Troops deployed across Ecuador on Thursday to enforce a state of emergency as six people accused of plotting the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio are due to appear before a judge.
(Bloomberg) — Troops deployed across Ecuador on Thursday to enforce a state of emergency as six people accused of plotting the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio are due to appear before a judge.
Independence Day festivities scheduled for Thursday were suspended as shocked citizens began three days of national mourning for the slain leader, who had been a strong contender to be their next president.
Overnight, Villavicencio’s supporters held a candlelit vigil in the streets of Quito, which have lately been deserted after dark due to soaring crime, and in other cities. President Guillermo Lasso declared a 60-day state of emergency.
“The armed forces, from this moment on, will mobilize in the whole national territory to guarantee the security of citizens, the tranquility of the country and free, democratic elections on Aug. 20,” Lasso said, after an emergency meeting of his security cabinet.
Villavicencio was gunned down on Wednesday afternoon as he left a campaign event in Quito, sparking a shootout between the assassins and the candidate’s bodyguards, Lasso said. The attackers also threw a hand grenade that failed to explode, he added.
One suspect died after the attack, and nine people were wounded. Six people arrested over the plot are expected to be arraigned Thursday, he said.
What Villavicencio’s Assassination Means for Ecuador: QuickTake
The death of such a high-profile figure, someone who was under police protection after receiving repeated threats, is the latest example of Latin America’s growing difficulties in controlling organized crime and political violence. The killing throws Ecuador’s unstable political environment into further turmoil.
The snap elections were triggered when Lasso dissolved congress in May, when he was facing impeachment.
A poll published the day of his murder showed Villavicencio in second place among the eight presidential candidates ahead of the vote, trailing socialist frontrunner 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 carried out a coup.”
Other presidential candidates including centrist former Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner and Indigenous leader Yaku Perez called for national unity and a pact for governance to find a way out of the deepening crisis.
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, you don’t make deals with the mafia,” he had told reporters.
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 neighbors. But the growing importance of its ports in drug shipments to the US and Europe, has caused the murder rate to soar by more than 300% over the last five years as mafias fought for control of smuggling routes.
Read more: Golden Age of Cocaine Leaves Europe Flooded With $50,000 Kilos
Villavicencio was in second place with 13.5% 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 hard-liners in the race. Crime is also among the top issues in other elections this month, in Argentina’s Aug. 13 primaries and Guatemala’s Aug. 20 presidential runoff vote.
Gang Round Up
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.”
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