By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) -Ecuador presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was killed on Wednesday evening during a campaign event in northern Quito and a suspect in the crime later died of injuries sustained in a shoot-out, authorities said.
Local media reported Villavicencio had been shot, but Ecuador’s police and Interior Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the details of the killing.
“For his memory and his fight, I assure you that this crime will not remain unpunished,” President Guillermo Lasso said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Organized crime have gone very far, but all the weight of the law will fall on them.”
Lasso said he would host top security officials at an urgent meeting.
“A suspect, who was injured during the shootout with security personnel, was apprehended and moved, badly injured, to the (attorney general’s) unit in Quito. An ambulance from the fire department confirmed his death, the police are proceeding with collection of the cadaver,” the attorney general’s office said on X.
Nine people, including a candidate for the legislature and two police officers were injured in the attack, the office added.
Videos on social media purportedly from the campaign event showed people taking cover and screaming as gunfire sounded.
Villavicencio’s party Movimiento Construye said on X that armed men attacked its Quito offices in a separate incident. The party said discussions had been held recently about whether to suspend campaigning due to political violence, including the July murder of the mayor of Manta.
Villavicencio opposed the suspension, it said, saying “keeping silent and hiding in moments when criminals assassin citizens and authorities is an act of cowardice”.
The candidate, a former unionist and journalist, had on Tuesday made a report to the attorney general’s office about an oil business, but no further details of his report were made public.
Lasso’s government has blamed rising violence on the streets and in prisons on criminal infighting to control trafficking routes used by Mexican cartels, the Albanian mafia and others to move drugs.
Security concerns, along with employment and migration, are major voter concerns in the presidential contest.
According to opinion polls, Villavicencio’s support was at 7.5%, ranking him fifth out of eight presidential candidates for the August 20 vote.
Villavicencio, from the Andean province of Chimborazo, was a former union member at state oil company Petroecuador and later a journalist who denounced alleged millions in oil contract losses.
Villavicencio was an outspoken critic of former President Rafael Correa and was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation over statements made against the former president.
He fled to Indigenous territory within Ecuador and later was given asylum in Peru.
“Ecuador has become a failed state,” Correa, who now lives in Belgium, said on X. “Hopefully those who try to sow more hate with this new tragedy will understand that will only continue to destroy us.”
As a legislator, Villavicencio was criticized by opposition politicians for obstructing an impeachment process this year against Lasso, which lead the latter to call the early elections.
Villavicencio had pledged to combat corruption and reduce tax evasion if elected.
Other candidates in the race reacted with horror to the killing.
“This makes us all mourn, my solidarity to all his family and the people who follow his ideals. This vile act will not go unpunished!,” presidential candidate Luisa Gonzalez, who is running for Correa’s party, said on X.
Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez said he had decided to suspend his presidential campaign and demanded the violence stop in a video posted after the incident.
“To the government; we don’t want words… Act. We are dying,” candidate Otto Sonnenholzner told a press conference.
“Today more than ever, the need to act with a strong hand against crime is reiterated. May God have him in his glory,” presidential hopeful Jan Topic said on X, before also suspending his campaign.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito, additional reporting by Valentine Hilaire, Isabel Woodford and Carolina PuliceWriting by Julia Symmes CobbEditing by Lincoln Feast)