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Fernando Villavicencio, a presidential candidate in Ecuador, has been shot and killed as political violence threatens the country’s upcoming election.
Villavicencio, a lawmaker and former journalist was killed by gunmen during a campaign event in Quito, the capital, on Wednesday evening.
Local media first reported his death, which Ecuador’s president Guillermo Lasso later confirmed on social media. Lasso, who said he was “outraged and shocked”, announced an emergency cabinet security meeting to address the violence destabilising the country.
“For his memory and for his struggle, I assure you that this crime will not go unpunished,” Lasso wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Organised crime has gone a long way, but the full weight of the law is going to fall on them.”
A suspect in the shooting was wounded in an exchange of fire with security officials and later died after being arrested, the attorney-general’s office said in a statement. Nine other people were injured, including a congressional candidate and two police officers.
Six people were arrested in raids in Quito in connection with the assassination, the attorney-general’s office added.
Snap elections for president and congress due this month were triggered when Lasso dissolved congress in May, using a constitutional clause known as “mutual death”.
Lasso had been battling impeachment charges by the opposition-controlled legislature. The charges of embezzlement related to contracts awarded to state-owned oil transport company Flopec before he took office. Lasso is not contesting the poll.
Villavicencio, alongside most of the other seven candidates, was campaigning on a platform that focused on a crackdown on crime. The centrist journalist-turned-legislator had been an ally of investor-friendly Lasso and led investigations into Rafael Correa, the leftist who governed Ecuador from 2007 to 2017.
Drug-related violence has exploded in Ecuador, which was once considered a safe haven between its more lawless neighbours Peru and Colombia. The murder rate has quadrupled over the past five years as warring gangs have fought to consolidate trafficking routes. Last year 4,800 homicides were reported in the nation of 18mn, almost double the year before.
The bloodshed has spread to politics, with the mayor of Manta, a port city, gunned down at a public event last month.
Several polls have shown that the country’s security crisis is voters’ main concern ahead of the election’s first round on August 20.
“Ecuador is practically submerged in organised crime,” Villavicencio, 59, told the Financial Times in an interview in May. “I would declare a war on criminal economies and that is a central campaign strategy.”
“There is no precedent for this political violence in Ecuador’s modern history,” said Sebastián Hurtado, head of the Quito political risk consultancy Prófitas. “This is a turning point, and one that shows how interconnected political interests are with criminal economic ones.”
Hurtado added that the election could be postponed due to risks of further violence towards candidates and voters.