allowed soldiers to patrol the streets and Ecuador’s prisons, many of which have come under gang control.

In a referendum Sunday, Ecuadorians voted to enshrine the increased military presence into law and to lengthen prison sentences for certain offenses linked to organized crime, among other security measures. With about 20% of the votes counted Sunday night, Ecuador’s electoral authority declared that the trend toward approval of the security measures was “irreversible,” though voters rejected other proposals on the ballot.

Noboa claimed victory on social media. “I apologize for jumping the gun on a triumph that I cannot help but celebrate,” he wrote on the social platform X.

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

Experts saw the results of the voting Sunday as an indicator of how strongly the public supported Noboa’s stance on crime. “What is clear is that the people are saying ‘yes’ to the security model,” said an Ecuadorian political analyst, Caroline Ávila. She said the voters also had “high expectations” that the crime problem “will be solved.”

Noboa, who is expected to seek a second term in February, has high approval ratings, although they have slipped lately. He became president after his predecessor, Guillermo Lasso, facing impeachment proceedings over embezzlement accusations, called for early elections; Noboa is in office until May 2025, the remainder of Lasso’s term.

Some human rights groups have criticized Noboa’s anticrime tactics as going too far, saying they have led to abuses in prisons and in the streets. Still, most Ecuadorians seem willing to accept Noboa’s strategy if they think it makes them safer, analysts said.

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

He deployed the military against the gangs in response to a turning point in Ecuador’s long-running security crisis: Gangs attacked the large coastal city of Guayaquil after authorities moved to take charge of Ecuador’s prisons.

Noboa’s deployment of the military was followed by a decline in violence and 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.

Two weeks ago, Noboa took the extraordinary step of arresting an Ecuadorian politician 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, which drew condemnation across the region, sent a message in line with Noboa’s heavy-handed approach to violence and graft.

Noboa said he had sent police officers into the embassy to arrest Jorge Glas, a former vice president who had been convicted of corruption, because Mexico had abused the immunities and privileges granted to the diplomatic mission. Noboa said Glas was not entitled to protection because he was a convicted criminal.

Taken together, the raid and the deployment of the military were meant to show that Noboa is tough on crime and impunity, political analysts say. Though polls show that Noboa’s approval rating has fallen in recent months, it remains high, at 67%.

Voter turnout Sunday was 72%, according to the country’s electoral authority. Analysts considered that low, in a country where voting is mandatory and turnout usually exceeds 80%.

Just as voters were heading to the polls, they received another reminder of the surge in violence, as authorities announced that the head of a prison in Manabí, a coastal province that has become a hub for transnational crime, had been killed.

Some proposals from Noboa’s government that were unrelated to security were voted down Sunday. Ecuadorians voted against one that would have legalized hourly employment contracts, which are currently prohibited. Labor unions say employers could use them to undermine workers’ rights and essentially pay lower salaries than the law requires. A proposal that would have allowed international arbitration of commercial disputes was also voted down.

But analysts said the overall result yielded a robust mandate for Noboa. González said it would “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.”

The results of the referendum are binding, and the national assembly has 60 days to pass them into law.

Some analysts said the referendum results had more to do with Noboa’s popularity than with whether the security measures were likely to be effective.

“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 such as increasing prison sentences were likely to exacerbate the problems of overcrowding and violence in prisons.

Despite the tumultuous few weeks that preceded the voting, some voters 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 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.”

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