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Explainer-What is happening in Ecuador?

Joint military and police operation in the Socio Vivienda neighbourhood in Guayaquil

By Alexandra Valencia and Oliver Griffin

(Reuters) - Ecuador is struggling to bring spiraling violence under control, with mayors fearing for their lives and the national government recognizing an increase in extortion and kidnapping amid a 90-day state of emergency declared to tackle criminal groups.

Over the weekend the country's youngest mayor, 27-year-old Brigitte Garcia, and her head of communications were found dead of gunshot wounds, according to Ecuador's police.

The slaying, decried as an assassination by some politicians, follows an explosion of unrest in January, when gunmen stormed a live television broadcast and scores of prison staff were taken hostage, while police officers were kidnapped.

In response, the government of President Daniel Noboa ordered widespread security force operations. Between Jan. 9 and March 10, almost 13,000 people were arrested, according to the government, 280 for alleged connections to terrorism.

WHY HAS ECUADOR'S SECURITY DETERIORATED?

Security in Ecuador has worsened since the coronavirus pandemic, which also battered the Andean nation's economy.

Noboa's predecessor President Guillermo Lasso struggled to control violence and resorted to measures like relaxing gun controls to allow civilians to defend themselves.

The number of violent deaths rose to 7,994 in 2023, according to police, up nearly two-thirds on the 2022 figure. The violence crossed into the political arena last year when anti-corruption presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated.

The government blames the situation on the growing reach of cocaine trafficking gangs, which have destabilized swathes of South America.

Inside Ecuador's prisons, gangs have taken advantage of the state's weak control to expand their power. Prison violence has become increasingly common, resulting in hundreds of deaths in incidents authorities have blamed on gang battles to control jails.

Currently, some 10 prisons throughout the country are under the control of security forces, which includes members of the military, Interior Minister Monica Palencia told local television on Wednesday.

OFFICIALS TARGETED

Garcia, who was the mayor of San Vicente, is the latest example of a local official being killed in the Andean country.

According to the Association of Ecuadorean Municipalities (AME), 22 officials - including Agustin Intriago, another mayor - have been killed since last year.

At least 45 have requested police protection and others have sought private security as a means of protecting themselves, AME executive director Homero Castanier told Reuters in an interview this week.

It is not just mayors in the crosshairs of violence.

In January, prosecutor Cesar Suarez, who focused on pursuing organized trans-national crime in Guayas province and was investigating the attack on the television station, was also killed.

Guayaquil, a coastal city that is Ecuador's largest, is considered the country's most dangerous, with its ports acting as a hub for drug smuggling.

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING TO TACKLE THE PROBLEM?

Noboa, 36, took power in November and has been touting his "Phoenix Plan" to build a new intelligence unit, supply security forces with tactical weapons, build new high-security prisons and reinforce security at ports and airports.

It will cost some $800 million, he said, though $200 million in new weapons for Ecuador's army will be provided by the United States.

The extended state of emergency - which ends on April 8 - permits military patrols, including in prisons, and establishes a national nighttime curfew.

The president also accused 22 groups of terrorism, paving the way for the military to conduct operations against armed groups.

In February, Noboa won a legislative VAT hike to fund security spending.

The country's electoral court also approved an 11-question referendum on tightening security, which will be held on April 21.

IS ANYTHING WORKING?

According to Interior Minister Palencia, homicides have fallen by just over a quarter during Noboa's administration so far.

However, she said that extortion and kidnapping have increased, adding the government will establish a specialist police unit to tackle both crimes.

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Oliver Griffin; Editing by Aurora Ellis)