Ecuadorians head to polls to toughen fight against gangs behind wave of violence

Ecuadorians head to the polls on Sunday in a referendum touted by the country’s fledgling leader as a way to crack down on criminal gangs behind a spiralling wave of violence.

The majority of 11 questions posed to voters focus on tightening security measures. Proposals include deploying the army in the fight against the gangs, loosening obstacles to extradition of accused criminals and lengthening prison sentences for convicted drug traffickers.

Ecuador, traditionally one of South America’s most peaceful countries, has been rocked in recent years by a wave of violence, much of it spilling over from neighbouring Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

Last year, the country’s homicide rate shot up to 40 deaths per 100,000, one of the highest in the region.

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

Following the rampage, the 36-year-old leader decreed an “internal armed conflict”, enabling him to use emergency powers to deploy the army in pursuit of some 20 gangs now classified as “terrorists”.

The referendum seeks to extend those powers and put them on firmer legal ground.

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

Mr Noboa, the scion of a wealthy banana exporting family, is serving the final 18 months of a presidential term left vacant when fellow conservative Guillermo Lasso resigned amid an investigation into alleged corruption by congress.

He was elected following a shortened but bloody campaign that saw one of his top rivals brazenly assassinated while campaigning.


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