Ecuadoran candidate Fernando Villavicencio killed at campaign rally


QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuadoran presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated by gunmen at a political rally in Quito on Wednesday night, less than two weeks before the country’s elections, police said.

Villavicencio, who was a member of Ecuador’s National Assembly before it was dissolved in May, was among several leading candidates in the first round of voting Aug. 20 to succeed President Guillermo Lasso. He was shot several times as he left the rally at a high school in northern Quito, said General Manuel Iñiguez, a deputy commander of the Ecuadoran national police.

A video circulating on social media, and confirmed by police, showed Villavicencio stepping into a car, escorted by security guards, when gunshots rang out. Villavicencio was rushed to a nearby clinic, where he was pronounced dead. He was 59.

One of the suspected gunmen, who was shot and detained by authorities at the scene, died in police custody, another federal police officer told The Washington Post.

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The brazen attack stunned Ecuadorans and marked a turning point for a historically peaceful country that has recently been consumed by record levels of gang violence. Villavicencio had been an outspoken critic of government corruption and had faced death threats after pledging to clamp down on drug trafficking groups ravaging the country.

In response to the assassination, two other presidential candidates, Jan Topic and Yaku Pérez announced they were suspending their campaigns.

Hours after their candidate was killed, Villavicencio’s campaign said on social media that armed men were attacking its offices in Quito.

Nine people were wounded in the attack, including a candidate for National Assembly and two police officers, according to Ecuador’s attorney general’s office.

The hitmen also launched a grenade toward Villavicencio’s group, but it did not explode. A controlled explosion of a bomb later took place.

Last week, Villavicencio said his campaign had received two death threats in less than 48 hours, including a message from someone claiming to have ties to a leader of one of the most powerful drug trafficking groups in Ecuador, Los Choneros. The first threat was directed to a campaign director in Manta, a port city where the mayor was assassinated late last month. According to a statement from the campaign, Villavicencio was told that if he continued to mention “Fito,” the leader of the Choneros, “they will break us.”

The second threat, a WhatsApp message from a number registered in Indonesia with a profile photo of the gang leader, was sent to Villavicencio’s security coordinator, according to the statement.

“We will continue in the fight of the brave Ecuadorans who want to rescue the homeland from the hands of the mafias,” Villavicencio said in the statement.

As voters head to the polls, drug trafficking is spiraling out of control in this South American country, located between the two biggest cocaine-producing nations, Colombia and Peru. Mexican and Albanian drug cartels have helped unleash a wave of gang violence unlike any other in the country’s history, ushering in record levels of killings, prison massacres and cocaine headed toward Europe and the United States.

Facing mounting security threats to their campaigns, the candidates have focused during the campaign on proposals to combat this rising violence.

Villavicencio had 20 police officers assigned to his security team. Six of the eight presidential candidates have government-provided security guards.

Lasso called the unusual snap elections after dissolving the National Assembly and averting his looming impeachment. Villavicencio had been a member of the legislative oversight commission that recommended not impeaching Lasso, but lawmakers voted to move forward with an impeachment trial anyway.

On Wednesday night, Lasso wrote on Twitter, which was recently renamed X, that he was “outraged and shocked” at the killing of Villavicencio.

“For his memory and for his fight, I assure you that this crime will not go unpunished,” Lasso wrote. He called for an urgent meeting Wednesday night with his security cabinet, along with the president of the country’s electoral council and the attorney general, among others, to discuss the killing that has “dismayed the country.”

“Organized crime has come a long way, but the full weight of the law is going to fall on them,” Lasso wrote.

Villavicencio was polling behind at least two other candidates, but had been gaining support in recent days.

Speaking to reporters late last month in Guayaquil, Villavicencio proposed building a new high-security prison and transferring Fito and other gang leaders to complete isolation in the facility.

“Our campaign proposal seriously affects these criminal structures,” he said, discussing the threats he was facing. “Here I am showing my face, I am not afraid of them. Twenty years I have gambled in this country against these criminal structures and I reiterate: I am not afraid of them.”

Schmidt and Durán reported from Bogotá, Colombia.


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