Ecuadorans were voting yesterday in a referendum on proposed tougher measures to fight a surge in gang-related crime.
The once-peaceful South American country has been grappling with a shocking rise in violence that has seen two mayors killed this week.
The terrorising streak has been blamed on gangs with links to transnational cartels using Ecuador’s ports to ship drugs to the United States and Europe.
The results of the referendum “will define the course and the state policy that we will take in order to face the challenge” of organised crime, said President Daniel Noboa as voting began in Quito.
Nearly 13.6mn of the country’s 17.7mn inhabitants are eligible to cast a “Yes” or “No” ballot over 10 hours of voting.
“We continue on a peaceful, calm, safe voting day,” National Electoral Council President Diana Atamaint said.
Noboa declared in January a state of “internal armed conflict” with about 20 criminal groups blamed for a spasm of violence sparked by the jailbreak of a major drug lord, still on the run.
Gangsters kidnapped dozens of people, including police and prison guards, opened fire in a TV studio during a live broadcast, and threatened random executions in the days-long outburst that caused about 20 deaths.
Noboa imposed a state of emergency and deployed soldiers to retake control of the country’s prisons, which had become the nerve centre for gang operations and a bloody battleground that has claimed the lives of more than 460 inmates in three years.
Despite these efforts, the violence has persisted.
Two mayors have been killed in the past week, making it five in a year and three in less than a month.
Since January last year, at least a dozen politicians have been killed in Ecuador, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who was gunned down last August after a campaign event.
In the weekend vote, Noboa is seeking popular backing for his plans to clamp down even harder on those responsible for such acts.
Citizens are being asked to approve an expansion of military and police powers, significantly boosting gun controls and imposing harsher penalties for “terrorism” and drug trafficking.
Noboa is also proposing to change the constitution so that Ecuadorans who are wanted abroad for organised crime-related offences can be extradited.
The extradition issue animates Alexandra Rocha, 25, a teacher, who said she voted in favour.
“I feel that the laws here are not strong enough to make people who commit a crime pay for what they are doing,” she said.
However, another voter, Dulce Negrete, “voted no to everything”, believing that extradition serves no real purpose – and that the army’s participation in operations against gangs has mainly resulted in “more deaths”.
Most of the referendum questions are related to crime prevention – a priority even as Ecuador also grapples with widespread corruption, a crippling electricity shortage and a diplomatic spat with Mexico.
Last year, the country’s murder rate rose to a record 43 per 100,000 inhabitants – up from six in 2018, according to official data.
In a publication on Friday, polling firm Gallup said no other region in the world, excluding active war zones, felt less secure in 2023 to residents than Ecuador’s Guayas province.
Other polls show a majority of Ecuadorans will likely vote for Noboa’s reforms.
The vote is taking place in the same week that Ecuadorans faced power cuts of up to 13 hours as drought left key hydroelectric reservoirs nearly empty.
The government ordered workers to stay at home for two days in a bid to save scant energy resources.
Noboa has put some of the blame on “sabotage” without naming anyone in particular.