Berliner Tageblatt - Prison chief slain as Ecuadorans vote on anti-crime measures

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Prison chief slain as Ecuadorans vote on anti-crime measures
Prison chief slain as Ecuadorans vote on anti-crime measures / Photo: © AFP

Prison chief slain as Ecuadorans vote on anti-crime measures

Assailants gunned down the chief warden of an Ecuador prison Sunday as citizens across the nation cast ballots on proposed tougher measures to fight a surge in gang-related crime.

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Damian Parrales, chief of the El Rodero prison in coastal Manabi state, "was victim of an attack that unfortunately cost him his life," the national prison authority said in a statement.

Ecuadoran prisons have become nerve centers for organized crime groups and a bloody battleground that has claimed the lives of more than 460 inmates in three years.

Parrales, who had assumed his prison post just five days ago, was gunned down as he ate lunch with his family in the town of Jipijapa, local media reported.

Once-peaceful Ecuador has been grappling with a shocking rise in violence, flaring up due to a rise in narcotics trafficking, that has seen two mayors killed this week.

The results of the referendum "will define the course and the state policy that we will take in order to face the challenge" of organized crime, said President Daniel Noboa.

Nearly 13.6 million of the country's 17.7 million inhabitants were eligible to cast a "Yes" or "No" on 11 referendum questions on the ballot.

Polls closed in the early evening, and preliminary results were expected within hours.

Noboa declared in January a state of "internal armed conflict," with about 20 criminal groups blamed for a spasm of violence sparked by the jailbreak of a major drug lord, still on the run.

Gangsters kidnapped dozens of people, including police and prison guards, opened fire in a TV studio during a live broadcast, part of a days-long spasm of violence that caused about 20 deaths.

Despite the deployment of soldiers to combat gangs, violence has persisted. Two mayors have been killed in the past week, making it five in a year and three in less than a month.

Since January last year, at least a dozen politicians have been slain in Ecuador, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who was gunned down last August after a campaign event.

In Sunday's vote, Noboa is seeking popular backing for his plans to clamp down even harder on those responsible for such acts.

Citizens are being asked to approve an expansion of military and police powers, significantly boosting gun controls and imposing harsher penalties for "terrorism" and drug trafficking.

Noboa is also proposing to change the constitution so that Ecuadorans wanted abroad for organized crime-related offenses can be extradited.

The extradition issue animates Alexandra Rocha, 25, a teacher, who said she voted in favor.

"I feel that the laws here are not strong enough to make people who commit a crime pay for what they are doing," Rocha said.

But another voter, Dulce Negrete, "voted no to everything," believing that extradition serves no purpose -- and that the army's participation in operations against gangs has mainly resulted in "more deaths."

- 'Dirty campaign'? -

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.

In a publication Friday, polling firm Gallup said no other region in the world, excluding active war zones, felt less secure in 2023 to residents than Ecuador's Guayas province.

Other polls show a majority of Ecuadorans will likely vote for Noboa's reforms.

The vote is taking place in the same week that Ecuadorans faced power cuts of up to 13 hours as drought left key hydroelectric reservoirs nearly empty.

The government ordered workers to stay at home for two days in a bid to save scant energy resources.

Noboa has put some of the blame on "sabotage" without naming anyone in particular.