In Ecuador’s imminent presidential election, Fernando Villavicencio, a prominent candidate, was tragically assassinated during a campaign event in the capital city on Wednesday, August 9, 2023.
The severity of the situation prompted Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso to seek assistance from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In response, an FBI delegation is anticipated to arrive in Ecuador within the next few hours, as confirmed by President Lasso’s tweet on Thursday.
The assassination occurred as Villavicencio was departing a campaign rally at a school located north of the capital city, Quito. This tragic event transpired merely ten days prior to the scheduled first round of the presidential election. Fernando Villavicencio, who was 59 years old, lost his life in the attack. Regrettably, the assault also resulted in injuries to nine other individuals, including a National Assembly candidate and two police officers.
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President Lasso is resolute in ensuring that those responsible for this heinous act face the full force of the law. He firmly stated that while organized crime may have gained ground, justice will prevail. In conjunction with requesting the FBI’s assistance, President Lasso has declared a state of emergency for duration of 60 days. He has also directed the immediate deployment of armed forces across the nation and declared three days of national mourning.
Despite this tragic incident, Ecuador’s presidential election, scheduled for August 20, 2023, will proceed as planned, as announced by Diana Atamaint, the President of the Electoral Council.
Fernando Villavicencio, a legislator in the National Assembly, was known for his outspoken stance against corruption and the violence stemming from drug trafficking within the country. In May, he boldly characterised Ecuador as a “narco state.” He pledged to lead a campaign against what he termed the “political mafia.“
Opinion polls positioned Villavicencio within the middle tier of the eight candidates, significantly trailing behind the frontrunner, Luisa González.
Alleged shooter eliminated
The individual suspected of shooting Villavicencio met his demise while in police custody following an exchange of gunfire with security personnel. Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office released this information in a statement issued on X, the platform previously referred to as Twitter.
In response to this tragic incident, six individuals suspected of involvement in the assassination of an anti-corruption Ecuadorian presidential candidate have been apprehended, the police revealed on Thursday. The incident, which has sent shockwaves through a nation already grappling with drug-related turmoil, prompted authorities to delve into the motives behind the heinous act.
Overnight operations led to the discovery of a cache of weapons and equipment, including a rifle, a machine gun, four pistols, three grenades, two rifle magazines, four ammunition boxes, two motorcycles, and a stolen vehicle that is believed to have been utilised by the suspects.
Patricia Villavicencio, the sister of the deceased politician, recounted that she was standing beside her brother at the rally when the fatal incident unfolded. She expressed her grievance to reporters, holding the national government and the Interior Ministry accountable for her brother’s untimely demise, questioning the adequacy of security measures in place.
It is noteworthy that Villavicencio was accompanied by a security detail during the time of the shooting. This team comprised five police officers, multiple patrol vehicles, and an armoured vehicle owned by Villavicencio himself. However, Interior Minister Zapata clarified that the armoured vehicle was not utilized in Quito, where the attack took place.
In a broader context, Minister Zapata earlier disclosed that seven out of the eight presidential candidates in Ecuador were currently under police protection. This information was reported earlier in the week by local media outlets.
Social media video expose
A video circulating on social media captures the distressing moment when Fernando Villavicencio was fatally shot. In the footage, Villavicencio is seen walking away from the campaign rally, heading towards a vehicle that is surrounded by police officers and a crowd of spectators. As he enters the back seat of the vehicle, a series of at least 12 gunshots ring out. A police officer swiftly closes the door behind Villavicencio, while many individuals seek cover from the gunfire, including his security team. CNN has requested further details from authorities regarding the incident.
The brutal assassination has garnered widespread condemnation internationally. The White House labelled the killing as “shocking,” with John Kirby, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, expressing that this event was not the desired outcome for Ecuadorian democracy.
Volker Türk, the UN Human Rights Chief who has previously expressed concerns about political violence in the country, called upon authorities to enhance the protection for politicians, public officials, and journalists.
Ecuador’s remaining presidential candidates promptly denounced the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio. Some even temporarily suspended their campaigns as a mark of respect and safety precautions.
Yaku Pérez, an environmental activist and candidate, extended his solidarity to Villavicencio’s family and supporters. He announced the suspension of his campaign and invited fellow candidates to follow suit, emphasizing the gravity of the situation.
Jan Topic, a businessman running for the presidency, stated his intention to pause his campaign as a gesture of respect for the tragic loss and the safety of his campaign team.
Luisa González, the frontrunner in the presidential race, expressed solidarity with Quito and Villavicencio’s family, emphasising the unity among candidates. She discussed her own security measures during a radio interview, acknowledging the limitations of personal security in the face of criminal activity.
González highlighted that despite the presence of security personnel, criminals often possess superior weaponry compared to law enforcement. She noted the vulnerability even with security precautions and referred to the assailants’ use of headshots and grenades, indicating the challenges faced by candidates in ensuring their safety.
Amid chaos and conspiracies
In May, President Lasso made the decision to dissolve the opposition-led congress, a move that paved the way for early elections. This decision came after he faced an impeachment vote related to allegations of embezzlement made by opposition legislators. President Lasso vehemently denies these accusations.
Calls for President Lasso’s resignation have intensified in recent months due to a combination of factors. The country is grappling with a severe cost-of-living crisis, coupled with a worsening security situation exacerbated by drug trafficking and a territorial conflict between rival criminal organizations.
Ecuador, once known as the “isla de paz” or “island of peace,” has witnessed a surge in homicide rates, ranking among the highest in the region. Despite not being a historical producer of cocaine or its main ingredient coca, Ecuador finds itself sandwiched between two major narcotics production hubs: Peru and Colombia. As a result, the country has become a crucial link in the lucrative cocaine trafficking routes that extend from South America to North America and Europe, as noted by security experts. Much of the violence has concentrated along the Pacific coast, where criminal groups compete for control over the distribution of illegal drugs.
Ecuador’s penitentiary system has also spiraled out of control, with overcrowded prisons often under the sway of criminal gangs. Security forces have struggled to contain these gangs within the prison walls, leading to situations where inmates take charge of penitentiary branches and run criminal operations from behind bars. This dire situation has resulted in numerous violent clashes and deadly prison riots between rival gangs.
Tragedies related to the escalating violence have struck even public figures. In July, Agustin Intriago, the mayor of Manta, and Ariana Chancay, a young athlete, were both shot dead on the streets of the port city.
All candidates in Ecuador’s presidential election have pledged to address the growing violence. However, the deteriorating security and economic conditions have compelled more Ecuadorians to leave the country. Statistics indicate that thousands have embarked on a perilous journey north through the treacherous Darien Gap in hopes of reaching the United States.
International reaction to Ecuador’s political tragedy
In response to the tragic assassination of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, there has been a global outpouring of condemnation and support:
United States: The White House and US Ambassador to Ecuador express condolences, call for a transparent investigation, and offer investigative assistance.
Mexico: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs regrets the violence, stands in solidarity with Ecuador, and supports a peaceful democratic process.
Paraguay: President-elect condemns the assassination, expressing solidarity and support for Ecuador.
Chile: The Chilean government strongly condemns the act, extends condolences, and emphasizes the importance of democratic coexistence.
Brazil: The Brazilian government conveys condolences, expresses confidence in identifying the perpetrators, and supports Ecuador.
Honduras: President condemns the assassination, underscores the fight against organized crime, and expresses solidarity with Ecuador.
Colombia: The Colombian government trusts Ecuador’s institutions to clarify the facts and condemns the attack on democracy.
Spain: The Spanish government regrets and condemns the killing, supports Ecuador’s investigation, and upholds democratic processes.
China: China condemns the attack, expresses condolences, and hopes for stability and safety during the upcoming general election.
France: The French Ministry condemns the act as an attack on democracy and expresses strong condemnation.
European Union: The EU expresses horror at the attack, offers full support for security and peaceful elections in Ecuador.