‘Things don’t add up’: Mystery shrouds Ecuador presidential candidate’s assassination

‘Things don’t add up’: Mystery shrouds Ecuador presidential candidate’s assassination

Anti-corruption campaigner Fernando Villavicencio faced threats from Mexican cartel affiliates, also accused Ecuadorian police of being after him

By Laura Gamba

BOGOTA, Colombia (AA) – Four days ago, in a premonitory interview, Ecuadorian journalist Carlos Vera asked presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio if he was worried about the death threats he was facing from criminal gangs.

“The people of this country, Carlos, all they need is courageous and honest leadership,” Villavicencio replied.

“When there is such leadership, everything can be conquered, and when you lose your fear, you begin to win every battle. One survives by overcoming fear.”

The 59-year-old, who made fighting crime and corruption his life’s work, was shot dead in the capital Quito on Wednesday evening, a murder that remains shrouded in mystery despite the arrests of six suspects and the death of a seventh in a shootout.

As the South American nation reels from the fallout of Villavicencio's assassination, his past claims that he was threatened by affiliates of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, as well as Ecuadorian police themselves, have cast doubts on who the true culprits could be.

Within hours of the attack, videos purportedly from a mystery group claimed and then denied responsibility for the fatal shooting.

However, one thing is for certain: Villavicencio campaigned on vows to rein in corruption and crack down on crime in a nation beset by instability.

“The whole country is in dismay,” Gabriel Bedon, a candidate for Villavicencio’s Movimiento Construye party, told Anadolu.

“The only thing we can do right now is mourn our leader and ask that this crime does not go unpunished,” said Bedon, who was standing next to Villavicencio at the last political event before his assassination.

- ‘Threats were not taken seriously’

The deadly attack took place as Villavicencio was getting into a car after a campaign event in Quito. As he got in, gunfire rang out and he was shot three times in the head.

Hours later, authorities said a suspect was wounded during an exchange of fire with police and died shortly after in custody.

On Thursday, they said six people allegedly linked to the attack were arrested. A rifle, a machine gun, four pistols, three grenades, ammunition, two motorcycles and a vehicle that was reported stolen were seized during the raid.

All seven suspects – the one killed and the six arrested – are Colombian nationals.

Villavicencio was not a front-runner in the race to replace President Guillermo Lasso. Most polls placed him in fourth spot among the eight candidates for the Aug. 20 elections.

The former journalist built his campaign around the fight against corruption and organized crime.

“It was the axis of his campaign and his legacy,” said Bedon.

“He began to unveil acts of corruption through his investigative journalism. Then he continued to speak out against corruption and international mafias during his political career.”

Villavicencio filed a complaint over a threat from Los Choneros, a local armed wing of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, and had also accused the Ecuadorian police of threatening his life.

“These threats were not taken seriously, because if they had been taken seriously, we would not be mourning his death,” said Bedon.

In a video circulating on social media on Thursday, a group of men dressed in black and carrying machine guns, who called themselves Los Lobos, claimed responsibility for the crime.

Hours later, another video showed men dressed in white claiming to be the real LosLobos and denying any responsibility. Authorities have not confirmed the authenticity of either video.

Bedon said the videos only add to the confusion.

“It is the work of the orchestrators of chaos. Some videos are tricks, other videos come from the prisons. We will let the investigations give us certainty about them,” he said.

- ‘Many security flaws’

Villavicencio’s family and people close to him are particularly critical of the security provided to him.

“There were many security flaws,” Bedon argued.

“There are things that don’t add up. How is it that the security personnel were not watching the motorcycles that passed through the area? Why was the candidate taken out of the school through the main gate and not the side ones?”

Bedon said Villavicencio had an assigned armored car, but he was in the city of Guayaquil in the morning and took a commercial flight to Quito, so the car did not arrive in time to take him to the event in the capital.

He had a few bodyguards and did not wear a bulletproof vest, Villavicencio’s sister told reporters on Thursday.

President Lasso has asked the FBI and US intelligence to assist in the investigation.

They “accepted our request and in the coming hours a delegation will arrive in the country,” the president said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Since the fatal attack on Villavicencio, four of the remaining presidential candidates have suspended their campaigns, although authorities have indicated that the elections will go ahead as scheduled.

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