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Ecuador's newest — and youngest elected president — faces a practically impossible task

Presidential candidate Daniel Noboa speaks in Olon, Ecuador, after results show him ahead in a snap presidential runoff on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023. At left is his wife Lavinia Valbonesi. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
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AP
Presidential candidate Daniel Noboa speaks in Olon, Ecuador, after results show him ahead in a snap presidential runoff on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023. At left is his wife Lavinia Valbonesi. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador 's youngest elected president on Monday faced the practically impossible task of reducing a terrifying, drug-driven crime wave within a greatly shortened 1 1/2 years in office.

Daniel Noboa, 35, is an heir to one of Ecuador's largest fortunes thanks to a global empire built on bananas — the country's main crop.

His voters were, among other things, frightened by the escalation of drug violence over the past three years. Killings, kidnappings, robberies and other criminal activities have become part of everyday life, leaving Ecuadorians wondering when, not if, they will be victims.

The spike in violence is tied to the trafficking of cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia and Peru. Mexican, Colombian and Balkan cartels have set down roots in Ecuador and operate with assistance from local criminal gangs.

Presidential candidate and anti-corruption crusader Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in August. 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. Earlier this month, seven men held as suspects in Villavicencio's slaying were killed inside prisons.

To fight the crime, Noboa made proposals ranging from turning ships into floating jails to getting police more gear.

But he has less than half of a regular presidential term to meaningfully address the rise in crime, which this year has already tallied more than 4,900 violent deaths.

Policies that do not address social issues could have a temporary impact on crime statistics but not reduce the poverty-stricken communities where criminal organizations find soldiers, experts say.

"A period of 18 months is factually short to be able to meet the campaign promise to fundamentally reduce the homicide rate and minimally solve the fundamental problem at the moment, even in democratic terms, which is insecurity," said Jorge Vicente Paladines, a criminal-justice expert and professor at the Central University of Ecuador in Quito.

With nearly all votes counted, electoral officials said Noboa had just over 52%, compared to nearly 48% for Luisa González, an ally of exiled former President Rafael Correa. González conceded defeat during a speech before supporters in which she also urged Noboa to fulfill his campaign promises.

Noboa said Sunday that he will immediately begin to work to "rebuild a country that has been seriously hit by violence, corruption and hatred."

The incoming president's term will run through May 2025, what remains of the tenure of President Guillermo Lasso. Lasso cut his term short when he dissolved the National Assembly in May as lawmakers pursued impeachment proceedings against him over alleged improprieties in a government contract.

Like Lasso, a conservative former banker, Noboa's wealth puts him at the top of Ecuador's elite. His father, Álvaro Noboa, is among Ecuador's richest thanks to a conglomerate that started in the growing and shipping of bananas and now includes more than 128 companies in dozens of countries.

The elder Noboa unsuccessfully ran for president five times.

The younger Noboa 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. His political career began in 2021, when he got a seat in the National Assembly and chaired its Economic Development Commission.

Noboa's party will not have have enough seats in the National Assembly to be able to govern on its own. Garnering support from opposing lawmakers will be key to avoid the difficulties that plagued Lasso's term.

Lasso clashed constantly with lawmakers after his election in 2021 and decided not to run in the special election. On Sunday, he called on Ecuadorians to have a peaceful election and think about what is "best for their children, their parents and the country."

Under Lasso's watch, violent deaths soared, reaching 4,600 in 2022, the country's highest in history and double the total in 2021.

"I don't expect much from this election," Julio Ricaurte, a 59-year-old engineer, said Sunday near one of the voting centers in northern Quito. "First, because the president will have little time to do anything, and second because the (National) Assembly in our country is an organization that prevents anyone who comes to power from governing."

Noboa and González advanced to the runoff by finishing ahead of six other candidates in the election's first round on Aug. 22.

González was unknown to most voters until the party of Correa, her mentor, picked her as its presidential candidate. She held various government jobs during Correa's decade-long presidency and was a lawmaker from 2021 until May.

At the start of the campaign, she said Correa would be her adviser, but she recently sought to distance herself a bit in an effort to court voters who oppose the former president, who remains a major force in Ecuador despite being found guilty of corruption in 2020 and sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison. He has been living in his wife's native Belgium since 2017.

Rosa Amaguaña, a 62-year-old fruit and vegetable vendor, said Sunday that safety "is the first thing that must be solved" by the next president.

"I'm hopeful the country will change," Amaguaña said. "Yes, it can. The next president must be able to do even something small."

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Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.

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