QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador will detain six Colombians for at least a month while the country investigates their involvement in the assassination of a presidential candidate whose life’s work was to fight crime and corruptionthe national prosecutor’s office said on Friday.
Fernando Villavicencio The funeral of his relatives was also held on Friday, along with a public ceremony at the capital’s convention center.
The Colombian men were arrested Wednesday in connection with the killing of Villavicencio in the capital Quito earlier in the day. The men, whose nationalities were announced Thursday night, will be held for at least 30 days in the investigation, but will almost certainly be held for months or years as the case unfolds.
Villavicencio was not one of the leading candidates in the race, but his assassination in broad daylight less than two weeks before a special presidential election shocked the country and demonstrated how rising crime will challenge Ecuador’s next leader. Gang and cartel-related violence has claimed thousands of lives in recent years.
The suspects were caught hiding in a home in Quito, according to an arrest report reviewed by The Associated Press. Law enforcement officers seized four shotguns, a 5.56mm rifle, ammunition and three grenades, as well as a vehicle and a motorcycle, according to the report.
Ecuador’s Interior Minister Juan Zapata described the assassination as a “political crime of a terrorist nature” aimed at sabotaging the August 20 elections.
The police report does not say whether the Colombians are members of a criminal group. But Zapata said the suspects were linked to organized crime.
Villavicencio, 59, said he was threatened by 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.
“The Ecuadorian people are crying and Ecuador is mortally wounded,” said Patricio Zuquilanda, Villavicencio’s campaign adviser.
With almost 400 miles (640 kilometers) of Pacific coastline, shipping ports and some key exports, international traffickers have turned Ecuador from a minor player in the drug trade to a major regional hub for cocaine smuggling.
An escalating struggle for power and territory since the pandemic has seen drug cartels battle each other and recruit local gangs and even recruit children, leaving Ecuadorians reeling from unprecedented violence.
“Ecuador has the geographic misfortune of being sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the two largest cocaine producers in the world, and behind it all is a certain degree of institutional weakness in the judiciary, police and military,” said Cynthia Arnson, a distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center and an expert on Latin America.
He added that the murder shows that “criminal actors most likely connected to organized crime in Ecuador feel they can act with impunity, even going so far as to assassinate an anti-corruption political candidate.”
The country’s National Police recorded 3,568 violent deaths in the first six months of this year, far more than the 2,042 reported during the same period in 2022. That year ended with 4,600 violent deaths, the highest in the country’s history and double of the total in 2021.
Last month, the mayor of the port city of Manta was shot dead. then President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency covering two provinces and the country’s prison system in an effort to stop the violence.
Video of the political rally posted on social media shows Villavicencio leaving surrounded by guards. He then is seen getting into a white van before gunshots are heard, followed by screaming and commotion around the van.
Zuquilanda said Villavicencio had received at least three death threats before the shooting and reported them to authorities, which resulted in an arrest.
Lasso said the candidate’s assassins threw a grenade into the street to cover their escape, but it did not explode. Police later destroyed the grenade with a controlled explosion.
Lasso declared three days of national mourning and a state of emergency that implies the deployment of additional military personnel throughout the country.
Villavicencio, one of the eight candidates for the presidency, was the candidate of the Let’s Build Ecuador Movement. In his final speech before he was assassinated, Villavicencio promised a roaring crowd that he would fight corruption, including among police forces, and jail more criminals.
“Here I am showing my face. I’m not afraid of them,” Villavicencio said in a statement before his death, naming detained crime boss José Adolfo Macías after his alias, “Fito.”
People waiting for buses in Guayaquil, a port city south of Quito that has been the epicenter of gang violence, expressed their dismay at Villavicencio’s murder.
“You can see that violence in the country is on the rise,” said 28-year-old pharmacist Leidy Aguirre. “Politicians are supposed to be more secure than citizens and that shows that not even they are safe.”
Villavicencio’s security detail included police officers and private security guards.
In other places, people went on with their lives taking outdoor exercise classes and daily walks because they are resigned to living in the midst of violence. Among them was Marjorie Lino, who lamented the danger as she walked with a friend along the main road that leads to one of the most violent neighborhoods in the country.
“To us as women, our husbands tell us not to go here, but it doesn’t matter (because) when one is going to die, one dies even at the door of the house,” said Lino, a 38-year-old woman. she old housewife, she said. She doesn’t think any of the presidential candidates can end the violence.
Villavicencio was a freelance journalist who investigated corruption in previous governments before entering politics as an anti-corruption activist. He was one of the most critical voices in the country with the 2007-2017 government of President Rafael Correa.
Villavicencio, who was married and survived by five children, 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.
One of Villavicencio’s investigations led to criminal prosecution and an eight-year prison sentence on corruption charges against Correa. The former president, who moved to Belgium in 2017, was convicted in absentia in April 2020.
Edison Romo, a former military intelligence colonel, said the anti-corruption allegations made Villavicencio “a threat to international criminal organizations.”
The country has faced a series of political upheavals in recent years. A snap election was called after Lasso, a former Conservative banker, dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May, in a move to avoid being indicted on allegations that he failed to intervene to terminate a flawed contract between the state-owned oil transport company and a private tanker company.
Authorities said at least nine others were injured in Wednesday’s shooting, including a congressional candidate.
Arnson said Villavicencio’s murder could have a chilling effect on the upcoming elections.
“It is a message for Ecuadorian society as a whole that those who try to confront this type of corruption and illegality can pay with their lives,” he said.
Journalist García Cano from Guayaquil, Ecuador. Sara España reported from Mexico City.