A 59-year-old popular Ecuadoran presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio has been shot dead while leaving a rally in Quito, the nation’s capital two weeks before the presidential election.
Villavicencio, who has campaigned against corruption and gangs in Ecuador, was killed on Wednesday, August 9, 2023,
He is one of the few candidates to allege that has been links between organised crime and government officials in the South American country.
The incident has prompted President Guillermo Lasso to declare a state of emergency and blame the assassination on organised crime.
Lasso declared a two-month state of emergency early Thursday following the assassination but said general elections slated for August 20 would be held as scheduled.
“Outraged and shocked by the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio,” the president said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, blaming the killing on “organised crime.”
“For his memory and for his fight, I assure you that this crime will not go unpunished.”
Villavicencio was the second most popular candidate in the presidential race, according to recent opinion polls.
“The Armed Forces as of this moment are mobilised throughout the national territory to guarantee the security of citizens, the tranquility of the country and the free and democratic elections of August 20,” Lasso said in a YouTube address.
The president also declared three days of national mourning “to honour the memory of a patriot, Fernando Villavicencio Valencia.”
“This is a political crime that acquires a terrorist character and we do not doubt that this murder is an attempt to sabotage the electoral process,” he added.
Lasso has said he will not seek re-election.
President of the National Electoral Council, Diana Atamaint said: “the date of the elections scheduled for August 20 remains unalterable.”
Nine other people were injured in the shooting attack, including a candidate running for the national legislature and two policemen, prosecutors said.
One of the alleged attackers was shot and killed by security personnel. And police detonated an explosive device planted in the area, said chief investigator Alain Luna.
Carlos Figueroa, a friend of Villavicencio’s who was with him at the time of the attack, told local media that the assailants fired around 30 shots.
“They ambushed him outside” the sports centre, Figueroa said. “Some (of those present) even thought they were fireworks.”
The country’s main newspaper, El Universo, reported that Villavicencio was assassinated “hitman-style and with three shots to the head.”
Prosecutors later said six other suspects were arrested in raids carried out in southern Quito and in a neighboring town, and that Villavicencio’s body was brought to a police department and would undergo an autopsy.
Meanwhile, a criminal gang called Los Lobos (The Wolves) has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Los Lobos is the second-largest gang in Ecuador with some 8,000 members, many of whom are behind bars.
The gang has been involved in a number of recent deadly prison fights, in which scores of inmates have been brutally killed.
A break-away faction from the Los Choneros gang, Los Lobos is believed to have links to the Mexico-based Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), for which it traffics cocaine.
Villacencio was not the first politician to be assassinated as the mayor of the city of Manta was shot dead, last month.
Also, in February, a candidate for mayor in the city of Puerto López was killed, BBC said.
But the shooting of a presidential candidate at a public event in the capital was the most brazen attack as a burst of gunfire could be heard as the 59-year-old was getting into a car outside the building where, just moments before, he had been meeting voters.
Villavicencio’s uncle, Galo Valencia, described the moment his nephew was killed: “We were just a few meters from the school when we were hit by a hail of about 40 bullets.”