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Ecuador prison warden killed as country votes on security

April 22, 2024

The chief warden of a prison was shot dead in western Ecuador. His death came as citizens voted on a referendum on President Noboa's plans to crack down on criminal gangs and bring the security situation under control.

A polling station coordinator prepares the necessary material for Sunday's referendum on tougher measures against organized crime at a school in Quito
Millions of Ecuadorans will cast ballots to decide whether or not to green-light stricter measuresImage: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

A prison warden was shot and killed in Ecuador on Sunday, as Ecuadorians headed to the polls for a referendum on a series of measures to tackle gang violence and unrest gripping the South American nation.

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

SNAI gave no more details on Parrales' death, but said it would work with the investigating authorities to find those responsible.

Voters were meanwhile being polled on 11 security-related questions, such as whether they would support deploying the military in the fight against gangs, making it easier to extradite accused criminals, and increasing sentences for crimes such as terrorism and murder.

Nearly 13.6 million people are eligible to cast a "yes" or "no" vote.

Ecuador, otherwise known as a peaceful nation, has been seeing a wave of violence spilling over from Colombia, which is the world's largest cocaine producer. 

What is the referendum for?

Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa, who has been in power since November last year, is seeking popular backing for his plans to bring the situation under control. He also wants to change the constitution to make it easier for Ecuadorians who are wanted in other countries on organized crime charges to be extradited.

An early exit poll showed overwhelming voter support for the extradition of mafia bosses to US prisons and other anti-gang measures. The "yes" vote in favor of extradition received 72% support, while "no" received 25% of the total votes, according to the company Infinity Estrategas. 

"We have defended the country, now we will have more tools to fight crime and restore peace to Ecuadorian families," Noboa said after the release of the exit poll.

The recent spike in violence has been attributed to gangs who have connections with international cartels, which use Ecuadorian ports to transport drugs to the US and Europe. The country is also facing water and power shortages amid strained ties with Mexico.

In January, a major drug lord broke out of jail and gangs kidnapped dozens of people, including police and prison guards. Gangsters also opened fire at a TV studio during a live broadcast, killing 20. Following the unrest, Noboa declared a state of "internal armed conflict," allowing him to use emergency powers to deploy the army. 

At least a dozen politicians have been killed in the past year, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio

Ecuador's murder rate in the past year has risen to 43 per 100,000 inhabitants, up from six in 2018, according to official records.

Noboa, 36, mobilized the country's forces to take control of the security situation, especially prisons which had become a ground for violence and gang operations. Nevertheless, the violence has continued.

Ecuador is heading to elections next year, and Noboa is in the final 18 months of his tenure. 

He took office after being elected in the wake of former President Guillermo Lasso's resignation. Lasso stepped down amid an investigation into alleged corruption by congress.

rmt, tg/nm (AFP, AP)