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In a country rife with violence, the vote will test the hardline stance of its leaders

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Ecuadorians will hold a referendum on Sunday that could give their center-right president greater powers to combat drug-related gang violence and gauge his performance in his re-election campaign next year.

President Daniel Noboa, 36-year-old heir to a banana empire Taking office in November after the election season Drug-related gang violencehas soared in the past five years to levels not seen in decades.

In January, he Declaration of “internal armed conflict”and directed the army to “eliminate” the country’s roughly two dozen gangs, which the government labels “terrorist organizations.” The major move allows soldiers to patrol streets and prisons, where many have already arrived controlled by gangs.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Noboa took an extraordinary step: Arrest of an Ecuadorian politician facing jail time He took refuge at the Mexican embassy in Quito, which experts said violated international treaties on the sanctity of diplomatic posts. The move drew widespread condemnation across the region.

Noboa defended the embassy raid, saying the former vice-presidential politician was not entitled to protection because he was a convicted criminal.

Overall, political analysts say, the deployment of the military and the forcible arrest of the former vice president are an attempt to demonstrate Noboa’s tough fight against crime and impunity. Sunday’s vote will gauge voter support for his radical stance.

although Mr Noboa’s approval rating is highSome human rights groups have criticized his government’s harsh response as going too far, leading to abuses in prisons and civilians on the streets.

Still, most Ecuadorians are willing to sacrifice Noboa’s harsh tactics if it reduces their likelihood of falling victim to crime, experts say.

“Noboa is now one of the most popular presidents in the region,” said Gladys Gonzalez, who studies Ecuador at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank. “He is using his current popularity to propel himself into the presidential election.”

The referendum included 11 questions, eight of which were related to security.

The security measures would enshrine into law an increased military presence, extend sentences for certain crimes related to organized crime and allow the extradition of criminals convicted in Ecuador, among other measures.

Massive violence by international crime syndicates and local gangs has made the country of 17 million a major player in the global drug trade. Tens of thousands of Ecuadorians fled to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In early January, the large coastal city of Guayaquil emerged A turning point in a long-running security crisis: Gangs attack Ecuadorian prison after authorities take over city.

In response, Noboa declared a state of internal conflict, and his combative tactics initially reduced violence and created a precarious sense of security. But the stability did not last.During the Easter holiday this month, 137 murders, kidnappings and ransoms occurred in Ecuador has been increasing.

President says he sent police into Mexican embassy to arrest Jorge GlassThe former vice president was jailed for corruption as Mexico abused the immunities and privileges granted to its diplomatic corps.

But the move also sends a message consistent with Mr Noboa’s tough approach to violence and corruption.

even as opinion polls show Although his approval rating has declined in recent months, it remains at 74%. Most analysts expect Ecuadorians to approve the security issue on the ballot.

“There was really overwhelming support,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “I think all of them would strongly support ‘yes’.”

But some non-security related questions are less popular. One of them would legalize hourly employment contracts, which are currently banned. Unions say employers can use them to undermine workers’ rights and pay lower wages than allowed by law.

Ecuadorians can decide on each issue individually, so even if they vote against the more contentious issues, the overall result could still give a strong mandate to Mr. Noboa, who is expected to vote in February seek re-election in the election.

“If anyone votes yes, a resounding ‘yes’ vote, it’s also a way of helping the government argue that it needs more time to continue to implement these changes and reforms to combat organized crime,” Gonzalez Ms. Si said.

If the security measures are approved, the results will be binding and the National Assembly will have 60 days to pass them into law.

But some analysts say the referendum is more of a barometer of Noboa’s popularity than an effective way to address the country’s security challenges.

“We don’t vote for the issue; instead, we vote for the person who raised the issue,” said Fernando Carrión, who studies violence and drug trafficking at the Latin American Academy of Social Sciences, a regional research and analysis group.

He added that measures such as increasing prison terms could exacerbate prison overcrowding and violence.

Voters are heading to the polls after weeks of turmoil, but some say they are undeterred.

Susana Chejín, 62, a resident of the south, said: “I will vote ‘yes’ in this referendum because I believe this is the only way to achieve change in Ecuador and we can all have a better future. “Loja City.

“He is making positive changes for the country, fighting crime and drug trafficking,” she said of Mr. Noboa.

Others said they believed the referendum question was not enough to address insecurity in the country.

“We are still in a vicious cycle of focusing on symptoms rather than causes,” said Juan Diego Del Pozo, a 31-year-old photographer in Quito. “None of the questions are designed to address structural issues like inequality. I would vote a resounding ‘no’ on every question.”

Tully Ponce Reporting from Guayaquil, Ecuador, and Jose María Leon Cabrera From Quito, Ecuador.

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