05/28/2024

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Ecuadorians Back President’s Security Agenda But Challenges Await

Ecuadorians Back President’s Security Agenda But Challenges Await

Ecuadorians Back President’s Security Agenda But Challenges Await

Ecuadorians delivered an overwhelming show of support for President Daniel Noboa’s hardline security policies in a referendum held as the government’s popular “war on gangs” enters a challenging new phase.

The vote, held on April 21, was largely seen as a popularity test for Noboa’s agenda so far. Noboa became president in late 2023 amid unprecedented violence and has since used emergency powers to stage a militarized crackdown on Ecuador’s criminal gangs. Polls suggest most Ecuadorians support the president’s campaign. 

The referendum results left little room for doubt. Voters approved all nine of the crime and security measures proposed by Noboa.  

The referendum’s outcome is legally binding and will trigger changes to Ecuador’s constitution that give the military a greater role in fighting domestic crime, permit extradition for the first time, and create special courts to deal with constitutional rights cases.

Other changes to Ecuadorian law include the introduction of harsher sentences for criminal offenses, increased restrictions on illegal arms possession, and simplified procedures for asset forfeiture. 

The constitutional changes will come into effect in June following official certification, though some experts believe the government was simply seeking the public’s backing for policies Noboa sought to implement regardless of the result.

“In reality, the decision has already been made, and [the government] is only seeking popular legitimacy to back that decision,” Pablo Punín, a constitutional and criminal justice expert, told InSight Crime days before the vote.

Below, InSight Crime analyzes what the referendum could mean for Noboa’s response to Ecuador’s unprecedented security crisis and the country’s struggle with organized crime going forward.

Voters Back Militarization

Voters approved a change in the country’s constitution allowing the executive branch to deploy the armed forces to combat organized crime – including drug trafficking and money laundering – and to respond to prison riots without first enacting a state of emergency.

The constitutional amendment will make it easier for Noboa to continue leaning heavily on the military to deal with the country’s gangs. 

The president took office in November 2023 as Ecuador – long one of Latin America’s most peaceful countries – grappled with unprecedented violence. On January 8, after a particularly shocking explosion of criminal violence, he enacted a state of emergency to deploy the military and extended it for 30 days in March. 

The military is by far the most popular branch of Ecuador’s security forces and most Ecuadorians credit its presence in the streets and prisons with a dramatic reduction in homicides under the state of exception.

SEE ALSO: Unpacking Criminal Violence in Durán, Ecuador’s Cocaine Warehouse

But violence has surged since the end of March, with a steady flow of massacres and political assassinations calling into question the long-term viability of militarization. In the days leading up to the referendum, armed groups assassinated two mayors from different provinces in a span of three days. Crimes like extortion and kidnapping have also skyrocketed throughout this period, despite the military’s presence. 

“Here in Guayaquil, homicides have gone down but not extortion. Between 2023 and 2024, it went up by 400% – that’s with the state exception and with the military presence,” Andrés Sandoval, general manager of Segura EP, Guayaquil’s municipal security company, told InSight Crime. “They’re not touching criminal economies. They are not attacking them.” 

Human rights organizations have also flagged possible abuses of prisoners, including creating genetic profiles of them without their consent, and the military’s excessive use of force while making arrests. Since the start of the internal state of conflict, videos have surfaced of military officials humiliating and beating naked youths for minor infractions such as breaking government curfew.

Security officials speaking anonymously to InSight Crime, along with international NGOs, have expressed concern over mass arrests made by the military, pointing to insufficient evidence to back up some detentions. The armed forces detained almost 17,000 people between January and the end of March.

The military is not trained for police work, experts and military officials told InSight Crime. Many worry that increasing the military’s exposure to criminal gangs could suck them into corruption. 

Extradition as a Deterrent

Ecuadorians also approved constitutional changes that, for the first time, will permit the extradition of Ecuadorian nationals, except in cases of political crimes. 

This gives the Ecuadorian government new leverage over criminal organizations, allowing them to remove high-profile criminals from the country entirely – a strategy that could help prevent gang leaders from ordering extreme acts of violence or running criminal economies from behind bars.

Extradition, however, could have the opposite effect. In recent years, Ecuador’s criminal groups have responded to high-profile prisoner transfers with extreme violence. This included a wave of attacks after authorities attempted to transfer a leader of the Choneros gang to a maximum security prison in January. Attempts to extradite gang leaders could spark a similar, or more dramatic, response, as has happened in countries like Colombia, Mexico, and Jamaica. 

Criminal trials resulting from extraditions could shed light on how Ecuador’s drug traffickers operate. The US prosecution of Ecuadorian drug trafficker, Wilder Emilio Sánchez Farfán, alias “Gato Farfán,” has already exposed links between Mexican and Ecuadorian drug trafficking groups. Sánchez Farfán was arrested in Colombia in February 2023 and subsequently extradited to the United States.   

Allowing extraditions also holds symbolic importance, according to Dr. Jonathan Rosen, a security professor and author. The US government has already pledged close to $100 million in aid to Ecuador, and the Ecuadorian government sees their future cooperation as crucial to funding the militarized gang war.

The government’s inclusion of extradition in the referendum “is telling the United States that ‘we’re doing all we can to combat crime – help us out,’” he told InSight Crime. 

New Courts, Same Problems

Ecuadorians also voted to create special courts designed to reduce the ability of organized criminals to manipulate the country’s judicial system. 

The change comes after back-to-back scandals shone a light on how some members of the country’s criminal elite abuse constitutional guarantees to escape justice for serious crimes with the help of corrupt judicial officials.

The new courts, run by judges with specific expertise, will have exclusive jurisdiction to rule on constitutional guarantees, which Noboa hopes will limit criminals’ abuse of protections like the right to a speedy trial (habeas corpus), an adequate defense, and medical treatment as get-out-of-jail-free cards. 

SEE ALSO: How Criminal Elites in Ecuador Twist Legal Norms to Skirt Justice

This revision could transform the process for the better, improving the number of correct and efficient rulings on due process matters and limiting abuse, Punín told InSight Crime. But given Ecuador’s precarious financial situation, there are concerns about the government’s ability to sufficiently fund such courts. 

The new courts could also be undermined by the intimidation of judges, who often receive death threats when refusing to accept bribes from criminal groups seeking favorable rulings.

“If we can’t even provide security for the judges we have now… or prevent corruption in the existing [judicial] units, how are we going to do it with new ones?” said Punín. 

Featured image: Ecuadorians voted in a referendum where security issues dominated the ballot. Credit: InSight Crime/Anastasia Austin

The post Ecuadorians Back President’s Security Agenda But Challenges Await appeared first on InSight Crime.