In the midst of a horrifying wave of gang-related violence in the South American nation, a presidential candidate known for speaking out against cartels and corruption was shot and murdered at a political event in the nation’s capital on Wednesday.
Less than two weeks prior to the 20 August presidential election, President Guillermo Lasso acknowledged the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio and suggested that organized crime was to blame.
“I assure you that this crime will not go unpunished,” Lasso said in a statement. “Organized crime has gone too far, but they will feel the full weight of the law.”
— Ecuador Informado (@ecuainformado) August 10, 2023
According to the office of the Ecuadorian attorney general, six suspects were apprehended following police searches in Quito, and one suspect perished in prison due to injuries sustained in a post-homicide fight.
During his final speech before being assassinated, Villavicencio promised to root out corruption and imprison the nation’s “thieves.”
Villavicencio asserted that he had received multiple death threats prior to the shooting, including from members of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the transnational organized crime groups operating in Ecuador. He stated that his campaign posed a threat to such organizations.
“Here I am showing my face. I’m not scared of them,” Villavicencio said in a statement, naming detained crime boss José Adolfo Macías by his alias “Fito.”
Villavicencio was not the frontrunner among the other seven candidates. The 59-year-old candidate campaigned under the Build Ecuador Movement banner.
Ida Paez, a supporter, said Villavicencio’s campaign gave her confidence that the country could defeat the groups. She remarked, “We were pleased, during the rally. Even Fernando danced. If someone meddles with the people, he is meddling with my family, were his last words.
Since drug traffickers began using the country’s coastal ports, Ecuadorians have witnessed a level of violence not seen in many years. As rival gangs compete for influence and recruit youths, gunfire may be heard in numerous major cities. The mayor of the coastal city of Manta was recently shot and murdered. In an effort to halt the violence, Lasso declared a state of emergency for two provinces and the nation’s prison system on July 26.
Wednesday, following the murder, former vice president and candidate Otto Sonnenholzner stated at a press conference, “We are dying, drowning in a sea of sorrow, and we do not deserve to live like this. We require your participation.
Social media videos of the demonstration appear to show Villavicencio being escorted by security as he leaves the gathering. The candidate is then seen entering a white pickup vehicle as gunfire, screams, and pandemonium are heard in the background. Patricio Zuquilanda, the campaign manager for Villavicencio, verified this sequence of events to The Associated Press.
According to Lasso, “the murderers” tried to conceal their departure by throwing a grenade into the street, but it failed to detonate. Later, authorities neutralized the grenade with a controlled detonation, he continued.
Prior to the murder, the candidate allegedly received at least three death threats, which he reportedly reported to the police, resulting in one arrest. Invoking escalating violence and drug trafficking, he implored foreign authorities to intervene in order to end the violence.
“The Ecuadorian people are crying and Ecuador is mortally wounded,” he said. “Politics cannot lead to the death of any member of society.”
Villavicencio was one of the most outspoken opponents of corruption in the country, primarily during the presidency of Rafael Correa from 2007 to 2017.
Before standing for office as an anti-corruption activist, he was also an independent journalist who investigated corruption in previous administrations.
Villavicencio filed multiple lawsuits against high-ranking Correa administration personnel, including the former president. After being convicted of defamation for his censure of Correa and sentenced to 18 months in prison, he fled to an indigenous territory in Ecuador and eventually sought asylum in Peru.
According to retired military intelligence colonel Edison Romo, Villavicencio’s anti-corruption allegations made him “a threat to international criminal organizations.”
Lasso, a conservative former financier who campaigned for office in 2021 on a pro-business platform, is in conflict from the outset with the National Assembly majority coalition.
Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May as a precaution against being impeached for allegedly failing to terminate a problematic contract between the state-owned oil transport firm and a private tanker company. This action was made in order to prevent facing those accusations.
In times of political unrest, the president of Ecuador has the authority to dissolve the assembly; however, this is followed by new elections for the legislature and the president.
Diana Atamaint, president of the National Electoral Council, stated that the August 20 election date was “immutable” due to statutory requirements, court orders, and council-approved electoral procedures.
In recent years, there have been numerous political alterations in the nation.
Wednesday’s gunfire reportedly injured at least nine additional persons, including officers and a congressional candidate. It was described as a “terrorist act.”
Other candidates expressed outrage over the murder and demanded action. The leading presidential candidate from the Citizen Revolution party, Luisa González, stated, “When they touch one of us, they touch all of us.”
Five offspring of Villavicencio are still alive. He had a wife.