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After the assassination of a candidate who took on drug cartels, Ecuador is in shock

Candles are seen on the pavement outside the sports complex where Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in Quito.
Rodrigo Buendia
/
AFP via Getty Images
Candles are seen on the pavement outside the sports complex where Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in Quito.

LIMA, Peru — For years, Ecuador has experienced vicious political infighting, including coups and the persecution and exile of opponents and critical journalists.

But throughout its modern history, the small South American nation has, until this year, been almost entirely free of significant political violence. That has made the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio all the more shocking and traumatic.

Villavicencio, an outspoken critic of the drug trade and corruption ravaging Ecuador, was gunned down as he left a campaign rally in the capital Quito on Wednesday.

Fernando Villavicencio, seen on Aug. 8. The former investigative journalist turned presidential candidate had promised tougher policies to combat cartel-related violence.
Rodrigo Buendia / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Fernando Villavicencio, seen on Aug. 8. The former investigative journalist turned presidential candidate had promised tougher policies to combat cartel-related violence.

More than a dozen shots rang out as he boarded an SUV. The centrist candidate, 59, was reported to have been hit three times in the head and died immediately.

His security detail immediately engaged with the gunman, who was injured along with several bystanders and police officers in the shootout. The alleged assassin subsequently died from his wounds in police custody.

Police have arrested six men in connection with the killing and claim that all of the suspects are Colombian, like the alleged assassin. Ecuadorean Interior Minister Juan Zapata told reporters that the police would work to "discover the motive of this crime and its intellectual authors." He called it a "political crime of a terrorist nature."

Police stand guard outside the hospital where presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was taken after being shot in Quito on Wednesday.
Galo Paguay / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Police stand guard outside the hospital where presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was taken after being shot in Quito on Wednesday.

For years, Villavicencio had been making enemies as an investigative journalist, via his no-nonsense takedowns of the powerful, including then President Rafael Correa, currently in exile in Belgium, his wife's homeland. Should Correa return to Ecuador, he will face an eight-year corruption sentence that was sparked by Villavicencio's reporting.

In 2014, Villavicencio went into hiding for several months, including in neighboring Peru, to avoid a jail sentence for criminal defamation following a lawsuit brought by Correa, who was often accused of having packed Ecuador's courts with sympathetic judges.

On the campaign trail, Villavicencio had repeatedly warned that he was receiving death threats, including from the Sinaloa cartel — one of Mexico's most violent, which has had increasingly close ties with one of Ecuador's most significant street gangs, the Choneros, from the coastal city of Chone.

Just last week, he name-checked the Sinaloa cartel in one speech and referred to José Adolfo Macías, a Chonero leader known as "Fito," who he said had been attempting to intimidate him into silence.

Separately, Villavicencio told a campaign rally that he would rather wear a "sweaty shirt" than a "bulletproof vest." He added: "I don't need it. I'm not afraid. I am brave, like you. Let them come. Here I am."

Ecuador's Interior Minister Juan Zapata leaves after giving a report on arrests in connection with assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, at police headquarters in Quito, on Thursday.
Rodrigo Buendia / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ecuador's Interior Minister Juan Zapata leaves after giving a report on arrests in connection with assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, at police headquarters in Quito, on Thursday.

Villavicencio's assassination came after two years of rising violence in Ecuador, as the Choneros clashed with rival gangs, including one called the Chone Killers, for control of the cocaine routes out of the Andean nation, including through Guayaquil, the country's largest Pacific port.

The bloodshed has included gangland slayings, including of gang leaders while visiting shopping malls, and prison riots that have claimed hundreds of lives as gang members fought pitched battles behind bars.

"It was just a question of time before this violence spilled into politics as well," says Sebastian Hurtado, president of Quito-based political risk consultancy Prófitas. "But it is still extremely shocking. There is no precedent for this in our country's recent history."

The drug cartels would have been on the receiving end of the candidate's hardball tactics had he been elected president. Describing Ecuador as a "narco-state," he had been promising, among other things, to build a new high-security penitentiary to isolate jailed gang leaders, including Fito, depriving them of the ability to lead their gangs from their prison cells by stopping them from communicating with followers on the outside.

Before his killing, polls showed around 8% of voters supporting Villavicencio and numbers rising rapidly, giving him a chance of overtaking the second-placed candidate, Otto Sonnenholzner — who was at around 15% ahead of the Aug. 20 first-round vote.

President Guillermo Lasso, who is not running for reelection, dissolved Ecuador's Congress in May, triggering this month's snap election. The current frontrunner is Luisa González, who expressed her "solidarity" with Villavicencio's family, pledging: "This vile act will not go unpunished."

Lasso responded to Villavicencio's killing by declaring a 60-day national state of emergency and sending thousands of armed forces onto Ecuador's streets. He also vowed to stop further violence marring the election.

But that may be too little, too late. Alexandra Villavicencio, the assassinated candidate's sister, is one of many who blame the government for her brother's death, accusing the Lasso administration of failing to take on the increasingly violent drug traffickers.

A cyclist hangs a placard against "narcopoliticos" on Thursday at the sports complex where presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in Quito.
Rodrigo Buendia / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A cyclist hangs a placard against "narcopoliticos" on Thursday at the sports complex where presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in Quito.

"Ecuador's security forces are not ready to deal with this kind of threat," says Hurtado. "Confronting the drug gangs will not be easy for whichever candidate does eventually become president."

As for ordinary Ecuadorians, many of whom have been clamoring for effective measures to tackle their country's mushrooming public safety crisis, Villavicencio's brutal demise may mark a new reality.

Yet what that reality will look like remains to be seen. It's unclear whether the assassination will drive the kind of security measures from the government and police that Villavicencio himself had been promising to finally stop the drug trade and its associated bloodshed and mayhem — or whether it will leave the cocaine mafias stronger than ever.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Simeon Tegel