A presidential candidate in Ecuador who had been outspoken about the link between organized crime and government officials was assassinated on Wednesday evening at a political rally in the capital, just days before an election that was expected to be dominated by concerns over drug-related violence.
The candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, a former journalist, was gunned down outside a high school in Quito after speaking to young supporters.
“When he stepped outside the door, he was met with gunfire,” said Carlos Figueroa, who worked for Mr. Villavicencio’s campaign and was at the rally. “There was nothing to be done, because they were shots to the head.”
Mr. Villavicencio, 59, was polling near the middle of an eight-person race. He was among the most vocal candidates on the issue of crime and state corruption.
It was the first assassination of a presidential candidate in Ecuador and came less than a month after the mayor of Manta, a port city, was shot to death during a public appearance. Ecuador, once a relatively safe nation, has been consumed by violence related to narco-trafficking in the last five years.
“Outraged and shocked by the assassination,” President Guillermo Lasso wrote on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter,
The national prosecutor’s office said an hour later, on the same platform, that a suspect had been shot and apprehended amid crossfire with security forces, and had died shortly afterward.
Nine other people were shot in the melee, according to the prosecutor’s office, including two police officers and a candidate for a National Assembly seat.
The killing shocked a nation already suffering deep economic, social and political upheaval.
Ecuador, on South America’s western edge, witnessed an extraordinary transformation between 2005 and 2015 as millions of people rose out of poverty, riding the wave of an oil boom whose profits were poured into education, health care and other social programs.
But more recently, the country has been transformed by an increasingly powerful narco-trafficking industry, with foreign drug mafias joining forces with local prison and street gangs, unleashing a wave of violence unlike anything in the country’s recent history. Homicide rates are at record levels.
Today, the violence is often horrific and public, meant to induce fear and exert control: There are regular reports of car bombings, beheadings and children being gunned down outside their schools.
To complicate the situation, Mr. Lasso disbanded the country’s opposition-led National Assembly in May, a drastic move he made as he faced impeachment proceedings over accusations of embezzlement.
The move, which is allowed under the Constitution, meant that new elections for president and legislative representatives would be held. The vote in which Mr. Villavicencio was supposed to compete is set for Aug. 20.
Mr. Villavicencio, who had worked as a journalist, activist and legislator, gained prominence as an opponent of correísmo, the leftist movement of former President Rafael Correa, who served from 2007 to 2017 and still holds political sway in Ecuador.
In 2017 he successfully ran for a seat in the National Assembly, where he served until the legislature was dissolved by Mr. Lasso.
See the video of his Rally