HomeNewsAssassination upends once-peaceful Ecuador days before election

Assassination upends once-peaceful Ecuador days before election

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This article contains photos that may be disturbing to readers.

QUITO, Ecuador — The assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio has stunned Ecuador just days before its elections, threatening a new era of political violence in a country that has historically enjoyed relative peace.

Ecuador, wedged between coca producers Colombia and Peru, was already emerging as a battlefield for drug traffickers and gangs. Killings and prison massacres in recent years have soared. Now the violence has reached the highest levels of politics, and it is threatening democracy in the South American nation.

The brazen killing of Villavicencio, a former investigative journalist and National Assembly member who was shot in the head three times as he was leaving a rally in the Ecuadoran capital Wednesday evening, has upended the presidential race and prompted increased security for the Aug. 20 elections.

Ecuadoran presidential candidate assassinated at campaign rally

President Guillermo Lasso, who opted not to run for reelection, declared a national state of emergency for 60 days and said he was mobilizing the armed forces across the country. The declaration will prohibit large gatherings, potentially barring candidates from rallies, but Lasso said the elections for president and National Assembly would proceed as scheduled.

“It is a political crime,” Lasso said in televised remarks, “and we do not doubt that this assassination is an attempt to sabotage the electoral process.”

The president said the FBI was sending a delegation to support the investigation at his request.

Three of Villavicencio’s rivals have announced they are suspending their campaigns.

The gunman, who was shot and detained by authorities at the scene, died in police custody, Ecuadoran police Cmdr. Fausto Salinas told reporters in a news conference Thursday. The shooter, who used a 9mm pistol, was arrested on an arms offense in June but was released by a judge.

The man had a tattoo associated with the Latin Kings, a gang founded by Puerto Ricans in the United States in the 1950s that today has affiliates in several countries. The Ecuadoran chapter is one of several criminal groups fighting for control of cities and prisons.

Hundreds of Latin Kings members in 2007 entered a peace agreement with the government of then-President Rafael Correa. But the gang subsequently reemerged as a criminal organization more powerful than before.

A photo of the crown tattoo was shared with The Washington Post. A national police official confirmed it indicated membership in the gang.

Six other men were arrested. All were Colombians, according to a federal police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case, and all were members of organized crime groups, authorities said during the news conference. Four have previously been charged with crimes, two with drug trafficking and violent crimes.

Police estimate that 20 collaborators infiltrated Wednesday’s political rally in preparation for the assassination, wearing Villavicencio T-shirts and hiding in the crowd of about 100 people, according to officials in the Ministry of Interior and national police, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Villavicencio was not traveling in an armored vehicle when he was shot, authorities said. He had an armored vehicle available, but it was in Guayaquil on Wednesday.

Who was Fernando Villavicencio, Ecuador’s assassinated presidential candidate?

The incident Wednesday night is thought to be the first assassination of a presidential candidate in Ecuador, and it quickly drew comparisons to the killing of candidates in more volatile neighboring nations: Colombia’s Luis Carlos Galán in 1989 and Mexico’s Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994. It follows the assassination late last month of the mayor of the port city of Manta, a crime that remains unsolved. In May, gunmen opened fire on the motorcade of the mayor of Durán, a town outside Guayaquil, in an apparent assassination attempt. The mayor survived, but several others died or were wounded.

“It means the deterioration of democracy,” said Simón Pachano, a political scientist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Ecuador. “This in large part shows a failure of the state in general.”

Ecuadoran gangs, many working with foreign cartels, have unleashed a wave of violent crime in the country’s streets and prisons. Ecuador, on the Pacific coast between Colombia and Peru, the world’s two largest cocaine producers, and with much of its coastline undefended, has become a crucial transit country for drugs bound for the United States and Europe. Cartels from Mexico and Albania have swept in to work with local gangs that have gained power in the country’s poorly controlled prisons.

The result: Homicides have soared to record highs. Prisons have become bloody battlegrounds.

Authorities here say anti-drug agents seized 176 tons of cocaine in 2021, up from 92 a year earlier. They seized 173 tons in 2022, and anticipate a similar amount this year.

“The mafias have declared war on Ecuador,” Ecuadoran Defense Minister Luis Lara said at a news conference Thursday.

Across the region, organized crime — particularly drug trafficking — is solidifying as one of the greatest threats to democracy and stability. Cartels and gangs aren’t only moving drugs — they’re also profiting from extortion, trafficking migrants, renting out hit men and more.

“These are no longer common thieves, someone who stands on a street corner and threatens you,” said political scientist Francisco Sánchez, director of the Ibero-American Institute at the University of Salamanca. “These are large businesses that have a lot of structure and can also buy impunity.”

Villavicencio had focused much of his life, as an investigative journalist and politician, on calling out corruption, and particularly the links between organized crime and politics. As recently as last week, he spoke publicly of receiving death threats, including some allegedly from one of the country’s most powerful gangs.

After his assassination, criticism quickly turned to his government-provided protection detail, which did not include an armored vehicle Wednesday evening. Lenin Bolaños, a former general of Ecuador’s national police, accused the government of failing to properly protect him.

Salinas, the police commander, said Villavicencio was protected by three security rings, including an inner circle of five police officers.

“There was no adequate protection,” Luis Enríquez, a lawyer for Villavicencio, said during a news conference Thursday. “That has been pointed out by the family.”

But a person close to Villavicencio, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details, said the candidate had been in disagreement with some on his security team. They had asked him to take more precautions, the person said, but he often did not want to follow the protocol.

An autopsy will be done, the person said, and a funeral could be held as soon as Thursday evening.

When voters head to the polls Aug. 20, Villavicencio’s name will still appear on the ballot. Leaders of his party, the Build Movement, planned to meet to decide who would take his place. They asked that a presidential debate scheduled for this weekend be suspended.

Build Movement member Patricio Carrillo, a candidate for National Assembly, said they would also request an international oversight office to monitor the assassination investigation.

“We know that the motivation for this murder is political,” Carrillo said, “against a leading actor like Fernando Villavicencio who only wanted to change the country.”

Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia. Diana Durán in Bogotá contributed to this report.

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