QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — An Ecuadorian presidential candidate known for speaking out against cartels and corruption was shot dead Wednesday at a political rally in the capital, amid a alarming wave of gang-driven violence in the South American country.
President Guillermo Lasso confirmed the murder of Fernando Villavicencio and suggested that organized crime was behind his murder, less than two weeks before August 20. presidential election.
“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’s attorney general’s office said a suspect died in custody from injuries sustained in a shooting after the killing, and police detained six suspects after raids in Quito.
In his final speech before he was assassinated, Villavicencio promised a roaring crowd that he would root out corruption and lock up the country’s “thieves.”
Prior to the shooting, Villavicencio said he had received multiple death threats, including from affiliates of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, one of a host of international organized crime groups now operating in Ecuador. He said that his campaign represented a threat to those groups.
“Here I am showing my face. I’m not afraid of them,” Villavicencio said in a statement, naming detained crime boss José Adolfo Macías by his alias “Fito.”
Villavicencio was one of the eight candidates, although not the favorite. The 59-year-old politician was the candidate of the Let’s Build Ecuador Movement.
Supporter Ida Páez said Villavicencio’s campaign had given her hope that the country could defeat the gangs. At the rally, she said: “We were happy. Fernando even danced. His last words were, if someone messes with people, he is messing with my family”.
As drug traffickers have begun using the country’s coastal ports, Ecuadorians have been reeling from violence not seen in decades. The sounds of gunshots ring out in many major cities as rival gangs fight for control and the gangs have recruited children. Last month, the mayor of the port city of Manta was shot and killed. On July 26, Lasso declared a state of emergency in two provinces and the country’s prison system in an effort to stop the violence.
Former vice president and candidate Otto Sonnenholzner told a news conference after Wednesday’s assassination: “We are dying, drowning in a sea of tears, and we don’t deserve to live like this. We demand that you do something.”
Videos of the demonstration on social media appear to show Villavicencio leaving the event surrounded by guards. Video then cuts to the candidate getting into a white van before shots are heard, followed by screaming and commotion around the van. This sequence of events was confirmed to The Associated Press by Patricio Zuquilanda, Villavicencio’s campaign adviser.
Zuquilanda said the candidate had received at least three death threats before the shooting, which he reported to authorities, resulting in his arrest. He called on the international authorities to take action against the violence, attributing it to the increase in violence and drug trafficking.
“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 critical voices in the country against corruption, especially during the 2007-2017 government of President Rafael Correa.
He was also a freelance journalist who investigated corruption in previous governments, later entering politics as an anti-corruption activist.
Villavicencio filed many lawsuits against high-ranking members of the Correa government, including the former president himself. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation for his criticism of Correa and fled to indigenous territory in Ecuador, later receiving asylum in neighboring Peru.
Edison Romo, a former military intelligence colonel, said the anti-corruption allegations made Villavicencio “a threat to international criminal organizations.”
Lasso, a former conservative banker, was elected in 2021 on a pro-business platform and clashed early on with the majority left-wing coalition in the National Assembly.
An early election was called after Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May, in a move to avoid being ousted over allegations that he failed to intervene to terminate a faulty contract between the state-owned oil transport company and a private shipping company. tank.
Ecuador’s constitution includes a provision that allows the president to dissolve the assembly during a political crisis, but then requires new elections for both the assembly and the presidency.
The country has faced a series of political upheavals in recent years.
Authorities said at least nine others were wounded in Wednesday’s shooting, including officers and a congressional candidate, in what they described as a “terrorist act.”
The assassination was met with protests from other candidates demanding action, with leading presidential candidate Luisa González of the Revolución Ciudadana party saying that “when they touch one of us, they touch us all.”
Villavicencio was married and is survived by five children.
Janetsky reported from Mexico City.