Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Now Empowered, Noboa Can Still Avoid Authoritarian Drift

Ecuador’s president gained a resounding endorsement for “mano dura” policies against organized crime in Sunday’s referendum. A delicate democratic balance is at stake.
President of Ecuador Daniel Noboa arrives at Carondelet Palace in Quito. Franklin Jacome/Getty Images
Reading Time: 4 minutes

RIO DE JANEIRO — Once considered an oasis of stability in South America, Ecuador has been rocked by drug-related violence in recent years. In what looks like a regional trend, a majority of Ecuadorians backed a series of controversial proposals to militarize the fight against organized crime. But the package of security measures proposed in a referendum last Sunday isn’t guaranteed to make residents safer.

While burnishing the interim government’s “tough on crime” credentials, they risk militarizing law enforcement, overwhelming overcrowded prisons, fragmenting the country’s two dozen crime groups, and ignoring underlying challenges that are fueling insecurity in the first place.

The call for a military-led response to gangs comes in the wake of an unprecedented increase in violence linked to cocaine trafficking. The national homicide rate climbed from 13.7 per 100,000 in 2021 to 46 per 100,000 last year. The referendum was presented to the public as a decisive response to the escalating security crisis—but another aim is to shore up support for President Noboa’s reelection in 2025. There’s a real risk that neither goal will be met.

The referendum results give President Noboa a clear mandate to ramp up the fight against organized crime. Among the nine measures overwhelmingly supported by voters are the creation of special constitutional courts to speed up prosecutions and new extradition procedures. There are also provisions to expand the army’s presence in policing patrols, new regulations around prisons, and longer sentences for offenses linked to murder, drug and arms trafficking, and kidnapping. The country’s National Assembly now has 60 days to pass them into law.

These measures won’t come cheap: the costs of supporting over 15,000 soldiers deployed across Ecuador are expected to reach at least $1 billion this year alone. Faced with a sputtering economy and ongoing discussions with the IMF on a new financial reform package, Noboa has already implemented a tax hike which could hinder his prospects for reelection.

Evaluating the new measures

Assuming they are effectively implemented and adequately funded, some of the proposed measures might help Ecuador’s fight against organized crime. The special constitutional courts, for example, are expected to help clear judicial backlogs. Overseen by specially trained judges, they could reduce the ability of well financed criminals to manipulate constitutional guarantees and escape punishment. Concerns nevertheless persist about the continued vulnerability of judges to bribery and intimidation. The approval of extradition also gives the Ecuadorian authorities the power to remove crime bosses from the country. Yet there are also fears that these measures could precipitate a violent response from criminal groups who in the past have responded to high-profile prison transfers with violence. Previously, for example in Colombia and Mexico, extraditing crime leaders to the U.S. has drawn massive retaliation from cartels. 

The focus on securing prisons and dismantling the criminal networks that run them is warranted. As in other Latin American countries, many of Ecuador’s jails are effectively ruled by inmates themselves. Prisons are the nerve centers of organized crime—and spectacular violence within them is made possible by systemic corruption across the criminal justice and penal institutions. Toughening sentences and regaining control of prisons could have some deterrent value. But these measures alone will not slow the growth of gangs in Ecuador. Chronic youth unemployment, high levels of school abstention, and dim economic prospects are a boon to gang recruitment.

Involving the military

Arguably the most controversial feature of the approved security measures is the militarization of the fight against organized crime. Ecuador’s armed forces are immensely popular, and most citizens credit them with having helped temporarily quelled violence last month. But there are also questions about the long-term viability of militarized approaches, especially in the wake of high-profile assassinations and kidnappings that have surged in recent weeks.

There are also concerns among human rights observers that the proposed strategy focuses more on mass arrests of low-profile young criminals than on disrupting the underlying illicit markets and flows that sustain criminal networks. Military involvement could escalate the risk of excessive use of force and abuses not just against prisoners, but also citizens more broadly. After all, the military is not trained to conduct police duties. With almost 17,000 Ecuadorians reportedly detained between January and March 2024, there are also worries that many arrests are being made without sufficient evidence.

Ecuador’s embrace of militarized approaches to fight organized crime is evidence of what some call the “Bukele effect”—and has raised fears that tough-on-crime measures may become the rule, not the exception. And while there are some similarities, Ecuador presents a very different context from El Salvador. For one, Ecuador is ten times larger and has three times the population. What is more, Ecuador has far more criminal groups than El Salvador. In addition to the Choneros, Lagartos and Lobos, rival Ecuadorian gangs, there are a host of transnational drug trafficking organizations.

Shoring up Ecuadorian justice

While the referendum results are strongly supported by the public (and backed for now by Noboa’s opponents), they could accelerate authoritarian drift. Paradoxically, the president’s support for the enhanced role of the military in fighting crime represents a shift from his earlier stance during the presidential campaign. Until recently, he mostly opposed the use of military force to fight gangs and advocated instead measures to strengthen the judicial system, train police, expand community policing, and improve prison conditions. He shifted his position on assuming office and after the widely publicized storming of a television station by gunmen in January 2024.

President Noboa is right to advocate for sustained investment in improving security and justice institutions. One of the reasons why Ecuador’s judicial systems are currently so weak is because they were systematically degraded or ignored by previous leaders. Former President Rafael Correa routinely interfered in judicial cases. His successor, Lenín Moreno, cut security budgets and eliminated the Ministry of Justice altogether in 2018, replacing it with a far weaker agency. To his credit, President Noboa clearly sees things differently and has prioritized security and justice on taking office in late 2023.

At the very least, the success of any effort to fight organized crime hinges on building a comprehensive strategy that not only dismantles upper and middle-level crime networks but also rebuilds legitimate and accountable institutions. Regaining control of the prisons should also be accompanied by a well-resourced strategy to provide meaningful options for young people. A lesson from across the region is that tough security measures must also be complemented with effective violence prevention programs. The challenges of deterring, disrupting, and dismantling organized crime are legion. They are set to grow even more difficult as the presidential election approaches, and support for the Bukele effect makes simple solutions more electorally profitable.


Reading Time: 4 minutesRobert Muggah is a co-founder and research director of the Igarapé Institute, a leading think and do tank in Brazil. He is also co-founder of the SecDev Group and SecDev Foundation, digital security and risk analysis groups with global reach. 

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Tags: Daniel Noboa, Ecuador, Insecurity
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