By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) -Ecuador’s presidential candidates promised improvements in security during a debate late on Sunday, days after their fellow hopeful Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated leaving a campaign event.
The killing of the 59-year-old in the closing days of the campaign has sent shockwaves through the South American country of 18 million people, where violent crime stoked by transnational gangs has risen sharply in recent years.
Villavicencio, an ex-lawmaker and investigative journalist with a record of exposing corruption, repeatedly said he was not afraid of the gangs despite receiving threats.
An empty podium stood in Villavicencio’s place as several candidates promised an iron fist against crime during the tumultuous debate, which moderators initially struggled to control.
Luisa Gonzalez, who has led polling with about 30% of the vote, pledged a return to policies implemented by her mentor, former President Rafael Correa, who left office in 2017 and was later convicted of corruption.
“We’ll return security on the streets, so they don’t kill us, with a firm hand against crime,” Gonzalez said. “We are going to retake control of this country.”
Law and order candidate Jan Topic said he would redirect $1.2 billion in earnings from police fines to a “zero tolerance” plan for security.
“We’ll retake control of the 36 prisons and the northern and southern borders so that drug trafficking and illegal arms never come to our streets, equip and train our forces of order and integrate all the sources of intelligence,” Topic said.
Pro-market candidate Otto Sonnenholzner also promised a tough response on crime.
“We’ll back public forces, when a criminal raises a firearm against a citizen they will know they will get the bullet that they deserve,” Sonnenholzner said.
Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez, who said he is the only candidate with an advanced law degree, promised social improvements and better criminology data to inform policy.
“We’re going to give conclusive answers to common crime and to organized crime,” Perez said.
FBI JOINS INVESTIGATION
Earlier on Sunday, leaders of the Build party, or Construye in Spanish, announced they would now opt for Christian Zurita to replace Villavicencio as the party’s candidate, reversing their decision from Saturday to elevate the party’s vice presidential nominee.
Zurita is also a journalist who in the past collaborated with Villavicencio.
Though he officially registered his candidacy for the Aug. 20 vote on Sunday, he still must be approved by the national electoral authorities and could not participate in Sunday’s debate.
“We’re going to try to emulate his abilities and we’re going to try to emulate his name,” Zurita said at a press conference, referring to Villavicencio, while wearing a bullet-proof vest.
He emphasized he will not negotiate with “any mafia.”
While ballots for the election had already been printed prior to Villavicencio’s assassination, votes for him will automatically transfer to the party’s replacement.
As the final days of campaign wind down, the search for answers into the slain candidate got an outside boost.
Interior Minister Juan Zapata told reporters earlier in the day that a team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had met with police leaders and would in the “next few hours” meet with prosecutors from the attorney general’s office who are leading the investigation into Villavicencio’s slaying.
Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso asked for FBI help in the case on Thursday, the day after Villavicencio was shot multiple times as he stepped into a car.
Six Colombian nationals have been charged with the murder and remain in custody while one other suspect died after an exchange of gunfire shortly after the murder.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by David Alire Garcia and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Chris Reese and Stephen Coates)