Ecuadoreans give nod to tightened security amid persisting gang violence

More than half of voters on Sunday voted to support President Noboa’s plans for tighter security measures.

A woman takes part in a referendum in Ecuador
A woman takes part in the referendum the capital in Quito [Karen Toro/Reuters]

Ecuadoreans voting in a referendum have overwhelmingly approved tough new security measures designed to fight gang-related crime.

The result of a quick vote tally announced by the country’s National Electoral Council after voting finished late on Sunday showed that 60 to 73 percent of voters supported the referendum.

President Daniel Noboa, who took office in November, proposed the measures as the country faces rising violence that has seen two mayors killed in a week.

Citizens were asked 11 questions regarding the expansion of military and police powers, a significant tightening of gun control, and the imposition of harsher penalties for “terrorism”.

The proposals also included loosening obstacles to the extradition of accused criminals and lengthening prison sentences for convicted drug traffickers.

Reporting from Duran, Ecuador, Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo said voters were “extremely concerned” at the security situation.

“They want the government to do much more, even if that means reforming the constitution,” she said. “They say they are tired of living with insecurity.”

The tools to fight crime

Rising insecurity in Ecuador has been blamed on gangs with links to transnational cartels using its ports to ship drugs to the United States and Europe.

Since January 2023, at least a dozen politicians have been killed, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who was shot in August after a campaign event.

The results of Sunday’s referendum “will define the course and the state policy that we will take in order to face the challenge of fighting against violence and organised crime”, Noboa had said as voting began in the capital Quito.

The nine security-focused referendum questions received an enthusiastic “yes” vote. However, a pair of further proposals regarding labour regulations were rejected.

A measure that would allow workers to be contracted by the hour, which opponents claimed would only benefit large and international companies, as well as another recognising international arbitrage, were rejected, by more than 60 percent of voters.

Posting on Instagram after the tally was announced, the president said: “We have defended the country, now we have more tools to fight against crime and return peace to Ecuadorean families.”

Noboa had declared in January a state of “internal armed conflict”, with about 20 criminal groups blamed for a spasm of violence prompted by the jailbreak of a drug boss, who is still on the run.

Gangs kidnapped dozens of people, including police and prison guards, opened fire in a TV studio during a live broadcast, and threatened random executions.

A state of emergency was declared and the military deployed to retake control of the country’s prisons. Ecuador’s jail system had become a hub for gang operations and a bloody battleground that claimed the lives of more than 460 inmates in three years.


Despite these efforts, the violence has persisted. Noboa has asserted that this is “a sign that narcoterrorism and its allies are looking for spaces to terrorise us”.

Two mayors have been killed in the past week, making it three in less than a month.

As the vote was being held on Sunday, authorities announced they were investigating the killing of Cosme Damian Parrales, a prison director in the west Manabi province.

Nearly 13.6 million of the country’s 17.7 million inhabitants were eligible to cast a “yes” or “no” ballot over the 10 hours of voting.

The majority of the referendum questions were related to crime prevention, although Ecuador also grapples with widespread corruption, a crippling electricity shortage and a diplomatic spat with Mexico.

Last year, the country’s murder rate rose to a record 43 per 100,000 inhabitants – up from a mere six in 2018, according to official data.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies