Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in a campaign rally, minutes before being shot to death, in Quito, Ecuador, August 9 2023. EPA-EFE/STRINGER


Ecuador assassination prompts state of emergency ahead of vote


Ecuador’s president declared a 60-day state of emergency in the Andean nation after the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, calling the killing an assault on the country’s democracy.

“The armed forces, from this moment on, will mobilise in the whole national territory to guarantee the security of citizens, the tranquillity of the country and free, democratic elections on August 20,” President Guillermo Lasso said early Thursday after an emergency meeting of his security cabinet.

“We need to be united now more than ever,” Lasso added.

Villavicencio was killed Wednesday in Quito, sparking a shoot-out between the assassins and the candidate’s protective detail, Lasso said, adding that the attackers also threw a hand grenade that failed to explode. One suspect died after the attack, nine people were wounded and six suspects have been arrested, the president said.

The killing of Villavicencio throws Ecuador’s unstable political environment into further turmoil. A poll published just before his killing showed the former reporter in second place among the eight presidential candidates ahead of the vote, trailing socialist front-runner Luisa Gonzalez.

“This is a deadly blow to Ecuador’s democracy,” Cesar Ricaurte, president of the media advocacy organization Fundamedios, said by phone. “The mafias have committed a coup.”

Villavicencio, 59, 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. He was one of Ecuador’s most prominent journalists before being elected to the legislature in 2021, pledging to renegotiate contracts with foreign oil and mining companies and to take a tough line on drug cartels.

During the campaign, Villavicencio signaled he knew he could be targeted but said he wouldn’t back down.

“Although they threaten me, with the mafia you don’t make deals,” he had told reporters.

The death of such 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 it had been seen as a test of whether the country’s 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.

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 neighbours. 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 per cent over the last five years, as mafias fought for control of smuggling routes.

Villavicencio was in second place with 13.5 per cent support, according to a survey published just ahead of his death. The top candidates — from Gonzalez to Jan Topic, an ex-soldier in the French foreign legion — have made law and order central to their campaigns. Several candidates said they would temporarily suspend campaigning after the assassination.

Villavicencio’s killing raises the question of whether voters will now gravitate toward the more extreme hardliners in the race. Crime is also among the top issues in other elections this month, in Argentina’s August 13 primaries and Guatemala’s August 20 presidential run-off vote.

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.

Villavicencio is the latest victim of political violence in Ecuador. Last month, the mayor of the nation’s second-biggest port, Manta, was also gunned down.

“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.”