The Killing of Villavicencio:
A Symptom of Rising Political Violence Ahead of Ecuador’s Snap Elections
14 August 2023
On 9 August, an armed man shot and killed Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio at a campaign rally in the capital city, Quito. The assassination marks a critical moment for Ecuador, just over a week before voters are set to elect a new president and 137 members of the National Assembly in snap elections scheduled for 20 August. The event also comes as Ecuador faces an acute security crisis driven by increasing organized crime activity. It is indicative of violence that has reached critical levels and spilled over to the political sphere, with 2023 shaping up to have the most significant levels of political violence in recent years.
The snap elections follow the triggering of the muerte cruzada by President Guillermo Lasso, a decree that allows the self-dissolution of executive and legislative powers and the scheduling of early legislative and presidential elections in case of a “severe political crisis and internal commotion.”1Gobierno del Ecuador, ‘Decreto Ejecutivo 741,’ 17 May 2023 Lasso claims his decision to resort to the never-before-used decree is justified by the strong opposition in parliament that has obstructed the government’s ability to advance its political agenda.2Primicias, ‘La próxima Asamblea recibirá cientos de proyectos represados,’ 7 June 2023 The parliament also targeted President Lasso with several impeachment attempts, notably in the framework of an investigation for embezzlement. The looming prospect of impeachment ultimately prompted Lasso to activate the muerte cruzada mechanism, leading to the scheduling of early elections and the end of his government.3Alejandro I. López and Sara González. ‘Qué es la muerte cruzada, el decreto de Guillermo Lasso que disuelve el Congreso y convoca a nuevas elecciones en Ecuador,’ El País, 17 May 2023
Ecuador’s snap elections take place amid a deepening security crisis steered by soaring homicide levels attributed to organized crime, with the assassination of Villavicencio marking a turning point. Notably, presidential candidates have made security a key point in their campaign.4France 24, ‘Seguridad, punta de lanza de las campañas presidenciales en Ecuador,’ 4 August 2023 Luisa González, running for former President Rafael Correa’s Citizen Revolution Movement (RC) has focused her campaign on the strengthening of state institutions, crime prevention measures, and the rehabilitation of prisoners. Indigenous leader and former presidential candidate Yaku Pérez running for Alianza Claro Que Se Puede outlined a plan focusing on improved state response, but under the control and with the participation of local communities. Meanwhile, Otto Sonneholzner representing Alianza Actuemos has emphasized the need to develop a specialized force in fighting organized crime.5Adriana Noboa, ‘Qué ofrecen los ocho candidatos para combatir violencia e inseguridad,’ Primicias, 27 June 2023 Other candidates, such as Jan Topic running for Alianza Por un País sin Miedo, have rather promoted an iron-fist policy inspired by El Salvador.6Primicias, ‘Jan Topic, el candidato que ofrece “mano dura” al estilo de Bukele,’ 16 June 2023
But how have Ecuador’s elections come to be so deeply affected by violence? This report illustrates how the targeting of politicians has significantly increased under Lasso’s mandate, citing numerous attacks targeting candidates and local officials ahead of the February 2023 local elections. Moreover, in response to the government’s limits in curbing criminal groups, vigilante militias have become increasingly active amid loosening gun restrictions, contributing to a significant share of overall recorded violence. Political violence is likely to continue unabated should the future government fail to implement structural reforms aimed at improving security, prosecuting the perpetrators of violence, and addressing corruption within state institutions.
Unraveling the Links: Impunity and Corruption Amid Expanding Gang Activity
While in office, Lasso’s government has faced a security crisis stemming from increasing gang activity. Homicides in Ecuador have risen at one of the fastest rates in the region since 2021, amid reports that well-armed Mexican and Colombian groups have increasingly shifted activities in Ecuador.7Peter Appleby et al., ‘InSight Crime’s 2022 Homicide Round-Up,’ InSight Crime, 8 February 2023 The country is situated between the world’s largest cocaine producers – Colombia and Peru – and offers an attractive commercial hub for the drug business.8Julie Turkewitz, ‘How a Peaceful Country Became a Gold Rush State for Drug Cartels,’ New York Times, 12 July 2023 This criminal influx has produced a rise in overall violence across Ecuador, increasingly involving politicians and government officials, as well as vigilante groups (see graph below).
In 2022 alone, ACLED records at least 36 violent events targeting elected officials, government workers, candidates, and their relatives, compared to seven between 2018 and 2021. The surge in violence is particularly acute in the second half of 2022, in the months leading up to the local elections on 5 February. Violence against candidates and local officials continued in 2023, with at least 18 events between January and 4 August 2023.
