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Ecuadorians are going to the polls to step up the fight against gangs behind the wave of violence

Vaseline 1 month ago

Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa attends a ceremony to hand over equipment to the police, in the Gral. Alberto Enriquez Gallo police school in Quito, Ecuador, January 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa, File)

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuadorians go to the polls Sunday for a referendum touted by the country’s young leader as a way to tackle criminal gangs behind a spiraling wave of violence.

The majority of the eleven questions asked to voters concern tightening security measures. Proposals include using the military to fight the gangs, removing obstacles to the extradition of accused criminals and extending prison sentences for convicted drug traffickers.

Ecuador, traditionally one of South America’s most peaceful countries, has been rocked by a wave of violence in the past year, much of it spilling over from neighboring Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer. Last year, the country’s homicide rate skyrocketed to 40 deaths per 100,000, one of the highest in the region.

President Daniel Noboa has gathered popular support by confronting the gangs head-on. That task became more urgent in January when masked gunmen, some on the orders of captured drug traffickers, terrorized residents and took control of a TV station while it was live on air in an unprecedented show of force.

After the rampage, the 36-year-old leader declared an “internal armed conflict” order, allowing him to use emergency powers to deploy the military in pursuit of around 20 gangs now classified as “terrorists.”

The referendum aims to expand these powers and place them on a firmer legal basis.

But by recalling the law-and-order policies of El Salvador’s wildly popular President Nayib Bukele, a fellow millennial, they could also give Noboa a political boost as he prepares for re-election next year.

Noboa, the scion of a wealthy banana-exporting family, is serving the last 18 months of a vacant presidential term when fellow conservative Guillermo Lasso resigned amid an investigation into alleged congressional corruption. He was elected after a shortened but bloody campaign in which one of his top rivals was brutally murdered during his campaign.