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Five keys to the murder of Fernando Villavicencio in Ecuador: From cartel threats to the security crisis

As Mexican criminal groups battle over control of the territory, the country has been plunged into a deep security crisis

El candidato presidencial Fernando Villavicencio, se dirigie a sus simpatizantes durante un acto de campaña en Ecuador, en 2023.
Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio during a campaign event in Ecuador, in 2023.CORTESÍA

The assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio Wednesday afternoon in Quito has plunged Ecuador into a state of maximum alert. The murder comes ahead of the upcoming presidential elections on Sunday, August 20 and amid a deep security crisis that authorities have failed to address. Before he was killed, the 59-year-old candidate warned that he had received threats from a group of drug traffickers linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. President Guillermo Lasso pointed to “organized crime” and summoned his security cabinet. Here are five keys to what has become a fateful day in Ecuador’s history.

The assassination

Fernando Villavicencio, a journalist by profession, had taken part in a campaign event at the Anderson school in the Ecuadorian capital. At 6:20 p.m., he left the building and went to his vehicle, surrounded by bodyguards. The hitman fired around 40 shots at the candidate. He was hit and died shortly after. Several companions were also injured. The alleged perpetrator died after a confrontation with security agents, the Prosecutor’s Office said.

The election campaign

The assassination impacts an already atypical presidential campaign. The outgoing president, Guillermo Lasso, dissolved the National Assembly three months ago and called snap elections to avoid a possible impeachment trial. Villavicencio, who promised strong action on crime and zero tolerance against corruption, was polling in fourth or fifth place. Leading the polls is Luisa González, the candidate promoted by former president Rafael Correa. The vote could see a leftist government return to Ecuador.

Fernando Villavicencio addresses his supporters at a rally.
Fernando Villavicencio addresses his supporters at a rally.CORTESÍA

The security crisis

Ecuador is suffering the worst security crisis in its recent history. The situation, which worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, is largely due to the dispute over drug trafficking routes between Mexican cartels. During the election campaign, Agustín Intriago, the mayor of Manta, a key port in Ecuador, and Rider Sánchez, a candidate for the National Assembly, were also assassinated. In recent weeks, there have been riots and attacks with explosives. The deaths number in the dozens and although the violence is centered on the coast, affecting in particular the city of Guayaquil, it has also reached Quito.

The threats

Villavicencio had denounced threats from a group linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. Specifically, he had received intimidating messages from Alias Fito, a criminal from a gang known as Los Choneros. “If I keep mentioning the name of Fito and mentioning Los Choneros, they are going to break me,” he warned. At the same time, he made it clear to them that he was not willing to give in: “Here I am showing my face, I’m not afraid of them.” Los Choneros is a drug gang born in the 1990s, which now works for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. It clashes with three other Ecuadorian criminal groups — Los Lobos, Tiguerones and Chone Killers, who work for the rival Mexican organization, Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Experts work in the area where the candidate was attacked.
Experts work in the area where the candidate was attacked.KAREN TORO (REUTERS)

Uncertainty

The murder of Villavicencio has shrouded the upcoming presidential elections in uncertainty. Some rival candidates announced that they were suspending their campaign. President Lasso summoned the main authorities of the country to face the crisis and promised that he will act against organized crime “with the full weight of the law.” For now, the violence has brought the country to a halt.

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