Unknown gunmen killed presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio – running on a strong-on-crime, anti-corruption, anti-China platform – on Wednesday night before a massive crowd outside of a campaign event in Quito, Ecuador.
Villavicencio was one of eight candidates vying for the presidency of Ecuador. The election remains scheduled to take place on August 20, the result of current President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative, using a constitutional provision to dissolve the National Assembly (the federal legislature) in May and call for general elections. Lasso claimed the unprecedented measure was necessary because leftist lawmakers’ incessant attempts to impeach him had made the regular business of government impossible. Lasso is not one of the eight candidates on the ballot.
The Ecuadorian presidential race was already heavily contested; most recent polls show no clear winner. A recent poll by the firm Click Research found that more than 40 percent of Ecuadorians were undecided on their candidates and no candidate surpassed 25 percent support. Voting is mandatory for all Ecuadorian citizens over the age of 18.
Villavicencio was running a campaign heavily centered on combatting organized crime, eliminating political corruption, and limiting the influence of China on the South American country. Among his promised first actions in office was the construction of a giant high-security prison for the upper ranks of Ecuador’s most prolific drug trafficking and other criminal gangs. He had recently accused a “capo” of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel of threatening to kill him.
Prior to his candidacy, Villavicencio had worked as a journalist, exposing socialist former President Rafael Correa’s corruption and accusing him of engaging in shady oil deals with China that hurt the Ecuadorian economy. Correa sentenced Villavicencio to 18 months in prison for insulting him in 2014, which Villavicencio avoided by living with an indigenous Amazonian tribe. He later faced a similar house arrest sentence in 2017 in which he had to wear an anklet, which he derisively referred to as the “Chinese shackle” in reference to Beijing’s investments in Correa’s repressive government.
Correa, currently in exile in Belgium due to criminal charges against him, had threatened Villavicencio as recently as this November, calling him a “shameless coward” on social media and warning, “Your party will be over soon”:
🚨 | Así amenazaba el izquierdista Rafael Correa al hoy asesinado Fernando Villavicencio hace unos meses. pic.twitter.com/0Qh80o93XP
— Orlando Avendaño (@OrlvndoA) August 10, 2023
Villavicencio was walking out of a campaign event in Quito on Wednesday evening when a flurry of gunfire, caught on video, ended his life. Villavicencio reportedly received three fatal shots to the head. The Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio reported on Thursday that at least nine other people were injured during the assassination, and one more person, believed to be one of the attackers, was killed in an exchange of gunfire with Villavicencio’s security detail.
Neither the injured nor the assailant were identified by name in Ecuadorian media, but most of the injured are believed to be campaign staffers who were walking alongside the candidate towards his vehicle during the attack. At least two of the injured are police officers, and one was identified as a candidate for Ecuador’s National Assembly.
As journalists were covering the campaign event, the dramatic shootout was caught on video. Graphic images of Villavicencio’s last moments show a hail of gunfire and his vehicle’s windows shot out.
Warning – Graphic Images:
#URGENTE Grupo de sicarios acaban de asesinar al Candidato Presidencial de la derecha en Ecuador @VillaFernando_ Fernando Villavicencio. Lo vengo advirtiendo desde hace años, la izquierda asesina y criminal de la región está dispuesta a todo con tal de destruir la libertad en la… pic.twitter.com/vZ6s6qGkIb
— Jorge Vergara (@JorgeVergaraVE) August 10, 2023
On Wednesday night, President Lasso announced a 60-day state of emergency in the country to restore order. The president had been scheduled to attend a screening of the film Sound of Freedom at a movie theater reportedly three minutes from the scene of the assassination on Wednesday but canceled his appearance given the emergency.
“For his memory and his struggle, I assure that this crime will not remain with impunity,” Lasso promised in a statement on Twitter. “Organized crime has made it very far, but the full weight of the law will fall on them.”
On Thursday morning, the Attorney General’s Office announced that police had arrested six people in connection with the attack.
Also on Thursday, a bizarre video featuring about 20 men in all-black body coverings and wielding large firearms began circulating on social media. The men identified themselves as part of the “Los Lobos” organized crime group, which profits largely from cocaine trafficking and illegal mining, and claimed responsibility for the assassination.
“We want to leave clear to the entire Ecuadorian nation that every time corrupt politicians do not keep their promises to establish, when they receive our money, which is millions of dollars, to finance their campaign, they will be put on leave,” an unknown man in the video says, apparently accusing Villavicencio of business with organized crime.
“We assume responsibility for the events occurring this evening and they will happen again when the corrupt do not keep to their word,” the man claimed, before threatening another presidential candidate, Social Christian Party candidate Jan Topic.
No public evidence exists of any ties between Villavicencio and criminal gangs at press time. Even under Correa, the government had made no claims of the former journalist engaging in organized crime. On the contrary, Villavicencio was one of Ecuador’s most prominent voices demanding forceful government action against organized crime, particularly in the face of a violent crime wave that had recently taken the lives of other politicians. The candidate had promised the construction of a “very high-security prison” as his first act in office if elected and proposed a “national anti-terrorist plan” to eradicate drug trafficking, corruption, illegal mining, and other racketeering activities. The proposal required warming relations with the United States and attempting to convince American law enforcement to offer expertise in combatting gang crime.
Villavicencio also proposed organizing a list of the “new rich” in Ecuador and auditing them all, forcing them to explain where the money came from and imprisoning those with illicit gains.
In early August, Villavicencio identified a member of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel known as “Fito” as staging a plan to assassinate him.
“I’m here showing my face. I’m not afraid of them. I’ve been against these criminal organizations in this country 20 years,” the candidate said. “Again, I reiterate, I am not afraid of them. I repeat my proposal to build a maximum security prison; it will be one of the first works that I begin once I assume the mandate”:
Aquí Villavicencio lo dice muy claro: quien le quiere asesinar es el narcotraficante alias #Fito
A por él y toda su estructura y quienes le apoyan…
Y también sus aliados políticos. pic.twitter.com/KP7O2jkXlv
— Luis Espinosa Goded (@luisesgo) August 10, 2023
Villavicencio had for years condemned China’s encroaching influence in the country.
“Ecuador has been a Chinese colony since 2007,” he lamented in October, expressing opposition to any free trade agreement with the communist state and demanding investigations into multiple deals between Chinese Communist Party companies and the Correa regime. Villavicencio had also condemned Lasso, an establishment conservative, for not doing enough to hold back Chinese influence on the country.
“China condemns the attack and extends our condolences for the unfortunate assassination of Mr. Villavicencio,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday. “We hope the Ecuadorian government and relevant parties will work to maintain stability and that the upcoming election will be safe, steady and smooth.”