31.05.2024

Ecuador presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio assassinated ahead of elections

Ecuador’s presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was shot dead as he was leaving a political rally in the capital just days ahead of elections amid increasing gang-driven violence in the South American country.

Video of the moment showed Villavicencio, 59, surrounded by supporters and being escorted by security guards as he was led to a vehicle when gunshots rang out.

Several shots were fired as panic-stricken people took cover amid loud screams.

President Guillermo Lasso said he was “outraged and shocked by the assassination”and blamed organised crime behind the slaying.

“I assure you that this crime will not go unpunished,” Mr Lasso said in a statement. “Organised crime has gone too far, but they will feel the full weight of the law.”

“For his memory and his fight, I assure you that this crime will not remain unpunished,” he said.

One suspect in the assassination was killed in police custody from wounds sustained in the firefight following the killing, Ecuador‘s attorney general’s office said.

Around six suspects linked to the killing were also detained in raids in Quito.

At least nine others were left injured in the shooting, including officers and a congressional candidate, in what was described as a “terrorist act” by authorities.

Attendees at the rally for presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio take shelter during the shooting in which the candidate was murdered

The assassination of the politician who was known for speaking up against drug cartels and corruption comes amid a shocking rise in violent crime in the country where rival drug trafficking gangs perpetuate mass killings in prisons and murder rates have more than doubled in the last two years.

Villavicencio, a former journalist who exposed corruption in previous governments and later entered politics as an anti-graft campaigner, had alerted authorities of receiving multiple death threats, including from affiliates of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

The cartel is one of a slew of international organised crime groups that now operate inEcuador.

In the last speech he made before he was killed, Villavicencio vowed to a roaring crowd to weed out corruption and lock up the country’s “thieves”

He had said his campaign represented a threat to organsied cartel groups.

“Here I am showing my face. I’m not scared of them,” Villavicencio said in a statement and when on to name detained crime boss José Adolfo Macías by his alias “Fito.”

Giving an emotional speech from the scene of the shooting, his uncle Galo Valencia, accused the state of not giving his nephew enough security.

He said he initially thought the gunshots were fireworks launched by his supporters until “we saw that there were wounded falling, blood, injured people”.

“What we witnessed was like a horror film. The death of my relative. I have no words for what’s happening in the country. They just killed democracy,” he said.

“What insecurity we live in … if a man who fought more than 20 years, the most likely to win the elections, is silenced. Is this the way to win elections?”

Villavicencio was one of eight candidates who are running for presidential elections on 20 August. Though not the front-runner in the race, he had emerged as one of the country’s most critical voices against corruption, especially during the 2007-2017 government of President Rafael Correa.

Following Mr Lasso’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly through a decree in May, a snap election was called in an attempt to circumvent potential impeachment proceedings related to accusations that he did not take necessary steps to resolve an erroneous contract between a state-owned oil transport firm and a private tanker company.

Villavicencio’s fellow candidates and politicians expressed remorse while his supporters lost hope of a corruption and drug cartel-free country.

Former vice president and candidate Otto Sonnenholzner said in a news conference following Wednesday’s killing, “We are dying, drowning in a sea of tears and we do not deserve to live like this. We demand that you do something.”

One of his supporters, Ida Paez, said that Villavicencio’s campaign has given a hope of the country overcoming the gangs.

At the rally, she said, “We were happy. Fernando even danced. His last words were, if someone messes with the people, he is messing with my family.”

Edison Romo, a former military intelligence colonel, said the anti-corruption complaints made Villavicencio “a threat to international criminal organizations.”

Villavicencio is survived by a wife and five children.

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