Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio speaks at a political rally on 9 August 2023 in Quito just minutes before he was shot and killed. EFE/STR

Video of armed individuals claiming responsibility for Ecuador pol’s death goes viral

Quito, Aug 10 (EFE).- A short video of unknown origin in which masked, heavily armed individuals claim responsibility for the assassination of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio has gone viral in the Andean nation.

In the short recording, a man sitting at a table and surrounded by a large group of individuals holding up rifles and other weapons of war said the candidate was killed because he had received money from them for his campaign and did not keep his promises.

That man also issued a warning to Jan Topic, a presidential candidate and security expert who like Villavicencio has vowed to severely crack down on organized crime and drug trafficking if elected.

The armed individuals said they are members of Los Lobos, one of Ecuador’s largest criminal gangs and a group blamed in part for a severe public safety crisis and a series of prison clashes that have left more than 400 inmates dead since 2020.

However, in a separate video released hours later, apparent members of Los Lobos denied having assassinated Villavicencio.

“Ecuador, don’t be fooled. We are the Los Lobos GDO (organized crime group). We don’t cover our faces. No one speaks for us,” a male speaker surrounded by several men dressed in white said on the video, also of unknown origin.

“Let it be clearly known that we’ve never killed people of the government nor civilians, and we clarify that the video circulating on social media, in which a group of people are seen with their faces covered, with assault rifles, pretending to be members of our organization, is totally false,” he said.

Like other organized crime gangs operating in Ecuador such as Los Tiguerones and Los Choneros, most of Los Lobos’ illicit gains come from drug trafficking and extortion rackets, authorities say.

Much of the criminal violence is concentrated along Ecuador’s coast, a key drug trafficking corridor that is home to seaports from which large quantities of cocaine are smuggled to Europe and the United States.

Gang activity led to a record high homicide rate last year in Ecuador, where 25.32 murders were registered per 100,000 inhabitants.

The killing of the 59-year-old Villavicencio as he was leaving a campaign event north of Quito on Wednesday afternoon stunned the country less than two weeks before an early general election.

That balloting, scheduled for Aug. 20 after President Guillermo Lasso dissolved parliament earlier this year ahead of an impeachment vote over embezzlement accusations, was already centered around the violent crime issue prior to the candidate’s murder.

The assassination of Villavicencio, who had reported death threats, follows the recent politically motivated killings of the mayor of the Pacific port city of Manta, Agustin Intriago, and of a legislative candidate from the northwestern province of Esmeraldas.

Wednesday’s attack also left at least nine people wounded, including a candidate for Ecuador’s unicameral National Assembly and two police officers.

One of the attackers reportedly died after an exchange of gunfire with Villavicencio’s security detail.

At least six people suspected of involvement in the assassination have been arrested to date, following several police raids in two Quito neighborhoods.

Lasso, who is not competing in this month’s elections, has declared three days of national mourning and a 60-day state of emergency, with soldiers deployed nationwide to help ensure the rest of the electoral process unfolds peacefully. EFE