QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador will hold six Colombian men for at least a month as the country probes their involvement in the slaying of a presidential candidate whose life’s work was fighting crime and corruption, the national prosecutor’s office said Friday.
A public ceremony to mourn Fernando Villavicencio was held Friday in the capital convention center, while a separate funeral service was being held for relatives.
“People need to know that his family’s in danger and we can’t go to such a big event,” the victim’s daughter, Tamia Villavicencio, told reporters outside the cemetery.
The Colombian men were arrested Wednesday in connection with Villavicencio’s killing in the capital, Quito, earlier in the day. The men, whose nationalities were announced late Thursday, will be detained for at least 30 days in the investigation, but will almost certainly be held for months or years as the case plays out.
They face as many as 26 years in prison each.
Villavicencio was not a front-runner in the race, but his assassination in broad daylight less than two weeks before a special presidential election shocked the country and demonstrated how surging crime will challenge Ecuador’s next leader. Violence linked to gangs and cartels have claimed thousands of lives in the past few years.
The suspects were captured hiding in a house in Quito, according to an arrest report reviewed by The Associated Press. Law enforcement officers seized four shotguns, a 5.56-mm rifle, ammunition and three grenades as well as a vehicle and one motorcycle, the report said. Investigators said they found 64 shell casings at the scene of the shooting.
Villavicencio, 59, had said he was threatened by affiliates of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, one of a slew of international organized crime groups that now operate in Ecuador. He said his campaign represented a threat to such groups.
Armed Colombian groups have long used the porous border with Ecuador to hide from the authorities in a region scarred by both cocaine trafficking and deadly political battles between Colombian factions and state forces.
With almost 400 miles (640 kilometers) of Pacific coast, shipping ports and some key exports, Ecuador has been turned by international traffickers from a minor player in the drug business into a hub for the smuggling of cocaine from neighboring Colombia and Peru.
A lack of opportunities and decades of conflict have produced some of the world’s most renowned hired guns.
Colombian assassins – known as sicarios – made headlines for decades in their own country for waves of high-profile killings. Perhaps the most notable case was the killing of presidential candidate and former leftist rebel Carlos Pizarro, who was shot in 1990 by an assassin aboard a commercial flight.
In 1999, Ecuadorian presidential candidate Jamie Hurtado was assassinated, orders that allegedly came from Colombian paramilitaries. In 2021, a pack of Colombian ex-soldiers were found to be involved in the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, thrusting the Caribbean nation into chaos.
Colombian soldiers can be highly trained, including by the U.S. military. When they leave the service, they often struggle to make ends meet and make up a pool of recruits for companies seeking anything from consultants to bodyguards. Teams have guarded Middle Eastern oil pipelines and and have fought against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In Haiti, the ex-soldiers said they were duped and thought they were traveling to Haiti to provide security, and were eventually entangled in the assassination.
In Ecuador, an intensifying struggle over power and territory since the pandemic has seen drug cartels battle among themselves and enlist local gangs and even recruit children, leaving Ecuadorians reeling from unprecedented violence.
The Ecuador National Police tallied 3,568 violent deaths in the first six months of this year, far more than the 2,042 reported during the same period in 2022. That year ended with 4,600 violent deaths, the country’s highest in history and double the total in 2021.
Just last month, the mayor of the port city of Manta was shot to death. President Guillermo Lasso then declared a state of emergency covering two provinces and the country’s prison system in an effort to stem the violence.
Video of the political rally posted on social media shows Villavicencio leaving surrounded by guards. He is then seen getting into a white pickup truck before gunshots are heard, followed by screams and commotion around the truck.
Zuquilanda said Villavicencio had received at least three death threats before the shooting and reported them to authorities, resulting in one detention.
Lasso declared three days of national mourning and a state of emergency that involves deploying additional military personnel throughout the country.
Villavicencio, one of eight candidates running for president, was the candidate of the Build Ecuador Movement. In his final speech before he was killed, Villavicencio promised a roaring crowd that he would fight corruption, including among police forces, and imprison more criminals.
“Here I am showing my face. I’m not scared of them,” Villavicencio said in a statement before his death, naming detained crime boss José Adolfo Macías by his alias, “Fito.”
People went about their lives by taking outdoor exercise classes and daily walks because they are resigned to living amid the violence. Among them was Marjorie Lino, who lamented the danger as she walked with a friend along the main road that leads to one of the country’s most violent neighborhoods.
“When one is going to die, one dies even at the door of one’s house,” Lino, a 38-year-old housewife, said. She said does not believe that any of the presidential candidates will be able to end the violence.
Villavicencio was an independent journalist who investigated corruption in previous governments before entering politics as an anti-graft campaigner. He was one of the country’s most critical voices of the 2007-2017 government of President Rafael Correa.
Villavicencio, who was married and is survived by five children, filed many judicial complaints against high-ranking members of the Correa government, including against the ex-president himself. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation over his criticisms of Correa, and fled to Indigenous territory in Ecuador, later receiving asylum in neighboring Peru.
One of Villavicencio’s investigations led to criminal proceedings and an eight-year prison sentence on corruption charges against Correa. The former president, who moved to Belgium in 2017, was sentenced in absentia in April 2020.
The country has faced a series of political upheavals in recent years. A snap election was called after Lasso, a conservative former banker, dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May, in a move to avoid being impeached over allegations that he failed to intervene to end a faulty contract between the state-owned oil transport company and a private tanker company.
Authorities said that at least nine others were wounded in Wednesday’s shooting, including a congressional candidate.
“It’s a message to Ecuadorian society as a whole that those who attempt to stand up to this kind of corruption and and illegality can pay with their lives,” said Cynthia Arnson, a distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center and an expert in Latin America.
Garcia Cano reporter from Guayaquil, Ecuador. Sara España and Megan Janetsky reported from Mexico City.