JUST IN: Anti-Corruption Presidential Candidate Assassinated

OPINION:  This article contains commentary which may reflect the author’s opinion

In the midst of a shocking wave of gang-driven violence in the South American nation, an Ecuadorian presidential contender known for speaking out against cartels and corruption was shot and killed on Wednesday during a political event in the capital.

Less than two weeks before the August 20 presidential election, President Guillermo Lasso acknowledged Fernando Villavicencio’s murder and suggested organized crime was responsible.

“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.”

According to Ecuador’s attorney general’s office, six suspects were seized after police searches in Quito, and one suspect died in jail from injuries incurred in a battle that occurred after the homicide.

Villavicencio told a cheering throng during his last speech before being assassinated that he would root out corruption and imprison the nation’s “thieves.”

Villavicencio claimed he had received numerous death threats before the shooting, including from members of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the international organized crime organizations that now operate in Ecuador. He said that such groups were threatened by his campaign.

“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.”

There were eight candidates, and Villavicencio wasn’t the favorite. The 59-year-old lawmaker ran for office on behalf of the Build Ecuador Movement.

Ida Paez, a supporter, stated that Villavicencio’s campaign gave her hope that the nation might defeat the gangs. 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.

Ecuadorians have experienced violence that hasn’t been witnessed in years as drug traffickers have started using the nation’s coastal ports. As competing gangs fight for power and attract kids, gunfire may be heard in many large cities. The port city of Manta’s mayor was recently shot and killed. In an effort to stop the violence, Lasso issued a state of emergency on July 26 that included two provinces and the nation’s jail system.

In a press conference after the murder on Wednesday, former vice president and candidate Otto Sonnenholzner said, “We are dying, drowning in a sea of sorrow and we do not deserve to live like this. We require action from you.

Social media videos of the demonstration seem to show Villavicencio leaving the gathering while being escorted by security. The candidate is then seen getting into a white pickup truck while gunshots, screaming, and commotion can be heard in the background. Patricio Zuquilanda, Villavicencio’s campaign manager, confirmed this series of events to The Associated Press.

According to Lasso, “the murderers” attempted to cover their escape by tossing a grenade into the street, but it did not go off. Later, the grenade was neutralized by police using a controlled explosion, he continued.

Before the shooting, the candidate allegedly got at least three death threats, which, according to Zuquilanda, he reported to the police, leading to one detention. Invoking escalating violence and drug trafficking, he urged foreign authorities to act to stop 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 nation’s most outspoken opponents of corruption, particularly during President Rafael Correa’s administration from 2007 to 2017.

He was also an independent journalist who looked into corruption in prior administrations before eventually running for office as an anti-corruption activist.

Villavicencio brought numerous legal complaints against high-ranking Correa administration officials, including the former president himself. After being found guilty of defamation for his criticism of Correa and given an 18-month prison sentence, he fled to an indigenous territory in Ecuador and eventually sought asylum in the neighboring country of Peru.

The anti-corruption allegations, according to retired military intelligence colonel Edison Romo, made Villavicencio “a threat to international criminal organizations.”

Lasso, a conservative former banker who ran for office in 2021 on a pro-business platform, has conflict with the National Assembly majority coalition from the beginning.

As a precaution against being impeached over claims that he neglected to act to terminate a problematic contract between the state-owned oil transport firm and a private tanker company, Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May. This action was taken to avoid being subject to those accusations.

The president of Ecuador is given the authority to dissolve the assembly in times of political unrest, however, this action is followed by new elections for the legislature and the President.

The National Electoral Council’s president, Diana Atamaint, claimed that the election’s scheduled date of August 20 was “unalterable” because of statutory requirements, court orders, and council-approved electoral procedures.

In recent years, the nation has experienced numerous political changes.

Authorities reported that at least nine other people were hurt in the shooting on Wednesday, including officers and a candidate for Congress. They called it a “terrorist act.”

Other contenders expressed outrage over the killing and called for action. The front-runner for the presidency, Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution party, said: “When they touch one of us, they touch all of us.”

Five of Villavicencio’s children are still living. He was married.


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