Councillor’s murder in Ecuador fuels crime concerns ahead of election

The death of Bolivar Vera is the latest in a string of political violence as Ecuador struggles with rising homicide rates.

A white police car is parked on the road, riddled with bullet holes. Behind it, a line of officers dressed in black police tactical gear stand next to a building with an open door.
Police stand near a bullet-riddled car on November 1, 2022, after officers were killed during a prisoner transfer [File: Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

A kidnapped municipal councillor was found dead in Ecuador, prompting renewed concern over political violence in the lead-up to the country’s presidential run-off election.

On Friday, the body of Bolivar Vera, a councillor for the town of Duran, was recovered in a vacant lot near a rural road, his hands bound and his clothes bloodied.

Citing law enforcement sources, the newspaper El Universo reported Vera had been shot in the chest and face at least eight times.

A member of Ecuador’s right-wing Social Christian Party, Vera had been reported missing one day prior. The party took to social media afterwards to slam the administration of outgoing President Guillermo Lasso for failing to crack down on the skyrocketing crime in the country.

“This reprehensible act demonstrates, once again, the defenselessness in which citizens throughout the country live and the national government’s indifference towards the primary duty it has among its mandates: guaranteeing their lives and safety,” the party wrote.

‘Easy recruits for criminal gangs’

Over the last few years, Ecuador has seen a spike in violent crime, as drug cartels and other criminal organisations make inroads into the country.

Ecuador, a country of approximately 17.5 million people, has recorded nearly 3,568 violent deaths from the start of the year to early July — an increase of 75 percent over the same period the year prior.

The country already shattered records for homicides in 2022, cataloguing a total of 4,603 violent deaths. According to statistics released by the national police, that amounted to nearly 12.6 murders per day.

Some of those deaths have happened behind bars, as Ecuador also contends with an outbreak of prison violence. From December 2020 to May 2022, the United Nations estimates 390 people have been killed — some in horrific circumstances — as gangs jockey for power in Ecuador’s prisons.

Ecuador is perched on the Pacific coast, between Colombia and Peru, the two largest cocaine producers in the world, according to the United Nations.

Experts believe Ecuador’s deteriorating economy, combined with the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, has helped foster the conditions for gang violence to take hold.

The United Nations issued a statement on Friday calling poverty the “root cause” of the insecurity, with Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter calling the situation a wake-up call.

“A lack of job opportunities and poor education have made young people easy recruits for criminal gangs,” De Schutter said.

“And these gangs are in turn fuelling poverty by extorting small businesses, taking hold in schools and disrupting children’s education, and creating such fear and despair that a growing number of Ecuadorians are simply leaving the country.”

Political violence shakes election

With the presidential run-off scheduled for October 15, crime has taken centre-stage as a key election issue, with left-wing candidate Luisa Gonzalez facing off against centrist businessman Daniel Noboa.

Gonzalez in particular has been vocal about her choice to wear a bulletproof vest to campaign events, in response to the country’s security conditions.

Vera’s death is only the latest in a string of high-profile political assassinations to have gripped Ecuador.

Three politicians were killed in less than a month: In August, presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was shot to death after leaving a campaign rally, just days ahead of the general elections, and left-wing political leader Pedro Briones was killed outside his home.

Just weeks earlier, on July 23, Agustin Intriago, the mayor of the port city of Manta, was likewise gunned down.

On Friday, an electoral mission from the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body, condemned the latest murder and expressed concern about how the violence might affect the upcoming presidential race.

“The Mission takes note that presidential candidates have had to resort to wearing bulletproof vests in order to campaign, a fact that limits their ability to move and express themselves in public spaces,” OAS members wrote in a statement.

“The Mission reiterates its concern about the alarming climate of violence that has overshadowed the electoral campaign in Ecuador.”

The group added that “threats and insults directed towards the electoral authorities” likewise had the potential to threaten election integrity.

The mayor of Duran, Luis Chonillo, issued a statement calling for three days of mourning. Chonillo also condemned President Lasso for not doing enough to protect political figures.

“We have requested countless times protection and security for officials,” Chonillo said. “How many more deaths do you need, Mr President, to listen to our insistent calls? Isn’t it enough to see how they kill us every day?”

Chonillo charged that, since Lasso declared a state of emergency in certain provinces in July, “deaths have only increased”. He said the city’s director of planning had been murdered and that he himself was the target of an attack “on the first day of our administration, leaving three people dead”.

Source: Al Jazeera