By GONZALO SOLANO and MEGAN JANETSKY
QUITO, Ecuador — An Ecuadorian presidential candidate known for speaking up against cartels and corruption was shot and killed Wednesday at a political rally in the capital, amid a startling wave of gang-driven violence in the South American country.
President Guillermo Lasso confirmed the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio and suggested organized crime was behind his slaying, less than two weeks before the Aug. 20 presidential election.
“I assure you that this crime will not go unpunished,” Lasso said in a statement. “Organized crime has gone too far, but they will feel the full weight of the law.”
Ecuador’s attorney general’s office said that one suspect died in custody from wounds sustained in a firefight after the killing, and police detained six suspects following raids in Quito.
In his final speech before he was killed, Villavicencio promised a roaring crowd that he would root out corruption and lock up the country’s “thieves.”
Prior to the shooting, Villavicencio said he had received multiple death threats, including from affiliates of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, one of a slew of international organized crime groups that now operate in Ecuador. He said his campaign represented a threat to such groups.
“Here I am showing my face. I’m not scared of them,” Villavicencio said in a statement, naming detained crime boss José Adolfo Macías by his alias “Fito.”
Villavicencio was one of eight candidates, though not the front-runner. The politician, 59, was the candidate for the Build Ecuador Movement.
Supporter Ida Paez said that Villavicencio’s campaign had given her hope that the country could overcome the gangs. At the rally, she said, “We were happy. Fernando even danced. His last words were, if someone messes with the people, he is messing with my family.”
As drug traffickers have begun to use the country’s coastal ports, Ecuadorians have reeled from violence not seen for decades. The sounds of gunfire ring in many major cities as rival gangs battle for control, and gangs have recruited children. Just last month, the mayor of the port city of Manta was shot and killed. On July 26, Lasso declared a state of emergency covering two provinces and the country’s prison system in an effort to stem the violence.
Former vice president and candidate Otto Sonnenholzner said in a news conference following Wednesday’s killing, “We are dying, drowning in a sea of tears and we do not deserve to live like this. We demand that you do something.”
Videos of the rally on social media appear to show Villavicencio walking out of the event surrounded by guards. The video then shows the candidate getting into a white pickup truck before gunshots are heard, followed by screams and commotion around the truck. This sequence of events was confirmed to The Associated Press by Patricio Zuquilanda, Villavicencio’s campaign adviser.
Lasso said “the murderers” threw a grenade into the street to cover their flight, but it didn’t explode. Police later destroyed the grenade with a controlled explosion, he added.
Zuquilanda said the candidate had received at least three death threats before the shooting, which he had reported to authorities, resulting in one detention. He called on international authorities to take action against the violence, attributing it to rising violence and drug trafficking.
“The Ecuadorian people are crying and Ecuador is mortally wounded,” he said. “Politics cannot lead to the death of any member of society.”
Villavicencio was one of the country’s most critical voices against corruption, especially during the 2007-2017 government of President Rafael Correa.
He was also an independent journalist who investigated corruption in previous governments, later entering politics as an anti-graft campaigner.
Villavicencio filed many judicial complaints against high-ranking members of the Correa government, including against the ex-president himself. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation over his criticisms of Correa, and fled to Indigenous territory in Ecuador, later receiving asylum in neighboring Peru.
Edison Romo, a former military intelligence colonel, said the anti-corruption complaints made Villavicencio “a threat to international criminal organizations.”
Lasso, a conservative former banker, was elected in 2021 on a business-friendly platform and clashed from the start with the left-leaning majority coalition in the National Assembly.
A snap election was called after Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May, in a move to avoid being impeached over allegations that he failed to intervene to end a faulty contract between the state-owned oil transport company and a private tanker company.
Ecuador’s constitution includes a provision that allows the president to disband the assembly during a political crisis, but then requires new elections for both the assembly and the presidency.
Diana Atamaint, the president of the National Electoral Council, said the election date, Aug. 20, was “unalterable” due to constitutional and legal mandates, as well as electoral activities that have already been approved by the council.
The country has faced a series of political upheavals in recent years.
Authorities said that at least nine others were injured in the Wednesday shooting, including officers and a congressional candidate, in what they described as a “terrorist act.”
The killing was met with an outcry by other candidates who demanded action, with presidential front-runner Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution party saying “when they touch one of us, they touch all of us.”
Villavicencio was married and is survived by five children.