An Ecuadorian presidential candidate known for speaking up against corruption was shot and killed Wednesday at a political rally in the capital amid a wave of startling violence in the South American country.
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President Guillermo Lasso confirmed the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio and suggested organized crime was behind his slaying, less than two weeks before the Aug. 20 presidential election .
“I assure you that this crime will not go unpunished,” Lasso said in a statement. “Organised crime has gone too far, but they will feel the full weight of the law.”
Prior to the shooting, Villavicencio said he had received multiple death threats, including from leaders of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, one of a slew of international organised crime groups that now operate in Ecuador.
Villavicencio was one of eight candidates, though not the frontrunner. The politician, 59, was the candidate for the Build Ecuador Movement.
Ecuador’s attorney general’s office said a suspect in the assassination of Villavicencio died of injuries after being arrested by authorities.
Violence in Ecuador, a historically calm country, has surged in the past year as drug traffickers have flocked to the South American nation, resulting in a concerning uptick in drug trafficking, violent killings and child recruitment by gangs.
Videos on social media appear to show the candidate walking out of the event surrounded by guards. The video then shows Villavicencio getting into a white pickup truck before gunshots are heard, followed by screams and commotion around the truck. This sequence of events was confirmed to The Associated Press by Patricio Zuquilanda, Villavicencio’s campaign adviser.
Candidate had received death threats
Zuquilanda said the candidate had received at least three death threats before the shooting, which he had reported to authorities, resulting in one detention. He called on international authorities to take action against the violence, attributing it to rising violence and drug trafficking.
“The Ecuadorian people are crying and Ecuador is mortally wounded,” he said. “Politics cannot lead to the death of any member of society.”
Villavicencio was one of the most critical voices against corruption, especially during the 2007-2017 government of President Rafael Correa. Villavicencio filed many judicial complaints against high ranking members of the Correa government, including against the ex-president himself.
Edison Romo, a former military intelligence colonel, said the complaints made Villavicencio “a threat to international criminal organizations.”
Authorities confirmed that at least nine others were injured, including officers and a congressional candidate. They described the incident as a terrorist act and promising to get to the bottom of the killing.
The killing was met with an outcry by other candidates who demanded action, with presidential frontrunner Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution party saying “when they touch one of us, they touch all of us.”
Another candidate and former vice president Otto Sonnenholzner, meanwhile, said in a news conference, “We are dying, drowning in a sea of tears and we do not deserve to live like this. We demand that you do something.”
Villavicencio was married and is survived by five children.