While the perpetrators remain unidentified in almost all recorded cases, violence targeting politicians has widely been connected to organized crime. Since 2022, these attacks have concentrated in the coastal provinces of Esmeraldas, Guayas, and Manabí (see map below), where the government has recorded the highest homicide levels due to their strategic location on drug trafficking routes.9Mario Alexis González, ‘Violento inicio de año en las provincias que están en la ‘ruta de la droga,’ Primicias, 12 January 2023 These provinces have been coveted for their access to ports and connection to the Colombian border, including the department of Nariño, where coca is grown and processed.10El Comercio, ‘¿Por qué las bandas criminales generan violencia en Guayas, Esmeraldas y Santo Domingo?,’ 5 November 2022 The killing of Villavicencio in Quito, located in Ecuador’s mountainous region, however, contrasts with areas where organized crime group activity has been observed in recent years. It indicates that in addition to the control of ports, criminal groups have expanded their reach to other areas of the country.11Juan Francisco Alonso, ‘Asesinan a Fernando Villavicencio: 3 claves para entender la ola de violencia que sacude a Ecuador,’ BBC, 10 August 2023
The heightened targeting of officials ahead of elections has been linked to organized crime groups who have used elections to infiltrate local governments, using coercive means to secure the victory of a candidate who will not hinder their activities.12El Universo, ‘Elecciones violentas: 61 asesinatos, atentados y ataques contra políticos,’ 22 February 2023 Some officials have been the target of assassination attempts for refusing to collaborate with organized crime or holding ties with rival groups, in line with dynamics observed in other Latin American countries such as Brazil and Mexico. However, criminal business also provides a useful cover for corrupt politicians to eliminate their rivals, as organized crime groups increasingly offer contract killing services.13Atahualpa Amerise, ‘El político de Ecuador que fue elegido alcalde horas después de haber sido asesinado,’ BBC, 7 February 2023.
These trends contrast with levels recorded in previous election years. Comparatively, political violence remained low ahead of the 2019 local elections,14OEA, ‘Informe Preliminar de la Misión de Observación Electoral de la OEA en Ecuador para las Elecciones Seccionales y al Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social (CPCCS) del 24 de marzo,’ 26 March 2019;OAE, ‘Informe Preliminar de la Misión de Observación Electoral de la OEA (MOE/OEA) en Ecuador para las Elecciones Seccionales, al Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social (CPCCS), Referéndum y Consulta Popular Local del 5 de febrero de 2023,’ 8 February 2023 despite some estimating the beginning of Ecuador’s security crisis as early as 2018.15Cecilia Barría, ‘Violencia en Ecuador: “Muchos ecuatorianos quieren mano dura al estilo Bukele. Ese es el perfecto caldo de cultivo para el populismo”,’ BBC, 27 July 2023 In fact, political violence has reached a tipping point under Lasso’s government, which has been criticized for deepening the dismantling of the country’s security apparatus initiated by its predecessor.16Andrés Almeida, ‘Experto ecuatoriano: “El país vive una crisis de seguridad inédita y hay similitudes con Colombia o México”,’ Interferencia, 23 November 2022
Violence has especially affected local politicians, although it has also prompted candidates in the presidential and legislative elections to request police protection, and the government to deploy 10,000 security forces to areas at heightened risk.17Roger Vélez, ‘Tres candidatos a la Asamblea piden seguridad policial,’ Primicias, 19 July 2023; Primicias, ‘Policía dice que asesinato del candidato Riden Sánchez sería delincuencia común,’ 18 July 2023; Vanguardia, ‘La Policía de Ecuador reforzará la seguridad en zonas violentas durante las elecciones,’ 9 August 2023 The assassination of Villavicencio, however, is yet another worrying indicator of the emboldened use of violence against politicians. Although at the time of writing, the motive and intellectual authors of the attack remain to be determined, the government has arrested six suspected Colombian nationals with alleged ties to organized crime. The participation of Ecuadorian groups has also been suspected as Villavicencio had denounced threats he received from the leader of Los Choneros, a local armed wing of the Sinaloa Cartel. Meanwhile, Los Lobos, a former faction of Los Choneros which allegedly holds ties to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), has denied its participation in the attack following the circulation of a false video where they seemingly claimed responsibility for the assassination.
The targeting of the presidential candidate could suggest organized crime groups’ increased engagement at higher institutional levels. Villavicencio had made the fight against corruption his battle horse and denounced political mafias linked to drug trafficking.18Infobae, ‘Fernando Villavicencio, un polémico periodista que encarnó al anticorreísmo en Ecuador,’ 10 August 2023 The United States has also previously warned against corruption and collusion of public officials with drug trafficking circles, including law enforcement officers. This led the US embassy to revoke the visas of over 300 people since 2020.19International Crisis Group, ‘La oleada de violencia del narcotráfico en Ecuador,’ 4 November 2022 Revelations of high-level cases of corruption as well as the failure of the security system to stem the rampant violence have eroded the population’s confidence in the country’s institutions and their representatives, leading some to take security matters into their own hands.
Vigilanties Respond to Heightened Insecurity in 2023
Against a backdrop of rising insecurity across the country, vigilantism has significantly increased since 2022, contributing to the heightened political violence levels. Between January and 4 August 2023, ACLED records at least 46 events related to vigilante activity – nearly double the number of events recorded in all of 2022 and representing about 56% of all recorded political violence so far in 2023. These events mainly consist of residents spontaneously targeting suspected criminals primarily in Azuay, Tungurahua, Pichincha, Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, and Guayas provinces (see map below), where ACLED records almost 75% of all vigilante violence thus far this year.
