BREAKING NEWS: Colombian Nationals Arrested in Connection with Assassination of Ecuadorean Presidential Candidate
QUITO, Aug 10 (Reuters) – Ecuadorean police have announced that one suspect has been killed and six others have been arrested in relation to the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. It has been revealed that all the suspects are Colombian nationals. The Ecuadorean government has also stated that it is actively pursuing the “intellectual authors” behind the murder.
The shocking incident occurred on Wednesday night, less than two weeks before the scheduled election, causing a wave of shock and concern throughout the country. Some rival candidates have even decided to suspend their campaigning as a result, highlighting the issue of rising violence in Ecuador.
Fernando Villavicencio, a vocal critic of corruption and organized crime, was fatally shot while leaving an evening campaign event at an education facility in northern Quito. The attorney general’s office confirmed on Wednesday that the deceased suspect died from injuries sustained during a shoot-out. Additionally, nine other individuals, including a candidate for the legislature and two police officers, were injured in the incident.
According to the government, the dead suspect had been previously arrested on weapons charges in July. The six detained individuals are believed to be associated with organized crime groups. The national police, along with the attorney general’s office, are diligently working on the investigation to uncover the motive behind the crime and identify the intellectual authors responsible, stated Interior Minister Juan Zapata.
This recent development, with Colombian nationals allegedly involved in the assassination, draws parallels to the killing of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise earlier this year. Moise was assassinated in his home by a group that included 26 Colombians and two Haitian-Americans.
President Guillermo Lasso has denounced the crime as an attempt to sabotage the upcoming election, but has assured the public that voting will proceed as scheduled on Aug. 20, despite the imposition of a national state of emergency. Lasso has also reached out to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for assistance with the investigation, and a delegation from the FBI is expected to arrive in Ecuador soon.
Violence has been on the rise in Ecuador in recent years, particularly in cities along drug-trafficking routes such as Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, where residents reportedly live in fear. This issue echoes similar concerns seen in other Latin American countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to the situation, the armed forces have been deployed nationwide and will remain in place until the electoral process concludes, according to Defense Minister Luis Lara. Lara emphasized that the armed forces will provide the necessary security for the smooth conduct of the election, emphasizing that the votes of Ecuadorians will be the most powerful response to criminal organizations and their allies.
Movimiento Construye, the party to which Villavicencio belonged, has condemned the “political use” of his death and called for a swift and thorough investigation. The party also rejected an unverified video circulating on social media that purports to be from a gang called Los Lobos, claiming responsibility for the assassination and making allegations against Villavicencio and another candidate. The authenticity and origin of this video remain unknown.
Former President Rafael Correa, who faced criticism from Villavicencio during his time in office as a journalist, initially reposted the video but later deemed it fake. Villavicencio had previously served time in prison for defamation against Correa before seeking asylum in Peru and subsequently returning to Ecuador.
The assassination has left the country in shock, with candidates responding differently to the tragedy. Luisa Gonzalez, a candidate from Correa’s party who currently leads in the polls with 29.3% support, expressed horror but did not suspend her campaign. Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez and law-and-order candidate Jan Topic, however, have temporarily halted their campaigns. Businessman Otto Sonnenholzner appealed to the government to take immediate action.
Villavicencio’s party had previously discussed the idea of suspending campaigning due to recent incidents of political violence, including the murder of a mayor in July. However, Villavicencio himself opposed the suspension, stating that it would be an act of cowardice. The electoral court has confirmed that the party can choose another candidate, but since the ballots have already been printed and distributed with Villavicencio’s name and photo, any changes will be challenging.
As the country mourns the loss of Villavicencio, his party has requested international oversight on the investigation and emphasized the importance of justice through the ballot box. Villavicencio, who had three layers of security on the day of the assassination, had made a report to the attorney general’s office on Tuesday regarding an oil business, but no further details have been disclosed.
Ecuador has experienced approximately 3,500 violent deaths in the first half of this year, with almost half occurring in Guayaquil, the largest city. President Lasso, who called for early elections amid an impeachment attempt against him, has faced criticism for failing to effectively address the surge in violence, despite deploying soldiers and granting them authority to use weapons against criminals.
The government attributes the ongoing bloodshed to criminal conflicts over drug trafficking routes controlled by Mexican cartels, the Albanian mafia, and other groups.
Apart from security concerns, employment and migration remain major issues in the upcoming presidential election. Villavicencio garnered 7.5% support in polls, placing him fifth out of eight candidates.
According to the attorney general’s office, Villavicencio’s body will be released to his wife’s chosen representatives, including his lawyer.
Numerous countries have condemned the assassination and called for a thorough investigation into the incident.
Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Tito Correa in Quito, Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, and additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Oliver Griffin in Bogota; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Rosalba O’Brien.