Four hitmen, drug cartels and security failures: The murder of Fernando Villavicencio

The assassination of the Ecuadorian presidential candidate has revealed the scope of the criminal network gripping the country, where Mexican cartels and Colombian hitmen have gained a foothold

A police officer stands guard, as Tamia Villavicencio, daughter of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a vocal critic of corruption and organized crime, reacts during a post-mortem tribute at Quito Exhibition Center, after Villavicencio was killed during a campaign event, in Quito, Ecuador August 11, 2023.REUTERS/Henry Romero
Friends, family and supporters of Fernando Villavicencio, pay tribute in Quito.HENRY ROMERO (REUTERS)

The assassination of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio on Wednesday afternoon in Quito has highlighted the scope of the criminal network that has gripped Ecuador, causing the country’s worst security crisis in recent history. Behind the attack was a perfect storm of violence, drug trafficking and security failures. With authorities failing to address the crisis, armed groups with links to the Mexican cartels have gained a foothold in the country, where Colombia hitmen also have built a presence — as evidenced by the murder of Villavicencio.

The Prosecutor’s Office reported Thursday that six suspects, all Colombian nationals, had been arrested in connection with the assassination. On Friday, the police said that four of the six suspects were at the crime scene. Another was killed in an ambush with security forces. According to the police, at least two of the arrested suspected were responsible for firing six shots into the car carrying Villavicencio, who was attacked at 6:15 p.m. local time after leaving a rally. The vehicle, provided by the state, was not armored, even though authorities had warned the candidate that he had a 97% probability of being attacked. According to the forensic report, Villavicencio died from the impact of a bullet to the head.

Following the arrest of the Colombian citizens, sources from the investigation explained to EL PAÍS that two of them had followed Villavicencio that day. The suspects were recorded by the security cameras of some of the shops located near the crime scene, in the financial center of Quito, but they were not picked up by the politician’s bodyguards.

The suspected shooter, who died shortly after the attack, was seen hanging around the area, dressed in a T-shirt from Villavicencio’s political party, Movimiento Construye (Build Ecuador Movement), and waiting for the candidate to leave the event at the school. The suspects left the scene of the crime on motorcycles, then dropped the bikes a few blocks away and escaped in a vehicle in which two other suspects were waiting for them.

Before being murdered, the 59-year-old politician and journalist by profession had denounced threats from a criminal known as Fito, the leader of Los Choneros, a drug gang, especially active on the coast, which works with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

The wake for Villavicencio was held on Friday in private. Not even close relatives such as his mother could attend, reported the Spanish news agency EFE. After the wake, a discreet caravan accompanied the coffin to the Monteolivo cemetery, in the north of Quito. “My dad took on all the corruption of the country, but I see that he is not alone, that he has many beautiful people here with him,” one of his daughters, Tamia Villavicencio, told the media at the entrance to the cemetery.

The six suspects arrested in relation to the murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.
The six suspects arrested in relation to the murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.RS

Police are also investigating Fabricio Colón Pico, the main micro-trafficker in Quito, who has nearly 30 legal proceedings against him for different crimes related to drug trafficking, robbery, extortion, organized crime and possession of weapons. The suspect, 44, is still at large.

Pico, considered one of the most bloodthirsty criminals in Ecuador, has a criminal history that dates back to the 1990s. He is accused of managing the drug trafficking in and around Quito. To do this, police say he has set up a structure that recruits criminals to carry out all kinds of crimes, such as robbery, extortion, small-scale trafficking and hits.

This organization also operates as the armed wing of the criminal group Los Lobos, the second-largest criminal gang in Ecuador, which, according to investigators, has ties to Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The group’s operations center is in Cotopaxi prison in Latacunga, located one hour from the Ecuadorian capital. Investigators have yet to determine if someone hired Colón Pico to assassinate Fernando Villavicencio. Ecuador’s Prosecutor’s Office, meanwhile, has formalized the charges against the six suspects, while a judge confirmed they would be sent to pretrial detention. “The autopsy protocol indicates that the victim received long-distance shots, while the ballistic report determined that the 2-23 caliber shells match one of the rifles found in the raids [of the suspects’ homes],” said prosecutors.

A pivotal territory

The arrest of the Colombian suspects and the presence of Mexican cartels in Ecuador complicates the investigation and underscores the complexity of the criminal network in the region. No country in the world handles such a high proportion of tons of cocaine per inhabitant as Ecuador. In the last 15 years, the country — in a key position between South America’s two major coca leaf producers, Colombia and Peru, and the world — has become a logistics platform for large transnational criminal organizations.

Given the complexity of the investigation into the murder of Villavicencio, Ecuadorian authorities have requested the help of the FBI. As reported by the president, Guillermo Lasso, the country is awaiting a team from the U.S. agency to support the investigations. The U.S. government has opted for caution and avoided reaching any conclusions as to who as to blame. White House spokesperson John Kirby stressed that the investigation was “active” and referred to the official information provided by Quito.

The Colombian government is also collaborating. Colombia’s Foreign Ministry told EL PAÍS that the Colombian consulate in Quito was waiting yesterday to receive more information about the six suspect. For now, the authorities have confirmed that they are men from different regions of Colombia, and that three of them have a criminal record in the country. Adey Fernando García García, who was born in Timbiquí in 1987, appears in at least two criminal proceedings. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years and four months in prison for theft and illegal possession of weapons, and was imprisoned until 2011. In November 2018, another court in Cali sentenced him to 10 years in prison for aggravated homicide and illegal possession of weapons.

Fernando Villavicencio's coffin is taken to a cemetery in Quito.
Fernando Villavicencio's coffin is taken to a cemetery in Quito.KAREN TORO (REUTERS)

Jules Osmin Castaño Alzate was arrested in 2015 in Caquetá for drug trafficking, and sentenced to six years in prison. He was released on parole in August 2017. Andrés Manuel Mosquera Ortiz is facing criminal proceedings in a court in Cali.

The remaining three suspects were not on the radar of Colombia’s judicial authorities. It is known that Jhon Gregore Ramírez registered to vote at the consulate in Quito, which indicates that he has been living in Ecuador for some time.

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