Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 627, 25 April 2024

Ecuador: Overwhelming support for a referendum on strict security measures
Dhriti Mukherjee

In the news
On 20 April, Ecuadoreans overwhelmingly voted in favour of a referendum on tough new security measures. The National Electoral Council's tally showed that around 60 to 73 per cent of voters supported the referendum, which included 11 questions, including expanding military powers and tightening gun control. Nine of the 11 proposals received a "yes" vote.

Following the voting, Noboa stated, "We've defended the country." Now, we will have more tools to fight against the delinquent and restore peace to Ecuador's families." Former President Rafael Correa, who is now part of the opposition, said that his party would support the "fruits of the referendum" as that is a "mandate from the people."

Issues at large
First, an overview of the referendum. Ecuador's President Daniel Noboa proposed the referendum as part of his efforts to combat the deteriorating security situation in the country, which has made it one of the most dangerous places in the region. Of the 11 questions, eight focused on insecurity, corruption, international arbitrage, and labour contracts. Five questions are on the level of the constitutional amendment, of which the most important is allowing the armed forces to assist the police in combating organized crime. The primary focus of the referendum was on ramping up security measures to help the situation in the country, as the extradition of wanted criminals and longer sentences for terrorism were also included. The remaining six questions involve legal reforms, including penalties for offences relating to organized crime and stricter gun laws. Two controversial economic proposals - allowing workers to be contracted by the hour and recognizing international arbitrage were rejected by voters. The government spokesperson Roberto Izuerita explained that the referendum would "establish some permanent mechanisms, breaking the cycle of enacting emergency decrees and then going back to business as usual."
 
Second, a background to the referendum. Ecuador has traditionally been one of the most peaceful countries in Latin America, but recent waves of violence have quickly led to a deteriorating security situation. This referendum, in particular, came after Ecuador's most-wanted prisoner, Fito, escaped jail, after which gunmen stormed a live television broadcast in January, and inmates escaped after prison riots in six jails. Noboa then declared a 60-day emergency, deployed the military to the streets, and initiated an "internal armed conflict" against 22 gangs. He also vowed that the government would take matters into its own hands following this string of incidents. While this is the immediate background, organized crime and gang violence play a broader overall role.

Third, an analysis of Daniel Noboa's policies. Noboa's election campaign was characterized by promises to fight violence by creating jobs, addressing corruption, and introducing stricter laws to combat crime. His decisive action against the criminal organizations involved in the spate of violence in January, which led to homicides dropping by over 30 per cent in January compared to the previous month, led to an increase in his popularity. Further, the raid on Mexico's embassy in Quito to arrest former Ecuadorian Vice President Jorge Glas, who was facing embezzlement charges, showed that he was not afraid to take an aggressive approach. While the raid received mass regional and international criticism, Noboa remained unwavering and said the security crisis in the country called for "exceptional decisions." However, a surge in extortion and kidnapping cases in February shows that his policies may be aggressive but have also not been sustainable in achieving their objectives.
 
Fourth, drug politics and gangs. Gangs with links to transnational cartels have been blamed for the rising insecurity. Though Ecuador is situated between Peru and Colombia, two of the world's largest cocaine producers, for the longest time, it acted as a transit country that remained unaffected by armed conflict. In the 1990s, the country's drug trade was controlled by Colombia's FARC group; FARC's demobilization in 2016 created a power vacuum that invited Mexican and Venezuelan cartels to make use of Ecuador's ports. Murder rates have more than quadrupled since 2018, with two mayors being killed in the week before the referendum. Further, there have been allegations accusing the state of abetting the gangs.

In perspective
First, Daniel Noboa's intentions. Noboa's proposed policies and subsequent measures before and after becoming the president have been directed at improving the country's security landscape. While he has consistently put forth the message that he intends to significantly better the situation, these policies also helped him achieve and maintain popularity. He is finishing the term of former President Guillermo Lasso; however, he is expected to run for a full term in the elections next February. Thus, the referendum can be viewed as strategically timed in a way that allows him to maintain popularity among voters.
 
Second, mixed public response. Despite the referendum receiving overwhelming support, the sentiments are not completely positive. Some voters have questioned whether the referendum indicates a shift towards "manu dura" or "iron fist" policies, popular in Latin American countries such as El Salvador. The political group Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) accused the government of using the referendum to further Noboa's political interests. Human rights groups have also raised concerns that the referendum may be used to hide human rights abuses against suspected criminals and that the increased use of the military could result in violent clashes with civilians landing in the crossfire.

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