Ecuador Votes For Martial Law.

Photo: Ecuadorian Presidency. Daniel Noboa, a young president determined to make his mark.
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In yesterday’s referendum Ecuadoreans voted in favour of allowing the army to help out the police in fighting organized crime.

The poll was called after Ecuador went from being relatively peaceful to having the highest recorded murder rate in Latin America.

Voters also backed longer prison terms and allowing extraditing violent criminals to be extradited from Ecuador.

But human rights groups have raised concerns that the measures could lead to abuses.

President Daniel Noboa called the referendum following a spate of high-profile murders, including the assassination of a presidential candidate last year and several mayors in recent months.

Noboa has argued that a list of armed gangs should be considered to be terrorist organizations, and therefor a suitable target for military intervention, and it appears that the voters have agreed with him.

In 2023, police recorded about 8,000 violent deaths, with these numbers being boosted by several prison massacres and gang warfare outside of the prisons, especially in the coastal provinces and in January of this year the country was again hit by a wave of violence which saw a top gang leader escape from jail, prison riots and staff at a TV station being held hostage by armed gang members while they were live on air.

President Noboa subsequently declared a state of emergency and brought in the military to fight criminal gangs and control the prisons – but the result of the referendum will allow him to expand the powers of the military and the police on a longer-term basis.

However it was not one way traffic in the referendum and a couple of measures aimed at releasing employers from paying the full-time minimum wage were roundly defeated.

At the polls, many of those voting “yes” to the raft of security measures said they had felt safer on the streets since the military presence had increased.

A cocaine dealer known as “El Gato” (The Cat) who apparently  gave an interview to a BBC stringer could be an example for Ms Simbaña’s argument. The 29-year-old man blamed his criminal career crime on his family’s financial problems, which forced his mother to work late when he was a child leaving him at home alone.

As a young teenager he joined a gang, which led to him dealing in, and then using addictive drugs.

He tried to kick the habit but has found it hard: “Obviously, I want to leave this, right? But it is such a strong addiction. I have gone to rehabilitation centres, I have locked myself in my family’s house.”

Despite his own involvement in the drugs trade, “El Gato” urged people to vote in favour of the tougher security measures, arguing that being surrounded by crime and drugs had made it harder for him to give up drugs.

“When I go and you have it out around the corner, that is the problem,” he said.

Violent crime has increased in Ecuador in recent years. The country is sandwiched between the world’s two biggest cocaine-growing territories – Colombia and Peru – and its ports–chiefly Guayaquil– provide convenient routes to ship the drug out to the US and Europe, where demand is growing.

Ecuador’s economic slump during the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many young people into gangs and its relaxed visa system led to many international gangs moving in.

The referendum also asked people to back the legalisation of hourly work contracts, which the government said would help get young people into work and away from crime. Critics argued it would roll back workers’ rights, undermining the minimum wage, and it did not pass.

But the main focus has been on the new security measures.

President Noboa has welcomed their approval in the referendum, saying “now we will have more tools to fight crime and restore peace to Ecuadoran families”.

However, some human rights groups argue they could lead to human rights abuses, including mass arrests and arbitrary detentions, such as that of Carlos Méndez.

Sources: BBC, El Comercio, Voz de Tomembamba.
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