Quito – Ecuadorans voted in a referendum on Sunday that will decide whether to allow extradition of citizens linked to organized crime in a country rocked by a dramatic increase in violence.
No results were announced after polling centers concluded 10 hours of voting. Authorities have 10 days to count the ballots and announce results.
The extradition of Ecuadorans is prohibited by the South American country’s constitution.
Conservative President Guillermo Lasso has proposed legalizing it as a means of dealing with a crime wave that has claimed the lives of two candidates in local elections being held alongside the referendum.
“Ecuadorans, exercise your right to vote for Ecuador’s security and wellbeing,” the president tweeted Sunday after casting his vote in Guayaquil in the country’s southwest.
Ecuador is sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the world’s two largest cocaine producers, and has itself become a hub for the global drug trade in recent years.
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Despite not having any major drug plantations or cartels of its own, nor big laboratories for refining cocaine, Ecuador is listed by the United States among the top 22 drug-producing or transit countries in the world.
Drugs produced elsewhere are shipped from Ecuador’s Guayaquil port to the United States, Europe and Asia.
This has resulted in a bloody territorial war between gangs — some with ties to Mexican cartels according to the authorities — who brutally kill each other on the streets and in Ecuador’s overcrowded jails.
The country’s murder rate almost doubled between 2021 and 2022 from 14 to 25 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to official figures.
Drug seizures have skyrocketed and prison massacres have left more than 400 inmates dead since 2021.
In neighboring Colombia, extradition to the United States has proven to be a useful weapon against drug traffickers, though cocaine production is still booming.
‘Threaten the peace’
Allowing extradition is one of eight constitutional measures that some 13.4 million eligible voters among Ecuador’s 18.2 million people were asked about in Sunday’s mandatory 10-hour Yes/No vote.
“The country is marked by insecurity and this due to the criminal mafias taking root in the country,” said lawyer Jorge Cevallos, 63, voting in Quito.
It was not immediately known when results will be announced.
A survey by pollster Cedatos taken Saturday and released after voting concluded Sunday said 68 percent of those questioned favor allowing extradition.
Other proposals include shrinking the opposition-controlled 137-member National Assembly.
The referendum went hand in hand with elections for mayors, municipal and neighborhood councils, and for a council that nominates people to key oversight posts.
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Mayoral candidate Omar Menendez from the western town of Puerto Lopez was assassinated on the eve of Sunday’s vote.
Lasso condemned the murder and expressed his condolences to Menendez’s family and political party.
Two weeks earlier, another mayoral candidate was also killed.
Analysts say Sunday’s vote will serve as a political test for Lasso, who took office in 2021 and has an unpopularity rating of 80 percent, according to a recent poll.
The opposition Citizen Revolution movement led by former socialist president Rafael Correa is campaigning for the rejection of Lasso’s proposed constitutional reforms.
The National Assembly, where Lasso’s ruling party has only 13 of the 137 seats, will have one year to implement any constitutional changes approved in Sunday’s referendum.
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