QUITO (Reuters) –Ecuador presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a vocal critic of corruption and organized crime, was killed at a campaign event on Wednesday, authorities said, amid an upsurge in violence in the Andean nation blamed on drug traffickers.
Local media reported some 30 shots had been fired at an event in the north of the capital, Quito. Video footage posted on social media showed Villavicencio getting into a car after the event, before the sound of apparent gunfire and screaming.
WARNING: Video contains graphic violence
Ecuador’s police and Interior Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the details of the killing, but outgoing President Guillermo Lasso confirmed police safely detonated a grenade left behind by the killers.
“This is a political crime, which has the character of terrorism, and we do not doubt that this murder is an attempt to sabotage the electoral process,” Lasso said in a video statement past midnight local time, after meeting with security and electoral officials.
Lasso declared three days of mourning and a national state of emergency, saying the military would mobilize to guarantee security. Voting for a new president will go ahead as planned on Aug. 20, he added.
The attorney general’s office said one suspect in the crime later died of injuries sustained in a shoot-out. The violence injured nine other people, including a candidate for the legislature and two police officers.
The office later said it had arrested six people so far in connection with the crime during raids in Quito.
Lasso’s government has blamed rising violence on the streets and in prisons on criminal infighting to control trafficking routes used by Mexican cartels, the Albanian mafia and others to move drugs.
Security concerns, along with employment and migration, are major voter concerns in presidential contest.
Villavicencio had pledged to combat corruption and reduce tax evasion if elected. According to opinion polls, his support was at 7.5%, ranking him fifth out of eight candidates.
Villavicencio’s party Movimiento Construye said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that armed men attacked its Quito offices in a separate incident. The party said discussions had been held recently about whether to suspend campaigning due to political violence, including the July murder of the mayor of Manta.
Villavicencio opposed the suspension, it said, saying “keeping silent and hiding in moments when criminals assassin citizens and authorities is an act of cowardice”.
The candidate, a former unionist and journalist, had on Tuesday made a report to the attorney general’s office about an oil business, but no further details of his report were made public.
Villavicencio, from the Andean province of Chimborazo, was a former union member at state oil company Petroecuador and later a journalist who denounced alleged millions in oil contract losses.
Late night marches decrying the murder took place in several cities, including Villavicencio’s hometown of Alausi.
Villavicencio was an outspoken critic of former President Rafael Correa and was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation over statements made against the former president.
He fled to Indigenous territory within Ecuador and later was given asylum in Peru.
“Ecuador has become a failed state,” Correa, who now lives in Belgium, said on X. “Hopefully those who try to sow more hate with this new tragedy will understand that will only continue to destroy us.”
As a legislator, Villavicencio was criticized by opposition politicians for obstructing an impeachment process this year against Lasso, which lead the latter to call the early elections.
Other candidates in the race reacted with horror to the killing.
“This makes us all mourn, my solidarity to all his family and the people who follow his ideals. This vile act will not go unpunished!,” presidential candidate Luisa Gonzalez, who is running for Correa’s party, said on X.
Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez said he had decided to suspend his presidential campaign and demanded the violence stop in a video posted after the incident.
Perez later said he was in contact with other candidates, in pursuit of a “pact for security”.
“To the government; we don’t want words… Act. We are dying,” candidate Otto Sonnenholzner told a press conference.
“Today more than ever, the need to act with a strong hand against crime is reiterated. May God have him in his glory,” presidential hopeful Jan Topic said on X, before also suspending his campaign.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito, additional reporting by Valentine Hilaire, Isabel Woodford and Carolina PuliceWriting by Julia Symmes CobbEditing by Lincoln Feast)
(This story has not been checked by JK Mega and is auto-generated from other sources)