Quito, Ecuador (CNN) — A candidate in Ecuador’s upcoming presidential election, Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated at a campaign event in the capital Wednesday as a deadly escalation of violence and crime grips the South American country.
Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso vowed the killing would not go unpunished, saying that “organized crime has come a long way, but the full weight of the law will fall on them.” Lasso announced a state of emergency for 60 days, an immediate mobilization of the armed forces across the country and three days of national mourning.
The election, scheduled for August 20, will go ahead as planned, the Electoral Council President Diana Atamaint said Thursday.
Villavicencio was shot and killed as he was leaving a campaign rally at a school north of the capital Quito, 10 days before the first round of the presidential election was set to take place.
Opinion polls had put him in the middle of the pack of the eight candidates, far behind the frontrunner Luisa González.
A legislator in the National Assembly, Villavicencio had been outspoken about corruption and the violence caused by drug trafficking in the country, telling CNN En Español Conclusiones in May that Ecuador had become a “narco state” as he proposed to lead a fight against what he called the “political mafia.”
The suspected gunman died in police custody following an exchange of fire with security personnel, Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter.
It has launched an investigation into the attack, which injured nine people, including a candidate for the National Assembly and two police officers.
Later, the Ecuadorian Prosecutor’s Office said six people had been arrested during raids in Quito’s Conocoto and San Bartolo neighborhoods and that Villavicencio’s body had been transferred to a morgue for an autopsy.
Video circulating on social media appears to show the moment Villavicencio was fatally shot.
The footage appears to show Villavicencio walking away from the campaign rally toward a vehicle surrounded by several police officers and a crowd of onlookers. As he gets into the back seat of the vehicle, at least 12 gunshots can be heard. A policeman quickly closes the door behind Villavicencio and many people are seen taking cover from the gunfire, including his security detail.
CNN has asked authorities for more details.
The slain politician’s sister Patricia Villavicencio attended the rally and said she was standing behind her brother before he was killed.
She told reporters outside the school that she held the national government and the Interior Ministry responsible for the death of her brother.
“Where is the security?” she asked.
Earlier this week, Ecuador’s Interior Minister Juan Zapata said seven of the eight candidates, including Villavicencio, were under police protection, local media reported Tuesday.
President Lasso, who said he is “outraged and shocked” by Villavicencio’s killing, dissolved the opposition-led congress in May, paving the way for early elections.
The embattled Lasso had faced an impeachment vote over accusations from opposition legislators of embezzlement before he took office, which he denies. Calls for his resignation had grown louder in recent months as the country became engulfed by a cost-of-living crisis and high rates of criminal violence.
The assassination comes as Ecuador struggles with a deteriorating security crisis fueled by drug trafficking and a turf war between rival criminal organizations.
Once known as the “isla de paz” – an island of peace – the Andean country has in recent years reported some of the highest homicide rates in the region.
Though Ecuador has no history of producing cocaine, nor its main ingredient coca, it is sandwiched between the two largest narcotics production hotspots in the world: Peru and Colombia.
Ecuador has become an integral part in the lucrative cocaine trafficking routes from South America to North America and Europe, according to security experts. And violence has been most pronounced on the country’s Pacific coast as criminal groups battle to control and distribute illicit drugs.
The country has also lost control of its overcrowded prisons, which are often ruled by criminal gangs. Security forces have struggled to confront the gangs inside prisons, where inmates often take control of branches of the penitentiaries and run criminal networks from behind bars, according to Ecuadorian authorities. Hundreds of inmates have been killed in brutal prison riots between rival gangs.
In July, the mayor of the port city of Manta, Agustin Intriago, was shot dead alongside Ariana Chancay, a young athlete he was talking with on the street.
All the candidates in Ecuador’s presidential election have pledged to rein in the escalation of violence.
But the deteriorating security and economic situation is leading more Ecuadorians to leave the country, with statistics showing thousands making their way north through the treacherous Darien Gap this year, with hopes of reaching the United States.
In a statement on X, US Ambassador to Ecuador Michael J. Fitzpatrick said he is “deeply shocked” by the assassination and called Villavicencio a “fighter against the corrupt and narco-criminals who have done so much damage to Ecuador.” He said the US “strongly condemns” the attack and offered US government assistance in the investigation.