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Ecuador presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio assassinated at campaign event

Aug 10, 2023, 12:10 PM

Former Assembly member and Ecuador presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, speaks to journa...

Former Assembly member and Ecuador presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, speaks to journalists at the Attorney General's Office in Quito on August 8. Mandatory Credit: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

Quito, Ecuador (CNN) — A candidate in Ecuador’s upcoming presidential election, Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated at a campaign event in the capital Wednesday as a deadly escalation of violence and crime grips the South American country. Six foreign nationals have been arrested in connection with the killing.

Villavicencio was fatally shot as he was leaving a campaign rally at a school north of the capital Quito, 10 days before the first round of the presidential election was set to take place. He was 59 years old.

Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso vowed the killing would not go unpunished, saying that “organized crime has come a long way, but the full weight of the law will fall on them.” Lasso announced a state of emergency for 60 days, an immediate mobilization of the armed forces across the country and three days of national mourning.

The election, scheduled for August 20, will go ahead as planned, the Electoral Council President Diana Atamaint said Thursday.

A legislator in the National Assembly, Villavicencio had been outspoken about corruption and the violence caused by drug trafficking in the country, telling CNN En Español Conclusiones in May that Ecuador had become a “narco state” as he proposed to lead a fight against what he called the “political mafia.”

Opinion polls had Villavicencio in the middle of the pack of the eight candidates, far behind the frontrunner Luisa González.

Alleged gunman dead, six others arrested

The suspected gunman died in police custody following an exchange of fire with security personnel, Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Six others have since been arrested in connection with the killing, interior minister Juan Zapata said in a news conference Thursday morning, noting that all are foreign nationals. A photo of them with their hands tied and backs against a wall was also shown.

The men are members of organized criminal groups, Zapata said, citing preliminary evidence.

During overnight raids authorities also found a rifle, a machine gun, four pistols, three grenades, two rifle magazines, four boxes of ammunition, two motorcycles, and a stolen vehicle believed to have been used by the men, he said.

Authorities’ investigation into the attack is ongoing. Nine other people, including a candidate for the National Assembly and two police officers, were also injured in the attack.

Shooting captured on social media

Video circulating on social media appears to show the moment Villavicencio was fatally shot.

The footage appears to show Villavicencio walking away from the campaign rally toward a vehicle surrounded by several police officers and a crowd of onlookers. As he gets into the back seat of the vehicle, at least 12 gunshots can be heard. A policeman quickly closes the door behind Villavicencio and many people are seen taking cover from the gunfire, including his security detail.

CNN has asked authorities for more details.

Villavicencio’s assassination sparked condemnation from across the world. The White House called the the killing “shocking,” telling CNN This Morning Thursday that it was not what “anybody would want” for “Ecuador’s democracy.”

“We obviously hope that there will be a full, complete and transparent investigation into this and that the perpetrators are held properly accountable,” National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told CNN. “It’s heartbreaking for him and his family for his supporters.”

UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk, who said last month he was concerned about the spike in violence in Ecuador, including attacks and threats against political candidates, condemned the assassination and urged authorities to “increase their efforts to strengthen protection measures for political candidates, public officers and journalists.”

Josep Borrell Fontelles, EU’s top diplomat said the “tragic act of violence” was “also an attack against the institutions and democracy in Ecuador.”

“The EU reiterates full commitment to support the Ecuadorian democracy and help efforts to ensure peaceful democratic elections,” he added in a post on X.

The slain politician’s sister Patricia Villavicencio attended the rally and said she was standing behind her brother before he was killed.

She told reporters outside the school that she held the national government and the Interior Ministry responsible for the death of her brother.

“Where is the security?” she asked.

Earlier this week, Ecuador’s Interior Minister Juan Zapata said seven of the eight candidates, including Villavicencio, were under police protection, local media reported Tuesday.

President Lasso, who said he is “outraged and shocked” by Villavicencio’s killing, dissolved the opposition-led congress in May, paving the way for early elections.

The embattled Lasso had faced an impeachment vote over accusations from opposition legislators of embezzlement before he took office, which he denies. Calls for his resignation had grown louder in recent months as the country became engulfed by a cost-of-living crisis and high rates of criminal violence.

Rising violence

The assassination comes as Ecuador struggles with a deteriorating security crisis fueled by drug trafficking and a turf war between rival criminal organizations.

Once known as the “isla de paz” – an island of peace – the Andean country has in recent years reported some of the highest homicide rates in the region.

Though Ecuador has no history of producing cocaine, nor its main ingredient coca, it is sandwiched between the two largest narcotics production hotspots in the world: Peru and Colombia.

Ecuador has become an integral part in the lucrative cocaine trafficking routes from South America to North America and Europe, according to security experts. And violence has been most pronounced on the country’s Pacific coast as criminal groups battle to control and distribute illicit drugs.

The country has also lost control of its overcrowded prisons, which are often ruled by criminal gangs. Security forces have struggled to confront the gangs inside prisons, where inmates often take control of branches of the penitentiaries and run criminal networks from behind bars, according to Ecuadorian authorities. Hundreds of inmates have been killed in brutal prison riots between rival gangs.

In July, the mayor of the port city of Manta, Agustin Intriago, was shot dead alongside Ariana Chancay, a young athlete he was talking with on the street.

All the candidates in Ecuador’s presidential election have pledged to rein in the escalation of violence.

But the deteriorating security and economic situation is leading more Ecuadorians to leave the country, with statistics showing thousands making their way north through the treacherous Darien Gap this year, with hopes of reaching the United States.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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Ecuador presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio assassinated at campaign event