Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ECUADOR: Voters to Go to Ballot Box on Anti-Crime Measures

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Dec 21 2010 (IPS) - A referendum on reforms to the new constitution and criminal law is to be held in Ecuador in response to the mounting public security crisis, giving left-wing President Rafael Correa an opportunity to canvass public opinion on these thorny issues.

The date of the referendum and the wording of its questions are still unknown, but last Friday Correa said on his regular national radio and television broadcast that he would go to the people about reforms he wants to introduce in the constitution in force since October 2008, which he had personally backed.

The proposed constitutional amendments will be on issues of law enforcement, such as the possibility that convicts should serve sentences consecutively (rather than concurrently), which has been unconstitutional for decades, and the organisation and management of criminal courts.

Bringing out the ballot boxes “is Correa’s favourite game,” economist and banker Ramiro Crespo told IPS. Since taking office in January 2007, the president has called for four popular votes.

“As well as developing a closer relationship with the military (by means of a bill sent to Congress to expand the participation of the armed forces in law enforcement), he will campaign for constitutional and penal reforms with plenty of populist rhetoric,” Crespo said.

“But this is not the best way to solve problems like insecurity. The criminal code has already been partially reformed 17 times in five years,” added Crespo, who is a partner in Analytica Securities, an investment bank.

Public security appears to have gone downhill in recent months. The young son of well-known sports commentator Rómulo Barcos was killed by a stray bullet in a firefight among criminals in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s main port. His death sparked protest marches in November in the southwestern city.

The press and television news channels fill their pages and airtime with accounts of “express kidnappings”, in which the abducted person is forced to hand over his or her own cash and jewelry in return for release a few hours later, as well as murders, contract killings, and gang warfare.

El Universo, a Guayaquil newspaper, stirred up controversy when it stated there was an “express kidnapping” every hour-and-a-half in the city.

Public perception of insecurity is damaging Correa’s popularity ratings, especially in Guayaquil, where right-wing mayor Jaime Nebot loudly pins the blame on the national government.

Last week, Nebot called for the government to require visas for Colombians crossing Ecuador’s borders, arguing that criminal gangs are finding their way into the country from abroad.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, provoked into a response, said that the 700,000 Colombians who visit neighbouring Ecuador each year are tourists or on business trips, and he offered Nebot technical cooperation to cope with the crime wave.

From 2003 to 2009, the murder rate per 100,000 population rose to 26.6 in Guayaquil, whereas in Quito it fell to 10.6, lawmaker and retired general Paco Moncayo, who served as mayor of the capital city for eight-and-a-half years and developed a public security plan there, told IPS.

“Could this not be, to some extent, a consequence of the president and the mayor of Guayaquil being unable to sit down together and work for a cause that is not the preserve of any one political party or ideology?” Moncayo said.

“The problem is all of a piece: the prosecution service is not working properly, and neither are the judges, the police or the (Interior) Ministry,” said Moncayo, who acknowledged that the legislature, too, has its failings.

In 2009, the national homicide rate was 18.6 per 100,000 population, and government sources estimate the figure will rise to 20 in 2010. This is still well below the homicide rate in countries like Honduras and El Salvador, where there are more than 60 homicides a year per 100,000 population.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported this year that Latin America has the highest homicide rates in the world. The region, which is home to eight percent of the world population, accounts for 40 percent of the global total of murders.

The murder rate in Latin America is 25.6 per 100,000 population, compared to 8.9 per 100,000 in Europe; 5.8 in Southeast Asia, and 3.4 in the Western Pacific region.

In Ecuador, the proposal that sentences should be “accumulated” and served sequentially is “absurd,” according to lawyer Jorge Crespo Toral, head of the Confraternidad Carcelaria del Ecuador, a non-governmental organisation working for prison reform and rehabilitation of prisoners.

“Longer sentences have never helped reduce the crime rate in any country,” Crespo Toral said, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Confraternidad’s voluntary work in prisons.

“A person committing a crime imagines they will not be caught; it does not enter their head to worry that their crime now carries a heavier sentence,” said Crespo Toral. “The only solution is to help offenders turn over a new leaf and rebuild their lives, along with their families, by recuperating their capacity for productive and honest work,” he argued.

Another facet of the problem is the administration of justice. A report by the Justice Studies Centre of the Americas indicates that in the period 2005-2008, 646,451 crimes were reported in Ecuador, but only 76,120 came to trial, and sentences were handed down in just 7,930 of these trials. A total of 462,371 investigations were left unresolved.

The Justice Ministry acknowledges that the criminal courts in Ecuador have an average backlog of 20,000 cases.

According to Professor Farith Simon, an expert on human rights, the Judicature Council, which is supposed to administer the court system and discipline judges, has failed in its task. “It does not assess judges’ productivity, nor does it identify critical points. It only demands more resources, without producing results,” he said.

Corruption and inefficiency are rife. The Correa administration has appointed a new police chief every seven months, and faced a serious police mutiny on Sept. 30 that almost toppled the government.

The incident “affected not only confidence in the police and the country’s international image, but also our goals and programmes. Six generals were cashiered and the top commanders in every province had to be replaced,” then Interior Minister Gustavo Jalkh said Dec. 12, before he in turn was relieved of his post Friday Dec. 17.

Jalkh’s successor is Alfredo Vera, a long-time member of the now all-but-defunct social democratic party Izquierda Democrática. Correa appointed retired admiral Homero Arellano, who he named his intelligence secretary after the Sept. 30 police mutiny, as Minister Coordinator of Internal and External Security Policy.

Correa gave details of only one of the questions to be included in the referendum, about bullfighting.

“In response to the demand by thousands of young people who marched to the government palace, we will also ask the Ecuadorian people if they are in agreement with holding spectacles, like bullfights, in which animals are tortured,” the president announced at the swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers.

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