Ecuador’s president-elect has presented an ambitious set of security plans to tackle the country’s growing organized crime problem, but harsh political realities will shackle his ability to deliver on his pledges.
Daniel Noboa, the son of a banana magnate who is Ecuador’s richest man, won the second round of a special presidential election on October 15. Noboa will become Ecuador’s youngest-ever president at age 35, when he replaces current President Guillermo Lasso, who cut short his own term when clashes with opposing lawmakers led him to dissolve Ecuador’s National Assembly.
Noboa will take office facing a security crisis, which became central to the election after the August 9 assassination of one of the other candidates, organized crime and corruption critic Fernando Villavicencio. On October 6, just over a week before the final vote, authorities found six suspects in Villavicencio’s murder dead in their prison cells.
Noboa’s proposals for tackling organized crime violence have included a complex and sometimes contradictory mix of social programs, institutional reforms, and military action.
Early on in his campaign, his manifesto emphasized jobs and education as the antidote to organized crime.
“Poverty, inequality, lack of opportunity, and underemployment generate frustration and despair, often driving people to crime. Therefore, any effort to reduce violence must include an inclusive socioeconomic development strategy,” reads Noboa’s official presidential platform.
The programs proposed in the manifesto’s security section reflect these priorities, emphasizing job creation, providing access to education and basic services, initiating judicial reforms to create a system focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and promoting values of respect and tolerance in schools. It also highlights the need to fight corruption and increase transparency in government institutions.
However, as the campaign progressed, Noboa pivoted to hardline security measures in his speeches and social media posts. These more recent policies fall under his “Fénix” (Phoenix) security plan, which Noboa told the news service EFE will cost $830 million over 10 years.
The proposal includes plans to centralize intelligence gathering and create a new national intelligence agency, answering only to the president. This agency would set the security strategy and priorities for the police and military.
The Fénix plan will also expand the military’s role in combating crime and insecurity, establishing their regular presence at Ecuador’s borders, ports, airports, and main highways. By sending soldiers and high-tech equipment, including a satellite system, drones, and radars, to these strategic junctures, Noboa said he hopes to lessen Ecuador’s appeal to the transnational drug trafficking organizations that work with the local criminal groups driving the violence.
The president-elect also plans to work with Israel’s government to install a system of militarized surveillance and facial recognition in poor neighborhoods, where gangs recruit disenfranchised youth, and to pour money into new equipment for law enforcement.
Another key element of Noboa’s plans is reform of the prisons, which house some of the country’s most notorious criminal groups and have been the scene of some of the worst violence in recent years. The proposals emphasize segregating the prison population and include building maximum-security prison ships to hold the 17% of prisoners he claims are responsible for the most violence.
Despite Noboa’s pledge to focus judicial efforts on rehabilitation rather than punishment, he has also suggested he will reverse previous laws that decriminalized personal drug use.
Noboa, however, has just one-and-a-half years to implement his agenda as he will finish what remains of Lasso’s term.
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Noboa faces the same security challenges as his predecessor, including out-of-control prisons, the growing influence of drug trafficking groups, and corruption. Lasso’s own tough-on-crime stance failed to address these security woes, and there is now a risk of Noboa following the same path.
An opposition-controlled legislature, a truncated term, and a severe government deficit will force Noboa to make tough decisions about how to use his limited time, resources, and political capital. His recent rhetoric, along with the practical limitations of the executive branch, suggests that this may lead him to fall back on militarization.
Noboa’s early proposals suggest he understands the importance of medium and long-term social programs and institutional reform to address the roots of organized crime violence. But these require the legislature’s support to pass.
While Noboa won the presidency, his party — the National Democratic Party (Acción Democrática Nacional – ADN) — controls only 14 of the 137 seats in Ecuador’s National Assembly. The largest block, of 52 seats, belongs to the ADN’s main rival, the Citizen’s Revolution Movement (Movimiento Revolución Ciudadana – RC).
Though RC leaders have promised to work with Noboa, the proximity of the next election hinders the chance of reaching across the aisle, Mario Pazmiño, an Ecuadorian security analyst, told InSight Crime.
“[The RC] is not interested in contributing to the current administration’s success. They have a year and a half to destroy Daniel Noboa’s chance for reelection if they want to govern in 2025,” he said.
Other experts were more optimistic about Noboa’s chances.
“It all depends on whether he can establish some sort of grand coalition. He was very willing to work with the [RC] during his time in the assembly, so I don’t see this as a non-starter,” Will Freeman, fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told InSight Crime.
No matter how well Noboa builds a coalition, he’s unlikely to get all of his policies through the legislature, especially since many require more time to put in place than his drastically shortened mandate gives him.
“He has laid out a mix of ideas, some reasonable, others — like prison ships — more fantastical, that are far too ambitious for the time or legislative support he will have. He needs to focus on the basics,” Freeman told InSight Crime. “His priority should be constructing a national pact, including as many members of the opposition as possible, aimed at reversing the criminal capture of the prison authorities, ports, and police.”
Ecuador’s electorate, however, will want to see results fast.
“People are terrified, they are afraid, they are locking themselves up, they are putting bars on their windows,” Juan Jaramillo, an Ecuadorian security expert and the former commander of the National Police along the country’s northern border, told InSight Crime.
Given these limitations and demands, Noboa’s militarization policies will likely be the easiest to implement, and they may provide the sort of short-term results that would help his campaign if he runs for reelection, as he told Ecuadorian news media he would.
Leading up to the election, Noboa began using the phrase “iron fist” (mano dura) in his social media posts, and in the final presidential debate on October 1, he argued that the government has misclassified organized crime groups as “urban gangs,” saying they were instead “narco-terrorists financed by drug traffickers to terrorize Ecuadorian families and undermine Ecuadorian sovereignty.”
However, while such policies may help him get reelected, history both in Ecuador and beyond suggests they will not provide long-term, sustainable solutions to the challenges faced by the country.
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