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Ecuador Presidential Candidate Fernando Villavicencio Assassinated at Campaign Event

A candidate in Ecuador’s upcoming presidential election, Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated at a campaign event in the capital Wednesday, as a deadly escalation of violence and crime grips the South American country.

The bloody incident prompted Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso to request help from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

An FBI delegation will arrive in the country “in the next few hours,” he tweeted Thursday.

Villavicencio was fatally shot as he was leaving a campaign rally at a school north of the capital Quito, 10 days before the first round of the presidential election was set to take place. He was 59 years old.

Nine other people, including a candidate for the National Assembly and two police officers, were also injured in the attack.

Lasso vowed has vowed that the incident will not go unpunished, saying that “organized crime has come a long way, but the full weight of the law will fall on them.”

In addition to requesting the FBI, Lasso has announced a state of emergency for 60 days, an immediate mobilization of the armed forces across the country and three days of national mourning.

Ecuador’s presidential election, scheduled for August 20, will go ahead as planned, the Electoral Council President Diana Atamaint said Thursday.

Security officials work at the rally site where Villavicencio was killed on Wednesday.

A legislator in the National Assembly, Villavicencio had been outspoken about corruption and the violence caused by drug trafficking in the country.

In May, he told CNN En Español Conclusiones that Ecuador had become a “narco state” as he proposed to lead a fight against what he called the “political mafia.”

Opinion polls had Villavicencio in the middle of the pack of the eight candidates, far behind the frontrunner Luisa González.

Alleged gunman dead, six others arrested

Villavicencio’s suspected shooter died in police custody following an exchange of fire with security personnel, Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Six others – all Colombian nationals – have since been arrested in connection with the killing, according to interior minister Juan Zapata. They are members of organized criminal groups, he also said, citing preliminary evidence.

During overnight raids, authorities also found a rifle, a machine gun, four pistols, three grenades, two rifle magazines, four boxes of ammunition, two motorcycles, and a stolen vehicle believed to have been used by the men, he said.

The slain politician’s sister Patricia Villavicencio, said she was standing behind her brother at the rally before he was killed, and told reporters that she held the national government and the Interior Ministry responsible for his death.

“Where is the security?” she asked.

Villavicencio did have a security detail at the time of the shooting, comprised of five police officers, multiple patrol cars, and his own armored vehicle, according to Zapata, though he noted that the armored vehicle was not used in Quito.

Seven of the Ecuador’s eight presidential candidates were under police protection, Zapta also said earlier in the week, according to local media.

Shooting captured on social media

Video circulating on social media appears to show the moment Villavicencio was fatally shot.

The footage appears to show Villavicencio walking away from the campaign rally toward a vehicle surrounded by several police officers and a crowd of onlookers. As he gets into the back seat of the vehicle, at least 12 gunshots can be heard. A policeman quickly closes the door behind Villavicencio and many people are seen taking cover from the gunfire, including his security detail.

CNN has asked authorities for more details.

The brutal killing sparked condemnation from across the world. The White House called the the killing “shocking,” with National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby telling CNN that it was not what “anybody would want” for Ecuadorean democracy.

UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk, who has previously expressed concern about political violence in the country, urged authorities to increase protection for politicians, public officers and journalists.

Ecuador’s remaining presidential candidates were also quick to condemn the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio. Some few temporarily suspended their campaigns.

“I express my solidarity to his family and supporters, and as a result, I’ve decided to suspend my campaign and I invite the other candidates to drop their political flags,” Yaku Pérez, an environmental activist, said Wednesday.

Jan Topic, a businessman, said Wednesday he would be pausing his campaign “out of respect for this unfortunate death and for the safety of my campaign team.”

The front runner for the presidency, Luisa González, said, “We stand in solidarity with Quito and with the family of the candidate Villavicencio, because when they touch one of us, they touch all of us.” She addressed her own security in an interview with Ecuadorian radio Thursday morning.

“There are people around me who take care of me,” she said. “But I believe the first one taking care of me is God.”

“It’s not a question of how much security you have by your side. My security told me to wear a vest, I said they shoot in the head and there it is. It’s as simple as that, or a grenade. The criminals are better armed than the police,” González said.

Villavicencio speaks during a campaign event before he was shot to death.

Villavicencio speaks during a campaign event before he was shot to death.API/AP

Rising violence

President Lasso dissolved the opposition-led congress in May, paving the way for early elections. He had faced an impeachment vote over accusations from opposition legislators of embezzlement before he took office, which he denies.

Calls for his resignation had grown louder in recent months as the country is engulfed by a cost-of-living crisis and a deteriorating security crisis fueled by drug trafficking and a turf war between rival criminal organizations.

Once known as the “isla de paz” – an island of peace – the Andean country has in recent years reported some of the highest homicide rates in the region.

Though Ecuador has no history of producing cocaine, nor its main ingredient coca, it is sandwiched between the two largest narcotics production hotspots in the world: Peru and Colombia.

Ecuador has become an integral part in the lucrative cocaine trafficking routes from South America to North America and Europe, according to security experts. And violence has been most pronounced on the country’s Pacific coast as criminal groups battle to control and distribute illicit drugs.

The country has also lost control of its overcrowded prisons, which are often ruled by criminal gangs. Security forces have struggled to confront the gangs inside prisons, where inmates often take control of branches of the penitentiaries and run criminal networks from behind bars, according to Ecuadorian authorities. Hundreds of inmates have been killed in brutal prison riots between rival gangs.

In July, the mayor of the port city of Manta, Agustin Intriago, was shot dead alongside Ariana Chancay, a young athlete he was talking with on the street.

All the candidates in Ecuador’s presidential election have pledged to rein in the escalation of violence.

But the deteriorating security and economic situation is leading more Ecuadorians to leave the country, with statistics showing thousands making their way north through the treacherous Darien Gap this year, with hopes of reaching the United States.

Source : CNN