The Gaspar de Villarroel neighborhood of Quito, in the financial heart of Ecuador’s capital, awoke Thursday paralyzed by fear. Several businesses opted not to open, while others tried to continue with their daily routine after the authorities removed the police tape investigators had collected the 64 shell casings that were fired on the afternoon of August 9 at the gates of the Anderson School. It was there that presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in an attack that briefly turned the neighborhood into a war zone and plunged the country into crisis with fewer than 10 days remaining before the August 20 elections. The attack is further evidence of a wave of terror being suffered by Ecuadorians, a brutal onslaught by organized crime which, according to President Guillermo Lasso, is a challenge to the rule of law and “an attempt to sabotage the electoral process.” The campaign has been halted, but will continue, even amid a state of emergency decreed by the president. Meanwhile, the country is attempting to recover from a tragic afternoon.
“I woke up shocked, very sad,” says Passy Cevallos, who from early morning was waiting in front of the morgue, located in the north of Quito, with another group of citizens demanding justice. “They killed our president!” cried a group of Villavicencio’s supporters, who used to accompany the candidate on his tours. During the campaign, the mayor of Manta, a key port for drug trafficking, and a candidate to the National Assembly were also murdered. “We cannot talk about security. We are helpless, unable to do anything,” Villavicencio’s supporters said.
In the capital, silence and anger reign, as expressed by Luis Fernández, Villavicencio’s lawyer. “This is a crime of the state,” he says. “He was not given adequate protection even though the police acknowledged there was a high risk, 97%, of an attempt on his life.” The lawyer points out that the threats started from the moment Villavicencio announced his candidacy. “Wherever he went, there were always bomb threats. He had to be removed immediately from the location,” adds Fernández, who admits that they did not make these threats public so as not to hinder the campaign. In any case, he insists, “they were real and state officials knew about every one.” Villavicencio himself publicly denounced, even in the hours before his assassination, intimidation which he attributed to a group linked to the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel.
The 59-year-old politician, a journalist by profession, was murdered in the vehicle that the authorities had arranged for his travel that day, a white double-cabin pickup truck that lacked armor. Police commander Fausto Salinas explained that the candidate did have an armored vehicle of his own. He used that car on Wednesday morning to attend a political meeting in Guayaquil, but then he boarded a plane to Quito and switched to the transportation provided for him.
He made his planned tours in Quito in that vehicle, which was not equipped to withstand an attack, under police escort. However, he did not have tactical protection, but the police commander stated in a press conference that the candidate had a triple security ring. During the hearing, presided over by the Minister of Interior, Juan Zapata, it was not clarified what went wrong in the security set-up, nor what the motive of the crime was. The officials did not take questions and dedicated the eight minutes of the conference to discussing the six people arrested as suspects, of Colombian nationality and with criminal records. They had been arrested a month ago but the judge did not remand them in custody, instead ordering them to report the court periodically, which they failed to do.
Villavicencio’s killer, who died shortly after the attack in a confrontation with security forces, had also been arrested in June for illegal possession of a weapon but was released. According to Salinas, all belonged to organized crime groups operating in the country, without providing further details.
In recent days Villavicencio had made reference to a criminal group known as Los Choneros. In one of his last interviews, he had accused the authorities of not doing enough to contain the most serious wave of violence Ecuador has witnessed in its recent history. More specifically, he spoke of threats from a criminal nicknamed Fito, who had sent him intimidating messages. “If I continue mentioning Fito and Los Choneros, they will break me,” he warned. However, he refused to back down: “Here I am, I am showing my face, I am not afraid of them.”
Los Choneros is a drug trafficking organization whose origins date back to the late 1990s in the coastal city of Manta. After years of growth, it has become one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Ecuador and currently works for the Sinaloa Cartel in cocaine trafficking. Among its adversaries are Los Lobos, Tiguerones, and Chone Killers, three gangs that carry out logistics operations in the country for the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the most prominent criminal group in Mexico.
Regardless of the authors and motive for Villavicencio’s assassination, Ecuador is now living through an electoral campaign that has been placed on high alert. President Lasso described the attack as a “political crime.” After declaring three days of national mourning and a state of emergency lasting 60 days, Lasso was adamant about the need to go ahead with the electoral process. His argument: suspending the elections would mean handing a victory to the cartels. “We are not going to hand over power and democratic institutions to organized crime,” he said. As such, the candidates are set to resume campaigning and compete at the polls as scheduled on August 20.
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