The assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio has revealed the magnitude of the presence of drug trafficking in Ecuador. The president, Guillermo Lasso, has considered the assassination an attempt by “organized crime” to “intimidate the State” and “sabotage” the elections scheduled for Sunday, August 20. For now, the president has kept the electoral calendar on track and decreed a state of emergency, which means the deployment of the military and police throughout the country to guarantee security.
The victim’s profile fuels the idea of an action perpetrated by some of the drug trafficking gangs that operate in the country. A journalist turned politician, Villavicencio structured his career based on allegations of corruption against former President Rafael Correa (2007-2017). During his electoral campaign, he turned towards an open fight against the mafias. Days before his death, he had denounced threats from an Ecuadorian drug lord linked, according to what he said, to the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. The candidate moved in the campaign with protection, although he always refused to wear a bulletproof vest or an armored car. “I’m not afraid of them,” he used to say. “My bulletproof vest is the people,” he maintained. He declared himself from the center left and remembered his humble past. Among his promises were the creation of a “high security” prison and an anti-mafia unit “with foreign support”, read the United States.
Ecuador is an attractive country for drug cartels. Nestled between Colombia and Peru, the two largest cocaine producers in the world, it has a long coastline facing the Pacific and its economy is dollarized, which facilitates money laundering. The war between the local versions of Sinaloa and their enemies, the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel, also Mexican, intensified from 2020, with the murder of a drug lord, and since then it has not stopped growing. Settling accounts between gangs in maximum security prisons are becoming more common, while it is not surprising that small cities in the interior, essential as collection and distribution centers, are already in the hands of the drug trafficker. The weakness of the Ecuadorian State, mired in internal fights that even led to the advancement of the elections, has given wings to drug trafficking, which is permeating the institutions. Villavicencio’s is the third assassination of a politician since the start of the campaign, although the first of a presidential candidate.
Villavicencio was assassinated at the exit of a campaign rally and in front of hundreds of supporters. The stupor was immediate. Ecuador, however, has been in a state of shock for months. In May, President Lasso decreed the death cross, a constitutional attribution that allows him to dissolve the National Assembly and call early elections. It was his strategy against an imminent parliamentary dismissal based on alleged acts of corruption. Villavicencio’s death has only deepened this scenario of abnormality, while Ecuadorians sink into despair.
The assassinated candidate had zero chances of winning in a contest that has former President Correa’s candidate, Luisa González, as a favorite. But the blow has been devastating for the campaign. This assassination has been just one example of how drug trafficking is a threat to the quality of Latin American democracies, not just Ecuador. States lose control of the territories and the power of illegal money fuels corruption. Under these conditions, every mafia crime is also a political crime.
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