Could Ecuador’s diplomatic conflict with Mexico be an advantage for Noboa?

Ecuador’s decision to send police officers to the Mexican embassy to arrest a politician who had taken refuge there has inflamed tensions between two countries already at odds, but could provide a political advantage to the Ecuadorian president.

President Daniel Noboa has faced declining approval ratings amid rising violence weeks before a referendum that could affect his re-election prospects next year. The dispute with Mexico, which has suspended diplomatic relations, may be just what he needed.

The arrested politician, Jorge Glas, a former vice president of Ecuador, had been sentenced to prison for corruption and to have been living at the Mexican embassy in Quito since December. Then on Friday Mexico granted him asylum and the Ecuadorian police intervened.

Noboa’s office said the arrest occurred because Mexico had abused the immunities and privileges granted to the diplomatic mission, but the message it sent was also in line with Noboa’s tough approach to countering violence and corruption in Ecuador. .

The 36-year-old center-right leader came to power in November after President Guillermo Lasso, facing impeachment proceedings over embezzlement charges, called for early elections. Noboa will remain in office until May 2025, which is the remainder of Lasso’s term.

Noboa’s ability to demonstrate that he can restore law and order to a nation of nearly 18 million people could prove critical to his re-election, and that means tackling the country’s criminal gangs, as well as corruption within the government that has enabled criminal groups, analysts say.

Many experts say these political aspirations appear to explain the embassy arrest, which shows the president is tough on impunity.

“He did it to change all the negative talking points that were influencing him and try to have a conversation in his favor,” said an Ecuadorian political analyst, Agustín Burbano de Lara.

Glas held several ministerial positions during the presidency of Rafael Correa, a leftist, most notably as vice president. In 2017 he was forced from office and sentenced to six years in prison for accepting bribes. Another corruption conviction in 2020 involved him and Mr Correa, and both were sentenced to eight years.

Released in 2022, Glas eventually sought asylum in Mexico, a move that strained relations between Ecuador and Mexico. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador said in March that he had requested Mexico’s permission to arrest Mr. Glas.

Although Mr. Noboa is very popular, poll show that his approval rating has dropped 11 points in recent months, from 85% to 74%, due to growing violence in Ecuador.

After the coastal city of Guayaquil was overrun by gang violence in January, Noboa declared internal conflict, an extraordinary step taken when the state was attacked by an armed group. He has deployed the country’s army, allowing soldiers to patrol the streets and prisons to counter growing gang violence linked to drug trafficking.

The aggressive response initially reduced violence and brought an uneasy sense of security to places like Guayaquil, but the stability did not last. During the Easter holidays, 137 murders, kidnappings and extortions occurred in Ecuador they have gotten worse.

In two weeks Ecuadorians will vote in a referendum to allow the government to increase security measures, toughening prison sentences for some crimes and sanctioning by law the increased military presence.

Experts say it is too early to say whether Glas’ arrest will benefit Noboa at the polls, but several Ecuadorians said Sunday they support the action.

“Mexico has treated Ecuadorians like fools, giving asylum to all these convicts,” said Danilo Álvarez, a 41-year-old salesman from Guayaquil, one of the country’s most violent cities.

Ecuador itself once granted asylum and protection at one of its embassies. In 2012, when Correa was president, he did this for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, hosting him in his embassy in London for seven years.

Mr. Álvarez said that thieves had entered his house a few years ago, tied his hands and feet and held a gun to his head. It was months before he could sleep well again, he said.

Not all citizens, however, agreed with the arrest.

“This was an act of total disrespect for international law,” said Delfa Mantilla, 62, a retired teacher. “It seems like it was something President Noboa did as a product of his rich-kid ego with no empathy.”

Some worried about the effects the diplomatic dispute might have on ordinary people. Tens of thousands of Ecuadorians emigrate through Mexico to the United States each year, and the two countries face the emergence of transnational crime, with many Mexican cartels operating out of Ecuador.

“Part of me thinks it’s OK, because Glas should go to prison,” said Mario Zalamar, a 34-year-old commercial engineer. But, he said, “there are thousands of Ecuadorians right now walking across Mexico to emigrate to the United States. and we don’t know how much this will affect them.”

Although many Ecuadorians support the embassy arrest, Noboa has likely deepened a diplomatic rift that could weaken his relations with other countries in the region.

Honduras, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina all rallied around Mexico and criticized the arrest. And the government of Nicaragua announced the suspension of diplomatic relations with Ecuador, calling the arrest “neo-fascist political barbarity” in a Statement shared by state media.

Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the US State Department, said: “The United States condemns any violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and takes very seriously the obligation of host countries under international law to respect the inviolability of missions diplomatic”.

Mr. Miller called on both countries to resolve their differences.

José María León Cabrera AND Thalie Ponce contributed to the reporting.