Daniel Noboa, Ecuador, Elections, Politics
Self-described as a moderate social-democrat, Noboa says his political bet is to act with pragmatism and speed. AFP

Wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by bodyguards, Ecuador presidential hopeful Daniel Noboa vows to lock up convicts on prison ships as his country wages a "war" on drug traffickers.

The 35-year-old is campaigning hard ahead of an October runoff dominated by lawlessness gripping the once-peaceful nation that has become a new hub for the global drug trade.

"Groups of narco-terrorists are involved here. We are living through a war," Noboa told AFP, sitting inside a well-guarded van in an interview in the western city of Salinas.

The specter of violence looms over the candidate after the assassination of a top presidential contender just two weeks before the first-round vote on August 21, in which Noboa came second.

"I am saying similar things to him. Maybe they will kill me too," Noboa said of journalist and anti-corruption crusader Fernando Villavicencio, who was gunned down in broad daylight at a campaign event.

The murder shook up the election race, and Noboa shocked many by garnering 24 percent of the votes cast. He had not polled anywhere near the frontrunners.

Noboa, the millionaire son of a banana magnate, was not surprised at all, he told AFP. He said the results echoed those of private opinion polls his team carried out, and he deliberately flew under the radar.

"We never said we were coming second. The second always gets a beating, gets insulted, attacked," he said in the western city of Salinas.

Noboa said his experience as a political consultant on campaigns for his father Álvaro Noboa -- who unsuccessfully ran for president five times -- gave him faith in his plan, which involved a concerted effort to win over young voters on social media.

In the October 15 runoff, Noboa will face off against Luisa González, a lawyer close to divisive former socialist president Rafael Correa.

If he wins, he will become Ecuador's youngest-ever leader, inheriting a complex security crisis due to the invasion of foreign cartels exporting cocaine from its ports to Europe and the United States.

This has led to a war for power between local gangs which has mostly played out in prisons, where 430 have been killed since 2021.

In 2022, the country hit a record 26 murders per 100,000 inhabitants -- higher than the rate of Colombia, Mexico or Brazil.

"To solve the problem quickly," Noboa says he plans to lease ships which can house a few hundred of the most violent prisoners under armed guard thousands of miles out at sea.

"Building a maximum-security prison will take two, three, four years, which yes, we will have to do simultaneously," he told AFP during an earlier campaign event.

Noboa describes himself as "a businessman with a heart" and a "moderate social democrat."

The winning candidate will only serve the year and a half remaining of President Guillermo Lasso's mandate after he called a snap election to avoid impeachment.

"Strong measures can be taken... you can't change the world in a year and a half, but you can change key things. Reduce violence, give opportunities to the youth," said Noboa.

"Where will they end up if they have nothing to eat?"

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