Skip to content
Photo of Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate  Fernando Villavicencio at a press conference.

Former Assembly member and now presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, speaks to journalists upon his arrival at the Attorney General's Office in Quito on 8 August 82023. Fernando Villavicencio asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate former officials related to the oil sector of the governments of Rafael Correa, Lenín Moreno, and Guillermo Lasso as part of a criminal complaint that he filed on Tuesday. (Photo by Rodrigo BUENDIA / AFP) (Photo by RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP via Getty Images)

Ecuador Arrests Six Suspected of Role in Assassination of Villavicencio

Ecuadorian authorities arrested six Colombian suspects in connection with the assassination of a presidential candidate on Wednesday at a political rally.

Fernando Villavicencio, a congressman and former journalist who was vocal about the link between organized crime and government officials in Ecuador, was assassinated outside a high school in Quito, Ecuador, after speaking to supporters. Villavicencio was running for president in an election that is scheduled for 20 August.

Nine other people were shot in the attack and a suspect was also killed during the response, The New York Times reported. The suspects allegedly threw a grenade to create a distraction as they attempted to flee the scene at the high school, but it did not explode. They were later arrested at a home in Quito where authorities also seized weapons and vehicles.

The names of the arrested suspects have not been released to the public but have drawn interest since 18 Colombians were also arrested and charged in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. Ecuadorian Interior Minister Juan Zapata called the attack on Villavicencio a “political crime of a terrorist nature” and that the suspects are linked to organized crime, the Associated Press reported.

“Villavicencio, 59, had said he was threatened by affiliates of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, one of a slew of international organized crime groups that now operate in Ecuador,” according to the AP. “He said his campaign represented a threat to such groups.”

During his career as a journalist, Villavicencio filed judicial complaints against high-ranking members of former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa (2007-2017) before being sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation from statements made about Correa. Villavicencio fled the country and was given asylum in Peru to avoid the prison sentence, The Guardian reported.

His assassination is the second in Ecuador in the past month. On 24 July, the mayor of Manta, Ecuador, Agustín Intriago, another vocal critic of organized crime, was shot and killed while inspecting public works in the city. The gunman, who is in police custody, allegedly exited a stolen truck and fired at Intriago, killing him and another woman at the scene, NBC News reported.

Six other mayors in Ecuador currently live under police guard, with the AP reporting at least 15 attacks on candidates in the last multiple elections—many in Manabí and Esmeraldas where traffickers move cocaine by ship out of Ecuador.

Following the killings, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso declared a 60-day state of emergency that will result in military personnel being deployed throughout the country. The presidential election, however, has not been suspended.

“I want to say to those who want to threaten the state, we will not hand over the power and the democratic institutions to organized crime even though it is disguised as political organizations,” said Lasso in a televised address on Wednesday night.

In May, Lasso—facing a push by legislators to impeach him for allowing a deal between a state-owned oil transport company and a private tanker company—disbanded Ecuador’s National Assembly. That move then set in motion a process to hold an election on 20 August to elect a new president and National Assembly members. Luisa González, who served in the Correa government and is a lawyer, is considered the front-runner in the presidential race, which Lasso is not running in. 

The Guardian reports that the assassination of Villavicencio comes at a moment when Ecuador is experiencing a surge in violent crime as rival drug-trafficking gangs carry out prison massacres. The murder rate in the nation also more than doubled between 2000 and 2022.

Organized crime groups in Ecuador have operated in collaboration with foreign mafias, especially from Colombia and Mexico, to facilitate transportation and logistics, according to the Global Organized Crime Index—a project of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.  

“Domestic mafia-style groups are also involved in criminal activities such as assassinations, extortion, kidnappings, illegal mining, and money laundering,” the index assessed. “The most powerful groups use sophisticated weapons, ammunition, and explosives, mostly obtained through corrupt officials at all levels who also facilitate drug and illegal gold trafficking by waiving shipments, providing security, and granting impunity.”