- Anti-graft campaigner murdered less than two weeks before vote
- Soaring violence has made Ecuador more violent than Colombia
Ecuador presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a journalist known for his crusade against corruption, was assassinated less than two weeks before an election where soaring drug violence dominated the campaign.
The killing of Villavicencio, a serious contender to reach a runoff, throws Ecuador’s unstable political environment into further turmoil. Current President Guillermo Lasso, who dissolved congress this year to avoid impeachment, summoned his security council in Quito and vowed to bring Villavicencio’s killers to justice.
A suspect in the killing was wounded in an exchange of fire with security officials and later died, the Attorney General’s office said in a statement. Nine other people were wounded, including a candidate for congress and two police officers.
The brutal killing of a high-profile figure, someone who was under police protection after receiving repeated threats, dispels any illusion that the tide has turned in the war against organized crime in Latin America. Until now, Ecuador’s election had not attracted worldwide attention, but was seen as a test of whether its institutions could weather the growing power of organized crime.
Warring cocaine cartels have turned once-peaceful Ecuador into one of the most violent places in the world, surpassing Mexico and Colombia in murders per capita last year. Candidates in the Aug. 20 election to replace Lasso have all competed to take the toughest line on drug-trafficking and other kinds of crime.
Despite being sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the world’s top two cocaine producers, Ecuador had until recently largely escaped the more violent history of its neighbors. But the growing importance of its ports in drug shipments to the US and Europe, has caused the murder rate to soar by more 300% over the last five years, as mafias fought for control of smuggling routes.
“This is a deadly blow to Ecuador’s democracy,” said Cesar Ricaurte, president of media advocacy organization Fundamedios, said by phone. “The mafias have committed a coup.”
Villavicencio was in second place with 13.5% support, according to one poll published Wednesday. All the main candidates, from the socialist frontrunner Luisa Gonzalez to the former soldier from the French foreign legion Jan Topic, have made law and order central to their campaigns.
His assassination raises the question of whether voters will now gravitate toward the hard-liners. Crime is also among the top issues in other elections this month, in Argentina’s Aug. 13 primaries and Guatemala’s Aug. 20 runoff presidential vote.
Gang Round Up
Some regional leaders have praised the draconian policies of El Salvador president Nayib Bukele, whose controversial round up of tens of thousands of suspected gang members has helped make him Latin America’s most popular president.
In Ecuador, last month the mayor of the nation’s second-biggest port, Manta, was also gunned down.
Villavicencio, 59, was one of Ecuador’s most prominent journalists before being elected to the legislature in 2021. He had pledged to renegotiate contracts with foreign oil and mining companies and to take a tough line on drug cartels.
Villavicencio became a household name in Ecuador during the 2007-2017 government of President Rafael Correa, when he reported on corruption scandals related to loans from China, and on illegal campaign financing.
“This is very tragic news,” said Oren Barack, managing director of fixed income at New York-based Alliance Global Partners. “Ecuador had been moving forward with new elections and moving past the gridlock of the past administration. It will be crucial to see what details come to light in the coming days and weeks,”