Ecuador votes on security measures amid wave of violence

Ecuadorians head to the polls on Sunday for a referendum on a series of measures to tackle gang violence and unrest gripping the South American nation.

Voters will be asked to answer 11 security-related questions, such as whether they would support deploying the military in the fight against gangs, making it easier to extradite accused criminals and increasing sentences for crimes such as terrorism and murder.

Nearly 13.6 million people are eligible to cast a “yes” or “no” vote.

Ecuador, otherwise known as a peaceful nation, has been seeing a wave of violence spilling over from Colombia, which is the world’s largest cocaine producer.

What is the referendum for?

Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa, who has been in power since November last year, is seeking popular backing for his plans to bring the situation under control. He also wants to change the constitution to make it easier for Ecuadorians who are wanted in other countries on organized crime charges to be extradited.

The recent spike in violence has been attributed to gangs who have connections with international cartels, which use Ecuadorian ports to transport drugs to the US and Europe. The country is also facing water and power shortages amid strained ties with Mexico.

In January, a major drug lord broke out of jail and gangs kidnapped dozens of people, including police and prison guards. They also opened fire on a TV studio during a live broadcast, killing 20. Following the unrest, Noboa declared a state of “internal armed conflict,” allowing him to use emergency powers to deploy the army.

At least a dozen politicians have been killed in the past year, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

Ecuador’s murder rate in the past year has risen to 43 per 100,000 inhabitants, up from six in 2018, according to official records.

Noboa, 36, mobilized the country’s forces to take control of the security situation, especially prisons which had become a ground for violence and gang operations. Nevertheless, the violence has continued.

Ecuador is heading to elections next year, and Noboa is in the final 18 months of his tenure.

He took office in November after being elected in the wake of former President Guillermo Lasso’s resignation. Lasso stepped down amid an investigation into alleged corruption by Congress.

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