In an election dominated by fear of crime, Jan Topic is trying to market himself as the only candidate tough enough to take on Ecuador’s cocaine cartels.
(Bloomberg) — In an election dominated by fear of crime, Jan Topic is trying to market himself as the only candidate tough enough to take on Ecuador’s cocaine cartels.
Topic, an economist who studied at the University of Pennsylvania, launched his campaign for president by touting what he says is his combat experience in Africa, Ukraine and Syria.
Soaring violence was already the top issue for voters, even before one of the candidates, Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated as he left a campaign rally last week. Topic’s rugged appearance, Ivy League education, and pledge to crush crime bosses are making him a leading contender ahead of the Aug. 20 vote.
A poll by Comunicaliza following Villavicencio’s murder showed Topic surging into second place, which would be enough to put him into the October runoff. During a presidential debate on Sunday, Google Trends data showed people searched his name more than any of his rivals.
Over the last five years, rival drug cartels have turned Ecuador from a relatively peaceful corner of South America into one of the most violent places in the world, with car bombs, contract killings and prison massacres.
Topic, 40, comes from a wealthy background and has helped run the family business, Telconect, one of Ecuador’s largest telecommunications firms. He has given few specifics on his economic plan, though he backs private business and also says the deficit needs to be slashed.
Topic’s campaign team says he served with the French Foreign Legion, and is trained as a sniper and a parachutist. He served in the Central African Republic, the Ivory Coast and took part in operations amid the conflict between Djibouti and Eritrea, according to a document sent by his office.
He was also present in Syria in 2012, during the civil war, and in Ukraine in 2022, they said. They didn’t immediately reply to questions on what his exact role was in these conflicts. The French Foreign Legion did not respond to a request for comment.
Topic’s martial background gained public attention after he was rumored as a choice for a top security position in the government, even though he wasn’t picked.
Socialist candidate Luisa González has been leading the polls since President Guillermo Lasso called snap elections in May to avoid being impeached. González is a close associate of former president Rafael Correa, who was convicted on corruption charges and lives in Belgium.
Nearly all polls point to a runoff between González and either Topic, former vice president Otto Sonnenholzner, or anti-mining candidate Yaku Perez. Villavicencio was in second place according to a poll published the day of his murder. His replacement, Christian Zurita, will also be a contender if the electoral authority agrees to register him.
Read more: Ecuador Journalist to Follow Slain Villavicencio on Ticket
Topic denies accusations that he was ever a mercenary. He prefers the term “professional soldier” and says that money has never motivated him to fight.
“A mercenary moves over money, a professional soldier moves over ideology, over conviction,” he said.
He has repeatedly expressed his support for El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, who gained huge popularity with his roundup of tens of thousands of alleged gang members.
“We aspire to do something like they achieved in El Salvador, when in their first year in power they cut crime by 30% or 40%,” Diana Jacome, Topic’s running mate, said in an interview on Tuesday.
Topic graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005 and says he worked in the US before joining the Legion. He applied to join the Ecuadorian army but was rejected for having bad vision, he said.
In 2019, TV cameras filmed Topic while he was detained by police for allegedly having assaulted his stepbrother. He said he had been defending himself.
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