Thursday, 10 August 2023 21:06

A shocking assassination highlights escalating violence in Ecuador

Supporters of former National Assembly member and presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, take part in a demonstration in Quito on August 1, 2023.

Fernando Villavicencio, an Ecuadorian presidential candidate who ran heavily on an anti-corruption message, has been assassinated less than two weeks before the nation’s presidential elections. Villavicencio, a centrist candidate for the Build Ecuador Movement, was gunned down after a political rally on Wednesday, a shocking act in a country that’s historically been peaceful until recent years.

His killing underscores a recent surge in drug-related violence in Ecuador, and has prompted new scrutiny of the growing presence of cartels in the region. Additionally, it raises questions about how organized crime — which Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso blamed for the shooting — has been emboldened to interfere in the democratic process, and if there will be a chilling effect on how confrontational politicians are about corruption. In the wake of this attack, voter fears about security could also lead them to gravitate toward candidates who’ve made this issue a central part of their pitch in the upcoming August 20 election.

“You now have organized crime groups operating with impunity,” Will Freeman, an expert in Latin American politics at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told Vox. “It underscores how far down the path Ecuador is to becoming a narco state.”

Thus far, six foreign nationals with ties to organized crime groups have been arrested in relation to the killing, and a suspected shooter was killed after exchanging gunfire with police. Villavicencio had previously said he was the subject of death threats, including from the gang Los Choneros, which is affiliated with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

Since the killing, Lasso has declared a state of national emergency and three days of mourning and has committed to accountability for the assassination. Protesters have also marched in multiple cities to condemn the attack.

Who was Fernando Villavicencio?

Villavicencio was a longtime investigative journalist, union leader, and tough critic of former President Rafael Correa, someone he repeatedly condemned for corruption in his administration. Additionally, he was previously a member of the National Assembly and had centered his presidential campaign on cracking down on drug trafficking, which has skyrocketed in Ecuador.

At the time of his assassination, Villavicencio was gaining traction but polling in the middle of eight candidates, and was the most vocal of the group about the relationship between corruption in the government and the rise of the cartels. He had previously threatened to put drug traffickers in jail, and to renegotiate oil contracts the government signed to reduce the benefits that major corporations were getting.

“Here I am showing my face. I’m not scared of them,” Villavicencio had said of threats that he’d faced from organized crime groups.

What does this mean for Ecuador’s upcoming elections?

Lasso has said the country’s presidential election, which is slated for August 20, will go on, with additional military deployed to ensure safety at the polls. “Given the loss of a democrat and a fighter, the elections are not suspended; on the contrary, they have to be held, and democracy has to be strengthened,” he stated.

These elections are taking place after Lasso dissolved the National Assembly earlier this year following the start of an impeachment proceeding against him regarding embezzlement allegations. Lasso is not running for reelection, however, and the top two candidates may have to compete again in an October runoff if no one secures a sufficient proportion of the vote.

A handful of candidates suspended their campaigns after the attack, although other frontrunners in the polls, including Correa supporter and socialist party candidate Luisa Gonzalez and former Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner — a conservative candidate — did not. The shooting may have also heightened voters’ focus on security, an issue that another conservative candidate, Jan Topic, has leaned into by stressing an approach similar to El Salvador’s authoritarian leader Nayib Bukele, who has instituted mass arrests and a hardline crackdown on crime at the expense of civil liberties.

“Topic’s tough talk might scoop up some support, given that people are scared. But his proposals on crime are actually quite different and less oriented towards addressing root causes than Villavicencio’s,” says Freeman.

What’s behind growing concerns about drug violence and cartels in the region?

Villavicencio’s killing has stunned the country and could prompt a reckoning with escalating drug violence both in Ecuador and in Latin America more broadly. Between 2020 and 2022, the homicide rate in Ecuador doubled. And gunfire and bomb attacks have grown more common in several major cities.

Villavicencio is one of the most high-profile Ecuadorian figures to be targeted by fatal violence, though his death follows that of another shooting in July that killed Manta Mayor Agustin Intriago and a February shooting that targeted a Puerto Lopez mayoral candidate. Their deaths emphasize how commonplace such violence has become in Ecuador, which has emerged as the latest battleground for competing drug cartels from Mexico and Albania.

“It shows that the violence in the country is increasing,” pharmacist Leidy Aguirre, 28, told the Associated Press. “Politicians supposedly have more security than citizens and this shows that not even they are safe.”

Ecuador is located between Colombia and Peru, two major cocaine producers, which makes it a prime hub for cartels looking to transport the drug.

There are a few reasons cartels now have a larger presence in the country than they previously did, Freeman previously wrote for CFR. A 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) opened up competition when it came to control over cocaine transport routes in Ecuador. As a result, multiple cartels from Mexico and Albania set up shop in the region in a bid to secure access.

Policies that the Ecuadorian government implemented also played a role. In an effort to be more independent from the US, Ecuador cut ties with America’s Drug Enforcement Agency, which led to less policing of activity along its shores. That decision made it easier for drug traffickers to operate in the country, where they had to deal with less security. Criminal groups have also found allies in the government, which have enabled them to establish themselves without fear of reproach.

“Drug money could permeate the police, the military, the system of justice, and businesspeople,” says University of Florida Center for Latin American Studies Director Carlos de la Torre.

Ecuador also isn’t the only place facing this challenge: Multiple Latin and Central American countries including Colombia and Costa Rica have also seen sharp upticks in certain crimes as different cartels have sought to assert dominance in these areas over the last couple of years. Villavicencio’s death puts a massive spotlight on this problem, and presses Ecuador’s government — and those of other countries — to work on both strengthening their security policies and rooting out corruption.