Ecuador's presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio has been shot dead on Wednesday night as he left a campaign event in Quito. The incident comes with less than two weeks to go for a bitterly contested election in which the central issue is Ecuador's deterioration into violence and criminal activities.
Footage circulating on social media shows Villavicencio, a former journalist who openly spoke about alleged links between organized crime and politics, surrounded a crowd of supporters and being guided by security personnel toward a waiting vehicle. Suddenly, the sound of gunshots interrupts the scene, causing people to panic, scream, and take cover.
Killed in Broad Daylight
The incident happened around 6:20 pm on Wednesday. Villavicencio, 59, after attending the rally, was being escorted by his security guards into a waiting car. As he was getting into the rear seat, shots were fired. The car's windows didn't seem to be bullet-resistant.
One suspect was killed during the exchange of gunfire with security forces, according to the country's attorney general. The attorney general also stated that nine people sustained injuries, including a female candidate for the National Assembly and two police officers.
Villavicencio claimed last week that the head of a gang involved in drug trafficking had threatened him and his crew.
He said he wanted to "take on and defeat the mafias which have coopted the state and have society on its knees" when he announced his campaign in May.
Villavicencio was trailing behind at least two other candidates in the race but had been gathering more support recently. He was viewed as the candidate with the most determined stance against organized crime.
Ecuadoran national police Deputy Commander General Manuel Iniguez said that a police officer was injured during the incident, which occurred outside a college in the northern part of Quito. The assailants reportedly threw a grenade toward Villavicencio's group, but it failed to detonate.
He was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. A shocking video captured the moment he arrived at the hospital, sitting slumped in a wheelchair and being pushed by people in military attire.
They tried to help him out of the wheelchair and up the steps but were unsuccessful. Instead, they wheeled him up a ramp while a medical staff member hurried to the scene.
Silencing an Outspoken Statesman
Speaking at the shooting scene, Galo Valencia, Villavicencio's uncle, held the state responsible for inadequate security measures for his nephew. Valencia recounted how he initially mistook the gunshots for celebratory fireworks set off by supporters, only to realize the true nature of the situation when he saw people getting hurt, bloodshed, and individuals sustaining injuries.
"We were a few meters outside the college gates, and as we were leaving there was a barrage of 40 bullets," he told El Comercio.
"Some people were injured, some of them maybe seriously, and Fernando unfortunately was shot in the head.
"The medical team have just confirmed that he has died. It's an indescribable pain for the family."
Police found a suspicious device outside the college and conducted a controlled explosion as a precautionary measure.
Villavicencio, a right-wing politician who previously served in Ecuador's National Assembly before it was disbanded in May, had a polling rate of 7.5 percent.
The country's president Guillermo Lasso said he was "outraged and shocked by the assassination" and announced that he would call a meeting of his security cabinet.
"For his memory and his fight, I assure you that this crime will not remain unpunished," he said.
Later, Lasso's office shared a photo on Twitter depicting his key security personnel engaged in an urgent meeting. "Now: the president Guillermo Lasso, the Security Cabinet, the authorities of justice and the electoral system meet in the Palace of Carondelet.
"The assassination of the candidate for the presidency, Fernando Villavicencio, and the decisions that will be made in the next few hours are being discussed."
Villavicencio's assassination follows the murder of Agustin Intriago, the mayor of the coastal city of Manta, in July.
Earlier in February, Omar Menendez, a mayoral candidate for the city of Puerto Lopez, was also killed.
Villavicencio, from the Andean province of Chimborazo, was the representative for the Build Ecuador Movement.
Villavicencio was a former member of a union within the state-owned oil firm Petroecuador. Subsequently, he took up journalism, where he exposed purported multi-million-dollar losses in oil contracts.
As one of the most outspoken critics of corruption, particularly during the tenure of former president Rafael Correa from 2007 to 2017, Villavicencio was sentenced to 18 months in prison on defamation charges related to statements he made against Correa.
In response, he sought refuge within Indigenous territory in Ecuador before eventually being granted asylum in Peru.