Provinces such as Guayas and Pichincha have seen some of the country’s highest rates of reported extortion in the first half of 2023.20Primicias, ‘Ecuador: cada vez hay más víctimas de extorsiones ‘clásicas’ y virtuales,’ 27 June 2023 Just like homicides, extortion in Ecuador has gradually increased in 2022 and 2023. Authorities have attributed the trend to organized crime groups seeking to finance their illegal activities, but also to low-level criminals taking advantage of the overall climate of insecurity.21Alexander García, ‘Guayas y Pichincha suman el 48% de los casos de extorsión en Ecuador, Primicias, 25 May 2023
In turn, the increase in vigilante violence seems to respond to the population’s growing sense of insecurity and inefficiency of state institutions. The government’s efforts to restore security through the enactment of 13 state of emergency decrees and the deployment of several law enforcement operations, do not seem to have had a significant impact on the perception of safety. Compared to other provinces, the government has enacted fewer emergency measures in Azuay and Tungurahua, where ACLED records some of the highest figures of vigilante violence in 2023. The lower levels of state intervention could be related to the population’s greater propensity to take justice into their own hands. However, ACLED also records similar levels of vigilantism in Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas and Guayas provinces, where the government decreed a state of emergency at the end of 2022.
Worryingly, between January and August 2023, vigilante violence has resulted in the killing of at least nine alleged criminals, which triples the number of reported fatalities in all of 2022. These figures raise concerns that violence could grow deadlier, especially after Lasso allowed the use of firearms for self-defense in April 2023 in response to rising criminality.22Gerardo Lissardy, ‘La polémica por el permiso para portar armas en Ecuador: “Significa volver casi a la ley del talión y al lejano oeste americano”, BBC, 5 Abril 2023
Multiple Challenges for a Brief Tenure
Although the outcome of the 20 August elections remains unpredictable, it is clear that the next government will have to face severe security challenges amid rising levels of political violence. Insecurity has been a hotly debated theme of the short electoral campaign and will remain a priority in the next government’s agenda. However, its ability to show meaningful results will likely be limited by the length of its mandate, which will only last until May 2025 – the remainder of Lasso’s term. Nonetheless, the next government’s security policy will be decisive for the future of Ecuador’s political violence landscape.
The fight against organized crime will depend on the next government’s ability to address corruption within state institutions and ensure the proper persecution of the authors of political violence. The failure to address corruption and high impunity levels will likely lead to heightened collusion between criminal groups and state institutions and even higher levels of violence targeting politicians – as well as candidates in future elections. Addressing root causes of criminal violence as well as structural issues, including corruption within judicial and law enforcement bodies, will also be key to restoring public trust in state institutions and curbing rising vigilantism.
In response to the shocking killing of Villavicencio and the population’s growing demands for security, the next government might be tempted to adopt iron-fist policies, which have become increasingly popular in Ecuador. In addition to its questionable effectiveness – as demonstrated by the mixed results of Lasso’s multiple states of emergency – the approach often comes at the expense of human rights, as seen in El Salvador. This could open the door to arbitrary arrests and additional political violence such as targeting members of the opposition amid a history of state forces resorting to excessive use of force, including during the 2019 and 2022 demonstrations.23Amnesty International, ‘Ecuador: Repression of protests is causing a human rights crisis,’ 21 June 2022; Amnesty International, ‘Ecuador: Las autoridades deben detener inmediatamente la represión de las manifestaciones,’ 9 October 2019 It would also fail to address structural weaknesses that have contributed to the strengthening of gangs in jails. Long-standing overcrowding, high incarceration rates, and underfunding of the institutions have turned jails into gang operational and recruitment centers where, unless structural reforms are undertaken, deadly clashes will likely continue unabated.
The next government’s ability to implement structural changes to address rising violence, however, is likely to be limited by the country’s political opposition forces. The creation of coalitions and agreements with the opposition will be essential to avoid the same drawbacks faced by Lasso’s government. Its capacity to do so, however, could be jeopardized as the elections take place in the midst of deepening fragmentation and voter fatigue. Several social organizations have notably called voters to cast a null vote, repelled by the candidates in the running.24El Universo, ‘Colectivo civil promueve el voto nulo en las elecciones anticipadas,’ 3 August 2023 Moreover, preliminary polls have highlighted voters’ lack of familiarity with the candidates as a consequence of the brevity of the campaign period.25Primicias, ‘60% de ecuatorianos está indeciso, a un mes de las elecciones,’ 20 July 2023 Any future government’s failure to compose with existing political forces and address the popular outcry over rising criminal violence will lead to additional unrest and the deepening of Ecuador’s political violence crisis.
Visuals in this report were produced by Ana Marco