As Ecuador reels from the assassination of a high-profile presidential candidate, experts say the event underscores growing violence driven by powerful criminal groups in the South American nation.
Fernando Villavicencio was killed at a political rally in the capital of Quito on Wednesday, sending shockwaves through Ecuador, which is set to hold a presidential election on August 20.
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The candidate was as an outspoken critic of corruption and the drug-trafficking groups that have expanded their influence in Ecuador in recent years.
While details of the crime remain murky, Ecuador’s police have arrested six suspects, all of whom are Colombian, according to officials. A seventh suspect was killed in Wednesday’s gunfire.
In the hours following the shooting, President Guillermo Lasso blamed criminal networks for the violence.
“Organised crime has come a long way, but the full weight of the law is going to fall on them,” Lasso wrote on social media.
He declared a three-day state of emergency and appealed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States for assistance in his government’s investigation.
Crime rates, unemployment on the rise
Ecuador was once regarded as a source of relative calm in a region with a long history of violence and civil conflict. But over the last several years, the country has seen a surge in crime, with 2022 tallying record levels of homicides and drug seizures.
Given Ecuador’s location on the coast between cocaine-producing regions in Peru and Colombia, the country has become much sought-after territory for the drug trade. Ecuador’s gangs have increasingly joined forces with international drug-trafficking organisations, helping to drive the spike in violence.
The COVID-19 pandemic also had a devastating impact, particularly in poorer communities, with morgues overflowing in cities such as Guayaquil. The virus contributed to a severe economic downturn that Ecuador is still recovering from, and experts say a lack of employment opportunities has created a growing pool of potential recruits for criminal groups.
Government statistics indicate that less than four out of 10 Ecuadorians participating in the workforce were adequately employed, with the majority making less than the minimum wage of $450 a month. Since the beginning of the year, more than 822,000 people between the ages of 18 and 45 have left the country seeking opportunities elsewhere.
Juanita Goebertus, director of the Americas division for Human Rights Watch, tied Wednesday’s assassination to the ongoing instability in the country.
“This is a tragedy that was probably something people could expect, given the very serious deterioration of the security situation in Ecuador,” she told Al Jazeera. “If you compare the homicide rate between 2021 and 2022, there’s an increase of over 80 percent.”
Villavicencio’s death, for instance, comes just over two weeks after another high-profile assassination: that of Agustin Intriago, mayor of Manta, on July 23.
The increase in violence can be seen in other domains as well. Goebertus said the national police recorded 5,000 cases of extortion in 2022, a figure that is on track to double by the end of 2023.
Prisons, where gangs exercise substantial control, have been sites of especially grim violence. More than 30 people were killed in riots last month at a Guayaquil prison, leading the Lasso government to deploy armed forces to take back control of the facility.
Human Rights Watch said in a press release on Thursday that more than 600 people have been killed in prison massacres over the last several years. Poor conditions like overcrowding contributed to the violence, the nonprofit explained.
Calls for a ‘hard hand’
While the killing of Villavicencio has been met with condemnation across the political spectrum, it has already started to map onto familiar political divides.
“Within Ecuador, you’re seeing everyone condemn the assassination,” said Will Freeman, a fellow of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank. “Unfortunately, you’re also seeing people jumping to conclusions and to some extent trying to squeeze some political benefit out of this killing.”
Freeman said that critics have highlighted Villavicencio’s history of corruption allegations against former President Rafael Correa, seeming to imply — without evidence — that the assassination was a form of political payback.
Correa’s supporters have likewise accused President Lasso of mafia-like corruption in the wake of the shooting. Freeman said he expects Correa’s allies to leverage the killing to advance their own priorities as well.
The proliferation of rumours underscores the necessity for a “rapid, transparent investigation” to provide the public with reliable information, Human Rights Watch’s Goebertus said.
Some figures have also used Villavincencio’s killing to bolster calls for a more heavy-handed response to crime in Ecuador.
Shortly after the shooting, for instance, presidential candidate Jan Topic posted a video on social media reiterating his call for a “mano dura” or “hard hand” against criminal groups.
He has previously expressed support for Ecuador to implement a “state of exception” similar to El Salvador’s, where certain civil liberties have been suspended in order to sweep tens of thousands of alleged gang members into prison.
Goebertus said that doing this would be a mistake. Her organisation has been outspoken against El Salvador’s gang crackdown, which has been tied to false arrests and torture.
No amount of force, Goebertus emphasised, can fill the void created by a state that lacks the capacity to function effectively and protect its people. She called instead for a more targeted approach.
“You need a security policy that can strategically persecute leaders of gangs, severing their links to access finance and corruption networks,” she said. “And that requires serious investigative and judicial capacity, as opposed to resorting to states of emergency or militarisation that have not proven effective.”