Quito, Ecuador – It was business as usual on the streets of the Ecuadorian capital, as people made their way to work and students headed to school just hours after one of the country’s presidential candidates was fatally shot after a campaign rally.
But it was hard to ignore the newspaper headlines, radio banter, and murmurs in cafes across Quito as the killing of Fernando Villavicencio on Wednesday sent shockwaves across this small South American nation.
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The killing came less than two weeks before general elections in which rising violence and crime have been the central issues.
Once considered one of the safest countries in the region, Ecuador has seen a massive spike in violence in recent years, largely driven by rival drug-trafficking groups fighting over territory, according to experts. The nation also has grappled with political instability, growing inequality, and a poverty rate of more than 25 percent.
Homicides have more than tripled in Quito over the past three years, the coastal cities of Guayaquil and Esmeraldas have been ranked among the region’s most dangerous, and brutal and deadly prison riots have broken out on a regular basis.
The rising crime has forced citizens to take extra precautions, but many here say the assassination of Villavicencio in a crowded street is a sign of worse times ahead. “We’re not safe anywhere,” a taxi driver who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity said on Thursday morning.
But President Guillermo Lasso has said the elections on August 20 will continue as planned, placing the country under a two-month state of emergency, putting more soldiers on the streets, and vowing to bring Villavicencio’s killers to justice.
Al Jazeera spoke to people in Quito about their reactions to the presidential candidate’s killing, the upcoming elections, and what future they see for Ecuador.
Raul Gonzalez, 44, construction worker
“I’m disappointed by the situation of the country, what is happening. Day by day, the reality that we had before disappears, the tranquillity that we had before. It’s difficult to understand. We have families, children, siblings, so day by day we are worried about the situation.
“The elections, well, it keeps getting a little more difficult to understand, because nowadays in the country, there is more and more narco-trafficking each day.
“What we want today is peace, nothing more.
“I’m really concerned, yes. As a worker, yes, I’m really concerned.”
Henry Toro, 59, taxi driver
“I’m upset, outraged because I see that there is no control from the authorities … There is no control. Crime has taken control of the country. That’s what I feel.
“All citizens are worried about the economic situation, about the political situation, about the security situation. Many closed businesses have failed … and we have an unfriendly president, unfriendly to the reality of the country and the reality of the people most in need. There is no way out. Unfortunately, there is no way out.
“Unfortunately, this crime tarnishes the elections, it tarnishes the process because there are whimsical explanations [of the assassination]. There is hatred, hatred is clearly seen.
This electoral process has been stained with blood like never before.”
Ayari Manzo, 41, delivery driver from Venezuela, living in Quito for more than two years
“This has been dismaying, it’s something on another level. Maybe we in Venezuela are used to common criminal groups, probably much stronger … but this goes much further than your average criminal group.
“We don’t know if [violence] in the country will continue to grow, because it could simply stagnate, or it will evolve or grow, or we are simply going to experience what we have in Venezuela. so we don’t know, we don’t know what could happen.
“We were very calm here, and now everything has changed, and not knowing what could happen. So, well, we are left to wait.”
Jose Romero, 17, student
“I think the country is no longer in control. Maybe we are already going to a very dark place that before, in past moments, was unthinkable.
“It is important to know who to vote for in the upcoming elections, to see a government that comes in with a firm hand, I would think, so that this situation will come to an end.
“A firm hand, this is what we need now more than focusing on other things, other plans for the country, and we must first focus on security, which is the most important thing we are fighting.
“My greatest concern, sincerely, is that the country will fall into the hands of drug-trafficking criminals, that there will no longer be protected laws. Basically, in a country of guerrillas … That would be my greatest concern right now.”
Guillermo Ortiz, 37, small business owner
“In these last two years of this explosion of robberies, kidnappings, attacks on customers in cafes, restaurants and everything, I think it was just showing us what was going to happen [on Wednesday], and how much we are now threatened by a national and international mafia.
“I think that the elections are going to be very, very focused on that. [Voters] will choose and flock to the [candidate] who will talk about security … Who in reality will give people the certainty that they can change these problems in the country, that’s who people will vote for.
“I am really hurt by what is happening in the country, it hurts me a lot. I have a young son. It hurts me to think that I am afraid to take him out in the street.
“I think the worst thing for a human being is to live in fear, because you don’t know what can happen in the end, you feel you’re up against a sword and you don’t know how to respond because you’re afraid to defend yourself.
If a person who is so visual, public and so mediatic, and they weren’t afraid to shoot him dead, what if they try to rob you and you react? The same thing will happen. The only thing this does is make you feel helpless.”
Diana Coyentes, 29, cleaning woman from the province of Cotopaxi
“We are afraid because we can’t go out just anywhere for a walk or anything because we are afraid that something might happen to us, or that we might be robbed … We don’t have the confidence we used to have to just leave the house.
“It’s worse today. With what happened [on Wednesday], we are worse than before.
“In the future, it will depend on which president we get for us to be able to think about a future. But I would like all this to go away, [so] that I could live very calmly and put an end to this crime.
“[The next president] must apply a firm hand, put more power and more order.”