Before presidential election: state of emergency in Ecuador after candidate murder

A week and a half before the presidential election, the assassination of a candidate shook Ecuador and dramatically worsened the political crisis in the small Andean country.

Before presidential election: state of emergency in Ecuador after candidate murder

A week and a half before the presidential election, the assassination of a candidate shook Ecuador and dramatically worsened the political crisis in the small Andean country.

In a mafia-like manner, unknown persons in the capital Quito fired on the 59-year-old opposition candidate Fernando Villavicencio when, according to the public prosecutor's office, he left an election campaign event in a school on Wednesday evening (local time). According to the media, he was hit three times in the head.

Suspects are foreigners

President Guillermo Lasso spoke of contract killers (Spanish: sicarios). He declared a 60-day state of emergency and mobilized the armed forces across the country.

According to the government, the suspects are foreigners. The six arrested came from the area of ​​organized crime, Interior Minister Juan Zapata said on Thursday. Pistols, grenades, a rifle and a submachine gun were seized. Zapata spoke of a "political crime with terrorist traits" and an "attempt to sabotage the upcoming elections". According to media reports, the suspects come from neighboring Colombia. This was not officially confirmed at first.

After the assassination there were dramatic scenes. Pictures and videos show victims covered in blood, desperate helpers and people lying on the ground seeking protection and screaming for help. One of the suspected assassins was injured in a shootout with police and died on the way to the hospital, the president said. Six other suspects were arrested. The attackers threw another grenade into the crowd. However, this did not explode and was later defused. At least nine people were injured, according to prosecutors.

President Lasso: Will not yield to violence

Lasso, who is not running for election himself, called the murder a political crime with terrorist traits. "We have no doubt that this murder is an attempt to sabotage the electoral process," he said. The vote will take place as planned on August 20th. One will not give way to violence. The perpetrators and their clients would be held accountable. "The state is standing firm and democracy will not give in to the brutality of this murder. We will not concede power and democratic institutions to organized crime."

In doing so, he addressed one of the most pressing problems that the otherwise peaceful country on the equator has been struggling with for some time: Ecuador is on the transit route for cocaine, which is mainly produced in other South American countries such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru and then smuggle the drug cartels into the US or Europe. This brings with it violence and corruption - bloody revolts in overcrowded prisons, some of which are controlled by gangs, repeatedly occur in this context. The homicide rate of 25 homicides per 100,000 people in 2022 was the highest in the country's history, even exceeding those of Mexico and Brazil.

Possible confession video

A video has appeared on social media in which suspected members of the Los Lobos crime syndicate claim responsibility for the attack. "If the corrupt politicians who finance their election campaigns with our money, millions of dollars, don't keep their promises, they will be killed," a hooded spokesman said in front of a dozen armed men. The authenticity of the video could not initially be verified independently.

According to the specialist portal Insight Crime, "Los Lobos" are the second largest criminal gang in Ecuador with around 8,000 members. The crime syndicate is mainly active in drug trafficking. Members of the gang were recently involved in a series of bloody clashes in the South American country's prisons, leaving dozens dead.

Villavicencio spoke out against violence and corruption

The candidate who has now been murdered campaigned against this violence and the corruption in the state. According to media reports, Villavicencio received threats against him and his team from a drug godfather just last week.

His sister Patricia blamed the government for the attack. "They killed democracy," she said, according to local media. "They didn't want the corruption to be exposed. Now we're being persecuted as a family. But they won't silence us." Villavicencio, who was a journalist and MP, ran for the highest office as a candidate for the Construye (Construction) movement and was fourth or fifth in recent polls.

So far, he was the most prominent, but not the only victim of political violence in the country of around 17 million inhabitants, which is popular with tourists not least because of the Amazon jungle, the many active volcanoes, the beaches or the Galápagos Islands, which are known for their unique wildlife is popular. About two weeks ago, the mayor of the port city of Manta, Agustín Intriago, was killed in a similar attack.

After Villavicencio's murder, the Organization of American States (OAS) called on the Ecuadorian government to ensure the security of the candidates in the upcoming elections and to fully investigate the crime.

The EU also sharply condemned the attack and expressed its solidarity with the Ecuadorian population and especially the family of the dead man. The EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that we stand with Ecuador in the fight against the increasing violence caused by organized crime. The EU wants to help organize peaceful elections. According to the information, there are currently election observers in the country.

Ecuador hit by national crisis

However, the country is also in a state crisis. According to surveys, only 17 percent of citizens support the president's governance, and just 20 percent rate the work of parliament as good. In the midst of impeachment proceedings against him for alleged embezzlement, the head of state dissolved parliament in May. As a result, the forthcoming new elections were due.

In recent years, the country, which borders Colombia and Peru, has experienced a significant modernization push due to the extraction of oil deposits: New roads, schools and hospitals were built at the time. However, growth slowed as oil prices fell. Ecuador is also one of the largest exporters of flowers and bananas and relies on high-quality cocoa and fish exports.