QUITO, Aug 10 (Reuters) – One dead suspect and six others arrested in the assassination of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio are Colombians, Ecuadorean police said on Thursday, and the government said it was pursuing the “intellectual authors” of the murder.
The fatal shooting on Wednesday night, less than two weeks before the election, has sent shockwaves through the South American country, leading some rivals to suspend campaigning and bringing the issue of rising violence to the foreground.
Villavicencio, a vocal critic of corruption and organized crime, was killed leaving an evening campaign event at an education facility in northern Quito.
The deceased suspect died of injuries sustained in a shoot-out, the attorney general’s office said on Wednesday. Nine people, including a candidate for the legislature and two police officers, were injured, it added.
The dead suspect had been arrested on weapons charges in July, the government said on Thursday, adding that the six detained men belong to organized crime groups. The police press office confirmed their nationalities later on Thursday afternoon.
“The national police now have the first arrests of the alleged material authors of this abominable event and will employ all of their operative and investigative capacity to discover the motive of this crime and its intellectual authors,” Interior Minister Juan Zapata told journalists.
The involvement of Colombian nationals in the murder is reminiscent of the 2021 killing of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise, who was assassinated in his home by a group which included 26 Colombians and two Haitian-Americans.
President Guillermo Lasso said the crime was clearly an attempt to sabotage the election, but that voting would go ahead as planned on Aug. 20, albeit amid a national state of emergency.
Lasso, who declared three days of mourning, said on Thursday he has asked the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation for help with the investigation and that a delegation would arrive in the country in the coming hours. The FBI confirmed it was assisting.
Violence in Ecuador has surged in recent years, especially in cities along drug-trafficking routes like Guayaquil and Esmeraldas where citizens say they live in fear.
Several Latin American countries have seen similar issues since the coronavirus pandemic.
The armed forces were deploying all over the country and would remain deployed until the end of the electoral process, Defense Minister Luis Lara told journalists.
“Citizens have the guarantee that the armed forces will provide the necessary security for the realization of the vote, the vote of Ecuadoreans will be the best response to the mafias and their allies,” he said.
Villavicencio’s party Movimiento Construye on Thursday rejected what it said was “political use” of his death and called for a speedy investigation in a statement posted on X, the social media site previously known as Twitter.
The party condemned an unverified video circulating on social media purportedly from a gang called Los Lobos, or The Wolves, claiming responsibility for Villavicencio’s killing, alleging he had received millions of dollars from them for his campaign and threatening fellow candidate Jan Topic.
Neither the police nor the attorney general’s office responded to requests for comment about the authenticity or origin of the video, which features more than a dozen black-clad and masked men waving high-powered rifles.
Movimiento Construye said: “Those who sit to negotiate with mafiosos, those who give them microphones, those who generate fear campaigns with trick videos in the name of criminal organizations and who take the name of Fernando Villavicencio in vain with lies are responsible for the crime.”
Los Lobos have thousands of members, according to some reports, and are active in the country’s violent prison system.
Former President Rafael Correa, who was heavily criticized in office by Villavicencio, then a journalist, re-posted the video overnight, but said in a post on Thursday morning that it was fake, without providing more information.
Villavicencio had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation over statements made against the former president, but he fled to Indigenous territory within Ecuador and later was given asylum in Peru, before returning after Correa left office.
BALLOT BOX JUSTICE
Candidate Luisa Gonzalez, who is running for Correa’s party and leading with 29.3% support, expressed horror at the killing, but did not suspend her campaign.
Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez and law-and-order hopeful Topic both suspended their campaigns, while businessman Otto Sonnenholzner begged the government to take action.
Perez said he hoped to hold a meeting with the other candidates and the Catholic Church to discuss a “national security agreement,” without providing further details.
Villavicencio’s party said on Wednesday that discussions had been held about whether to suspend campaigning due to recent political violence, including the July murder of the mayor of Manta.
Villavicencio opposed a suspension, it said, saying it would be an act of cowardice.
The party can choose another candidate, the electoral court said, but ballots have already been printed and distributed and Villavicencio’s name and photo appear on them.
The party said in a Thursday statement it would take time to mourn before making decisions about the vote and asked for international oversight on the investigation.
“The only comfort left to us is to valiantly vote and see justice done at the ballot box,” it said.
Villavicencio, who police said had three rings of security on Wednesday, had on Tuesday made a report to the attorney general’s office about an oil business, but no further details of his report were made public.
There were 3,500 violent deaths in Ecuador in the first half of the year, according to police figures, with nearly half occurring in the largest city, Guayaquil.
Lasso, who called the elections early amid an impeachment bid against him, has been criticized for failing to tamp down violence, despite using emergency powers to authorize soldiers to patrol the streets and use their weapons against criminals.
His government blames bloodshed on the streets and in prisons on criminal infighting to control drug trafficking routes used by Mexican cartels, the Albanian mafia and others.
Beyond security, employment and migration are major issues in the presidential contest.
Villavicencio, a married father, had 7.5% support in polls, placing him fifth out of eight candidates.
His body will be released to two people chosen by his wife, including his lawyer, the attorney general’s office said on X.
Countries lined up to condemn his assassination and call for a full investigation.
Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Tito Correa in Quito and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Oliver Griffin in Bogota, Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Rosalba O’Brien
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