CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The contest comes Sunday, and whoever wins the prize — a job that starts on Christmas — will face a difficult, if not impossible, task. What awaits is a shorter-than-normal 15-month run as president of Ecuador, which is engulfed in a surge of violence tied to drug trafficking.
The runoff election pits an heir to a banana empire, Daniel Noboa, and an attorney, Luisa González.
In a different year or in another country, their business and lawyering experience might help them deliver on campaign promises. But all that Ecuadorians want is safety, and they are demanding to get it in a tiny fraction of the time that has taken other countries to address the issue.
“There’s nothing that fails like success,” said Lowell Gustafson, a Latin American politics professor at Villanova University. “Whoever wins this election is going to have to deal with this … but I don’t know what can be expected from the president in that kind of short time with what sure look to be virtually intractable problems.”
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Ecuador, flanked by the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, is spiraling downward. Virtually no one feels safe amid unprecedented violence that erupted roughly three years ago with a rise in criminal activity.
It has reached an unthinkable level since August, starting with the assassination in broad daylight of a presidential candidate. Fernando Villavicencio, who had a famously tough stance on organized crime and corruption, was fatally shot Aug. 9, only days before the presidential election’s first round, despite having a security detail that included police and bodyguards.
Since then, other politicians and political leaders have been killed or kidnapped, car bombs have exploded in multiple cities, including the capital, Quito, and inmates have rioted in prisons. The government’s lack of control even allowed the killings earlier this month of seven men being held in prisons as suspects in Villavicencio’s slaying.
The National Police tallied 3,568 violent deaths in the first six months of this year, far more than the 2,042 reported during the same period in 2022. That year ended with 4,600 violent deaths, the country’s highest in history and double the total in 2021.
“Maybe the new president will do something, I hope so, whatever it takes because we are doing really bad with this issue of insecurity,” said Edson Guerra, a painter who was robbed of his cellphone over the weekend. “Before, those who had money were threatened, now it’s all of us, even those who don’t have much.”
Voting is mandatory in Ecuador.
The election was triggered by President Guillermo Lasso dissolving the National Assembly in May to avoid being impeached over alleged improprieties in a contract by the state-owned oil transport company. Lasso, a conservative former banker, clashed constantly with lawmakers after his election in 2021. He decided not to run in the special election, and the winner of Sunday’s vote will finish out his four-year term.
Noboa and González, both of whom have served short stints as lawmakers, advanced to the runoff by finishing ahead of six other candidates in the election’s first round Aug. 22.
Noboa, 35, is an heir to a fortune built on Ecuador’s main crop, bananas. His political career began in 2021, when he won a seat in the National Assembly and chaired its Economic Development Commission. He opened an event organizing company when he was 18 and then joined his father’s Noboa Corp., where he held management positions in the shipping, logistics and commercial areas.
González, 45, held various government jobs during the decade-long presidency of Rafael Correa, her mentor, and was a lawmaker until May. She was unknown to most voters until Correa’s party picked her as its presidential candidate. At the start of the campaign, she said Correa would be her adviser, but she has recently tried to distance herself a bit in an effort to court voters who oppose the former president.
The causes for the spike in violence are complex. All, though, revolve around cocaine trafficking. Mexican, Colombian and Balkan cartels have set roots in Ecuador.
Authorities attribute the rising violence to a power vacuum following the killing in 2020 of Jorge Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña” or “JL,” the leader of the local Los Choneros gang. Its members carry out contract killings, run extortion operations, move and sell drugs, and rule prisons.
Los Choneros and similar groups linked to cartels are fighting over drug-trafficking routes and control of territory, including within prisons, where at least 400 inmates have died since 2021.
González has promised to purge police ranks of bad actors; invest in intelligence, technology and other gear for police; and increase law enforcement’s presence on the country’s borders.
Noboa has proposed changes to the country’s intelligence efforts; more ammunition and other gear for police officers, who are now outgunned by criminals; and a large presence of the military in prisons, ports and roads. He has also pitched using barges to house inmates.
Gustafson said the candidates face one more obstacle. Neither Noboa’s nor González’s parties have enough seats in the National Assembly to be able to govern on their own.
“I’m pessimistic,” he said. “I think the Ecuadorian president is doomed. How is he going to gain control over these cartels?”
Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.