Prison director killed in attack as Ecuador votes in referendum focused on crime

CNNThe director of an Ecuadorian prison known as “El Rodeo” was killed Sunday in an attack that came as millions of people in the country headed to the polls for a referendum focused largely on President Daniel Noboa’s war on crime.

The official was identified in a news release by Ecuador’s national prisons agency SNAI as Cosme Damián Parrales Merchán, the director of the Manabi region prison, but no more details around his death were shared.

Ecuador Prosecutor’s Office reported that another person was injured in the attack and that officers on the scene have started an investigation. There have been no arrests so far.

SNAI said it will work with local authorities to investigate Parrales’ killing and said that his death brings “grief to the entire National Social Rehabilitation System.”

CNNE has reached out SNAI for comment.

Parrales was killed the same day that Ecuadorians were called to the polls for a referendum dominated by security issues that could bolster President Daniel Noboa’s agenda to fight crime.

Among the biggest proposals are measures to allow the military to patrol with police to combat organized crime (something that can currently only happen under a state of emergency, which has a 90-day limit); to allow the extradition of Ecuadorians (currently prohibited by the Constitution); and to raise the penalties for those found guilty of violent crimes.

Noboa hopes those measures will help him rein in burgeoning levels of organized crime linked to drug cartels.

Ecuador was once known as an “island of peace,” nestled between the world’s two largest cocaine producers, Peru and Colombia. But the country’s deep ports have made it a key transit point for cocaine making its way to consumers in the United States and Europe. Rival criminal organizations are locked in a battle to control these trafficking routes.

This violence is increasingly spilling over into the public sphere in brutal fashion. According to figures by the Ecuadorian National Police, the murder rate in 2016 was 5.8 homicides per 100,000 people. By 2022, it had spiked to 25.6, a similar level to that of Colombia and Mexico, countries with a long history of drug cartel violence.

Just a few weeks into Noboa’s term, he declared a nationwide state of emergency after the security situation deteriorated in spectacular fashion following the escape of the notorious gang leader Adolfo Macias, also known as Fito, from a prison in Guayaquil, the country’s biggest and arguably most dangerous city.

Initial results from the referendum are expected late Sunday.

CNN’s Abel Alvarado contributed to this report.