Ecuador voters back tougher security to fight gang violence

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Ecuadoreans have voted to let the military patrol their streets in a bid to improve security in the country. This decision came after Ecuador, once a peaceful nation, saw its murder rate rise to the highest in Latin America. Voters also supported longer prison sentences and the extradition of violent criminals. However, human rights groups are worried these measures could lead to abuses.

President Daniel Noboa called for this referendum after a series of high-profile murders, including the assassination of a presidential candidate last year and several mayors in recent months. In 2023, police recorded about 8,000 violent deaths. January saw a wave of violence with a top gang leader escaping from jail, prison riots, and armed gang members holding TV station staff hostage while they were live on air.

In response, President Noboa declared a state of emergency and brought in the military to fight criminal gangs and control the prisons. The referendum’s result will allow him to expand the powers of the military and the police on a longer-term basis. Many voters who supported these measures said they felt safer on the streets since the military presence increased.

However, not everyone agrees with this approach. Carmen Elena Simbaña, whose youngest brother Darwin was killed by a gang member two years ago, voted against the new measures. Darwin was just 19 when he was stabbed to death by someone demanding money. Ms. Simbaña said the murder happened “in the midst of police officers, who were around and did not come to help.” Despite her personal experience, she believes “militarizing the country is not the solution.” She feels that the root of crime is neglect and wants to see investment in youth, such as “spaces for children to engage in sports, music, and art,” rather than more funding for the military.

A cocaine dealer known as “El Gato” (The Cat) provides an example of Ms. Simbaña’s argument. The 29-year-old turned to crime due to his family’s financial problems, which forced his mother to work late, leaving him alone and vulnerable to bad influences. He started using and selling drugs at 14 and is still addicted 15 years later. Despite his involvement in the drug trade, “El Gato” supports tougher security measures, arguing that the presence of crime and drugs makes it harder for him to quit. He says, “When I go out and you have it around the corner, that is the problem.” His friend, David Rodríguez, agrees, saying “El Gato” was a “kid who should have been playing ball in the park.” David, who has been a victim of six “express kidnappings,” also supports the new security measures, believing that “the military does give that relief to citizens.”

Ecuador’s location between Colombia and Peru, the world’s two biggest cocaine producers, makes it a convenient route for shipping drugs to the US and Europe. The country’s economic slump during the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many young people into gangs, and its relaxed visa system allowed international gangs to move in.

The referendum also included a proposal to legalize hourly work contracts, which the government said would help get young people into work and away from crime. Critics argued this would roll back workers’ rights, and the proposal did not pass. The main focus, however, has been on the new security measures. President Noboa welcomed their approval, saying, “Now we will have more tools to fight crime and restore peace to Ecuadorian families.”

Human rights groups, however, argue these measures could lead to abuses, such as mass arrests and arbitrary detentions. For example, Carlos Méndez was leaving work when police on motorcycles, conducting a nearby raid, stopped him and violently beat him. His father, also named Carlos, said the incident still haunted the family: “It was a trauma. We have that fear this could happen again.” Rosa Bolaños, of the human rights group INREDH, warned that the new measures could lead to more incidents like this.

Ms. Bolaños instead wants money to be invested in getting the 5,000 children in the region who are out of school back into education. She also blames cocaine users in wealthier nations for the violence. “The cost of a good party, of fun, of even being a workaholic – is the kid who is murdered every day in the streets,” she said. “It’s the blood of a whole country. Because cocaine is not just about drug lords and gangs. It involves the people that live in poverty, on $1 a day.”

In summary, Ecuador’s decision to use the military to patrol the streets is a response to rising violence and crime. While some people feel safer with the military’s presence, others believe the root causes of crime need to be addressed through investment in youth and education. Human rights groups are concerned that the new measures could lead to abuses, highlighting the need for a balanced approach to improving security.

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