Marc Becker on Assassination of Fernando Villavicencio
On the evening of Wednesday, August 9, Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was cut down in a hail of bullets as he exited a campaign event in Quito.
This sort of thing is not supposed to happen in Ecuador. For decades, Ecuador had been a relatively peaceful island nestled between Colombia and Peru with their civil wars and drug production.
In recent years, however, crime and homicide rates have skyrocketed, turning Ecuador from one of the safest to one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas.
Villavicencio was one of eight candidates competing in presidential elections set for next Sunday, August 20. Facing inevitable impeachment over his mishandling of the country’s affairs, current president Guillermo Lasso dissolved parliament in May and called for snap elections.
Villavicencio had made a name for himself by championing standard rightwing themes of crime and corruption. He was running in the middle of the pack, and was unlikely to advance to a predicted second round scheduled for October 15.
While crime rates have been climbing in Ecuador, conservatives have been playing up a gap between perception and reality to their political advantage. While undoubtedly more dangerous, homicides tend to be concentrated among those seemingly fighting for control over drug trafficking routes.
Similarly, while corruption can and does take on many different forms, studies reveal a noteworthy fissure between those who claim corruption to be a significant problem and those who admit that they personally have witnessed or suffered harm from corrupt activities.
Without denying the very real and serious problems that Ecuador is currently facing, campaigning on these themes only serves as a mechanism to push the entire political spectrum rightward.
The only leftish candidate in the race, Luisa González, is currently leading in the polls, but is unlikely to win outright on Sunday. To do so, she would either need to reach 50 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the closest competitor.
González is running with former president Rafael Correa’s Revolución Ciudadana party. As with Correa, González is a progressive Keynesian on economic issues, but reactionary on social ones. In particular, she is strongly opposed to abortion rights.
With Villavicencio unlikely to win the election, an open question is who would wish him harm and who would benefit from his death.
An immediate assumption was that a drug trafficking organization that he has criticized had ordered the hit. One such group, Los Lobos, had initially claimed responsibility, but then a second video claiming to be from the “real” Los Lobos denied culpability.
The immediate beneficiaries of Villavicencio’s death would appear to be his fellow rightwing candidates that were campaigning on similar law-and-order themes. Many polls place Otto Sonnenholzner in second place and he is likely to win over many of Villavicencio’s supporters.
Initially it appeared that Jan Topic, who presents himself as an Ecuadorian version of El Salvador’s authoritarian president Nayib Bukele, would be a strong competitor, but he has since languished in the polls.
Removing a potential competitor clears a potential path to a second round for a conservative candidate, and then hopefully the presidency. A high-level assassination also gains support for those calling for a law-and-order approach to the country’s problems.
In contrast, even though Villavicencio was a strong critic of Correa the Revolución Ciudadana and the broader left in general seemingly would have the least to gain from his death.
While Correa and his Revolución Ciudadana party—and thus by extension the current candidate Luisa González—enjoy the highest levels of popular support in the country, their negatives may also make it the hardest to win presidency.
While campaigning for the presidency and subsequently in office for ten years, Correa famously tangled badly with Ecuador’s powerful social movements and others to his left. In 2021, Lasso leveraged this opposition to go from less than 20 percent of the vote in the first round to defeating Revolución Ciudadana’s candidate Andrés Arauz in the second.
We may be facing a situation where a similar outcome repeats itself, and Villavicencio’s removal from the race makes that more likely. Ironically, among those who would have the most to lose from a Bukele-style administration in Ecuador would be those gangs that allegedly ordered Villavicencio’s assassination.