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How Ecuador reached the shocking point of a political assassination

Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was shot multiple times outside a campaign event Wednesday.
Rodrigo Buendiar
AFP via Getty Images
Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was shot multiple times outside a campaign event Wednesday.

Ecuador has enjoyed notably little political violence. Until now.

Who was he? 59-year-old Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was a former investigative journalist who was outspoken against what he saw to be clear, increasing government corruption in his country.

  • According to reporting from NPR's Simeon Tegel, Villavicencio wanted to target drug trafficking and violence from cartels and gangs, as the once peaceful nation has been forced to reckon with deadly prison riots and an increasing presence of Mexican cartels within its borders.
  • What's the big deal? Villavicencio was fatally shot on Wednesday, moments after exiting a campaign rally in Quito, the nation's capital.

  • Ecuador is subsequently in a state of shock. President Guillermo Lasso announced a 60-day national state of emergency, and said he would be mobilizing military forces into the streets to crack down on gangs.
  • The presidential election is still slated for Aug. 20, according to National Electoral Council head Diana Atamaint. Villavicencio reportedly had a chance of finishing second, according to polls, and could have sent the election to a runoff vote, Tegel reports.
  • Villavicencio had previously drawn attention to the death threats he had been receiving, but he made a point to refuse a bullet-proof vest, and did not shy away from his pointed rhetoric towards drug traffickers and corrupt government officials, who he says have turned Ecuador into a "narco state."
  • Villavicencio's sister Alexandra has told journalists she believes the Ecuadorian government is responsible for her brother's death, and alleges there is a larger plot to silence him.

  • Listen to the full conversation with Will Freeman by tapping the play button at the top.

    Following Villavicencio's assassination, a woman holds a sign reading: "Fernando, valiant hero of the motherland, the village weeps for your parting, and we demand justice!"
    Galo Paguay / AFP via Getty Images
    AFP via Getty Images
    Following Villavicencio's assassination, a woman holds a sign reading: "Fernando, valiant hero of the motherland, the village weeps for your parting, and we demand justice!"

    What are people saying? All Things Considered's Juana Summers spoke with Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He shared some insight on what led up to this boiling point for Ecuador, and what may come in the next few months.

    On the initial reaction to the assassination:

    You already feel when you're there that life has been turned on its head by this huge surge in crime since 2020. But what you're seeing now is that it's not concentrated to one part of the country. 

    No one is safe, not even a candidate running for president. And I think a growing number of Ecuadorians feel almost abandoned by their own state institutions left to fend for themselves. So it's a really chilling incident, and I hope that the investigation that follows gets to the bottom of who or what structure was behind this.

    On the uptick in violence:

    It's a story that's been building for a while. People look at homicide rates shooting up since 2020 and sometimes they assume that's when the crisis began. I'd argue that it began years earlier.

    There are several features of Ecuador that make it an ideal country for drug trafficking. And lately we've seen the amount of cocaine traffic through the country going through the roof. 

    So one is that it's sandwiched between Colombia and Peru. Two of the world's largest cocaine producers. 

    Ecuador also has a dollarized economy that's very attractive for crime groups. It allows them to launder money easily. Ecuador also  just had a devastating experience with the COVID-19 pandemic and with poverty and hunger spreading, it created a big pool of recruits for organized crime.

    But on the other side,  this crisis is an accumulation of serious political blunders by president after president. In the 2010s, you had a left populist president, Rafael Correa, who clashed with police, kicked the DEA out of the country, and really limited Ecuador's ability to monitor narco trafficking.

    That set the stage for what we're seeing today. But his conservative and centrist successors who've been in office since didn't do any better. Under their watch, they lost control of the prison system, the armed forces and police and judiciary all became more susceptible to corruption, to cooptation by organized crime.

    And unfortunately, what you see today is polarization between the left and right, which is preventing Ecuadorian politicians from coming together and finding a solution to this terrible crisis.

    So what now?

  • President Lasso has requested help from the FBI in investigating the assassination, and declared three days of mourning in wake of Villavicencio's death.
  • Freeman adds that amid new details being reported about the assassination, the true nature of Villavicencio's death will be vital in determining next steps: "I think we need to really get to the bottom of whether there's potentially a political story behind this assassination."
  • Learn more:

  • After the assassination of a candidate who took on drug cartels, Ecuador is in shock
  • Ecuador arrests 6 Colombians in slaying of presidential candidate
  • The state of democracy in Latin America
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.