Daniel Noboa

Daniel Noboa. (AP)

Update: Ecuador’s 2024 Security Referendum

By Jon Orbach

Amid a surge in organized crime, President Daniel Noboa seeks to strengthen the armed forces and drug penalties in an April 21 vote.

When Daniel Noboa took over as Ecuador’s president in November 2023, it was no secret that the country’s security scenario had worsened. Once considered a Latin American safe haven, in recent years, Ecuador has seen organized crime groups become more active, leading to an explosion of violence throughout the country. Homicides skyrocketed from 13.7 murders per 100,000 people in 2021 to 45 in 2023

Five months into Noboa’s term, and ahead of February 2025 general elections in which he plans to compete, the 36-year-old banana scion is escalating action. Already he’s declared an “internal armed conflict” against gangs, arrested tens of thousands of people accused of involvement with organized crime, and ordered the armed forces to the streets.

Now his government is holding an April 21 referendum on security. Noboa says the vote’s purpose is to have “more order in judicial functions, more backing for the armed forces and the police, and more order.”

Days ahead of the referendum, the president drew international criticism for his April 5 decision to raid the Mexican Embassy to capture a former Vice President Jorge Glas, who is accused of corruption and ties to criminal gangs. But at home, Noboa, aware of how unpopular Glas is in Ecuador, commands high levels of approval that could help usher through the security changes.

What’s in the referendum? Will it pass? AS/COA Online takes a look.

The security context

On January 9, Noboa initiated an “internal armed conflict” against 22 gangs in the country, ordering troops to the streets. This followed Los Choneros gang leader José Adolfo Macías’ escape from a Guayaquil prison, the Ecuadoran government’s ensuing state of emergency, and retaliatory violence from gangs. That violence included prison riots, attacks on police, and the takeover of a TV station live on air—with staff taken hostage at gunpoint

The classification of an internal armed conflict allows Noboa to treat alleged criminals as enemy combatants. Noboa's next move? Calling a referendum on matters dominated by insecurity, scheduled for April 21.

What’s in the referendum?

Of the 11 questions, eight focus on insecurity, one on corruption, one on international arbitrage, and one on labor contracts. 

Five of the questions rise to the level of constitutional amendment, including a proposal to allow the armed forces to support the police in the battle against organized crime, one to allow the extradition of Ecuadoran nationals to other countries, and one to recognize international arbitrage as a means to settle disputes.

The six other questions involve legal reforms that propose, among other things, stiffer penalties for organized-crime related offenses, stricter gun laws, and state appropriation of weapons used in crimes.

More than 50 percent of the vote is required for questions in a referendum to pass. Roughly 13.6 million voters can participate in the April 21 plebiscite, a date scheduled by the electoral court. Voting is mandatory for those between the ages of 18 and 65.

None of the measures would immediately become law. Each one must be approved by the National Assembly on timetables that depend on the question’s precise legal categorization. Some timelines remain undefined for now. But for five of the six reform-related questions, Noboa will have five days to enter them into the penal code before the National Assembly is given 60 days to debate and approve them.

Will it pass?

Noboa is the ninth Ecuadoran president since 1978 to call a referendum, and only three previous presidents suffered losses. One of them was Guillermo Lasso (2021–2023), whose February 2023 plebiscite contained two questions that Noboa is repeating: that on extradition of Ecuadoran criminals and on the armed forces’ support of police. Every question was shot down, with between 51 and 58 percent of voters rejecting the eight proposals. 

Lasso was unpopular, however, whereas Noboa’s 74-percent approval could help him out. Per polling firm Cedatos, 85.1 percent of Ecuadorans approve of Noboa’s handling of Ecuador’s insecurity and narcoterrorism situation, which has drawn comparisons to the hardline policies carried out by El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele. Surveys by Cedatos show that 54.6 percent of respondents say they plan to vote “yes” on the referendum’s questions, with 34.2 percent saying they’ll vote “no.”