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Political violence and insecurity loom large as Ecuadorians prepare to vote

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Quito, Ecuador

Gissella Cecibel Molina doesn’t know if she’s going to lose it the right eyewho was injured last week when her colleague and friend, presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, was murdered in front of her as they left a political rally in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito.

“I was leaving the place with Fernando and, because people were jostling (to get closer to him), I found myself separated by about one to two meters,” said Molina, who is running for re-election to the Assembly nationally, at CNN. .

“As he (Villavicencio) approached the car, there was a man with a flag around his neck that said ‘Fernando Villavicencio for President.’ The man ran around the car, pulled out a gun gun and started shooting,” she said.

The last thing Molina remembered before passing out was Villavicencio shaking when bullets hit him in the head, she said. “I then felt like something had hit me in the face and fallen to the ground. When I regained consciousness, I could still hear gunshots and there were many injured people around me,” she added.

The brutal murder of Villavicencio, an outspoken anti-corruption candidate and former investigative journalist, has shaken the country ahead of Sunday’s crucial presidential and legislative elections. It also focused international attention on the powerful criminal organizations behind the violence ravaging Ecuador.

The suspected shooter died in police custody, authorities said, while six Colombian nationals were arrested. in connection with the murder. The suspects are members of organized criminal groups, Ecuadorian Interior Minister Juan Zapata said, citing preliminary evidence.

Karen Toro/Reuters

Fighting crime was a political priority in the run-up to this year’s snap elections, and even more so since the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio.

Several other politicians have been assassinated this year. On Monday, a local left-wing party official, Pedro Briones, was shot dead in Esmeraldas province, officials said. Last month, Agustin Intriago, mayor of Manta, Ecuador’s sixth-largest city, was beaten down alongside a young athlete with whom he was chatting in the street, and in May, elected candidate Walker Vera was assassinated just before taking office in the town of Muisne, Esmeraldas province.

The root of this political violence is that Ecuador is a transit point on the cocaine route from South America to the United States and Europe, Jan Topic, the one of several candidates for the presidency. According to him, porous borders facilitate the activity of transnational drug cartels in the country.

The dire situation represents a stark change from a decade ago, when Ecuador was known as a relatively safe country in the region. According to figures from the Ecuadorian National Police, the murder rate in 2016 was 5.8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Last year it reached 25.6, a level similar to that of Colombia and Mexico, countries with a long history of drug cartel violence.

Today, foreign syndicates such as Mexican cartels, Brazilian urban gangs and even Albanian mafia cells are working with local Ecuadorian criminal groups to fuel the ongoing conflict, analysts say. A report published In March, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said that “Balkan traffickers and members of Italian criminal groups have moved to Ecuador to establish supply lines to European markets.”

Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

Ecuadorian presidential candidate Jan Topic, accompanied by his wife Pity Guzman, before Sunday’s presidential debate.

Drug money helped fuel corruption in the country, presidential candidate Topic said. “All this cocaine and heroin coming into the country is helping to fund the corruption of politicians, cops, soldiers, judges and prosecutors,” he said.

“By the very fact that we do not control our borders, we are receiving an influx of money that is literally corrupting the country,” Topic added.

Fighting crime was a political priority in the run-up to this year’s snap elections, and even more so since Villavicencio’s assassination. Political candidates rushed last week to reaffirm their approach to the problem.

Topic, a businessman who fought in the French Foreign Legion, has been described as the “Ecuadorian (Nayib) Bukele” – referring to the Salvadoran president known for his iron-clad strategy against criminal gangs.

Topic told CNN that while he admired Bukele, he would be more cautious when it came to respecting human rights. “I admire them (Bukele and other defenders of hard hand) clear understanding of the root cause of the problem…and determination. This is something we do not currently have in Ecuador. What we have is a fearful leadership that does not make decisions because it is afraid of mafias and public opinion,” Topic said.

Andrea González Náder – who was Villavicencio’s running mate – told CNN that fighting criminal gangs and corruption was Villavicencio’s main goal during his lifetime. Those goals have not changed, she told CNN from a secret location in Ecuador, which police asked CNN not to reveal for their protection.

The 36-year-old environmentalist stressed that she wants to change Ecuador for the better. “I want this country to be a place of peace, a productive country… I believe that Ecuador is a paradise and they have turned it into hell,” she said, referring to criminal groups and to corrupt politicians.

Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

A soldier stands guard next to employees of the National Electoral Council during an exercise ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections in Quito, August 13, 2023.

In a televised presidential debate on Sunday, election frontrunner Luisa González said she would strengthen Ecuador’s security forces and intelligence systems.

González, a member of the Citizen Revolution Movement party, the political coalition of left-wing former President Rafael Correa, also discussed restarting a joint intelligence force with Colombia. “I have already had conversations with the European ambassadors of the European Union and the Colombian president (Gustavo Petro) and we will restore security for all of you, Ecuadorian families,” she said.

Molina, who is a veterinarian, is now at risk of becoming partially blind following last week’s attack, but she remains defiant. “We are not going to allow ourselves to be subjugated by the mafiosi, the corrupt politicians who want to be elected to the Assembly, the Latin kings, the (Mexican) Zetas cartel, the Albanians currently operating in the country, the extortionists, the kidnappers and all the rest who terrorize the population,” she said.

Despite her injury, she still plans to run in the August 20 election, insisting she wants justice to be served.

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