August 10, 2023
This post was updated on August 10, 2023 following the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.
Assassination of Presidential Candidate Fernando Villavicencio
At around 6:20 p.m. on August 9, Fernando Villavicencio, the presidential candidate for the Movimiento Construye Ecuador alliance, was assassinated as he was leaving a campaign event in Quito. An unknown number of assailants fired some 40 shots at Villavicencio’s car just as he entered the vehicle. The assassins also threw a grenade, which did not explode, at the crowd near the car. The attack injured nine people, including two police officers and a legislative candidate. Police killed one of the assassins moments after, in an exchange of gunfire.
Ecuador’s police have launched raids in the south of the capital and arrested six people in connection with the killing.
Investigations have only just begun, but already there are accusations of collusion between criminal organizations and elements of Ecuador’s security apparatus in the assassination. Of the eight presidential candidates, Villavicencio had the biggest security detail, but at the moment he was murdered, his security protocol seems to have been completely violated. He was killed as he sat in a car that was not bulletproof, which is unusual. Other serious security breaches have already been noted, including by his family.
Last week, Villavicencio said he had received threats from Adolfo Macías (alias “Fito”), leader of the Los Choneros gang, who is currently incarcerated. Fito, in response to recent prison violence, recorded and posted a video on July 25 from the Regional del Guayas jail surrounded by five other men — one of whom has since been confirmed by the government to be a police officer.
Police apprehended a badly wounded suspect in the attack, who was taken to police headquarters instead of into hospital custody to save his life and secure his testimony. The suspect has since died, under conditions still to be clarified.
President Lasso reacted to the murder by declaring a 60-day national state of emergency, suspending constitutional guarantees nationwide, and mobilizing the military for law enforcement. The next day, Lasso announced that he had asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to help investigate Villavicencio’s murder and that the FBI had accepted Ecuador’s invitation.
The president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), Diana Atamaint, has also announced that the electoral calendar will not change. Various pundits and political actors in the media have called for — or mentioned the possibility of — Lasso’s resignation, and have spoken broadly of a political transition, or of delaying the elections. Others insist that the law does not allow for postponing the elections and that the path out of the political crisis should be institutional and democratic, through the August 20 elections.
Article 112 of Ecuador’s election law establishes that in the case of the death of a candidate, they must be replaced by someone chosen by the party. Villavicencio’s vice presidential candidate remains on the ticket, but cannot become the presidential candidate, and gender parity for the ticket must be respected.
In a broadcast to the nation, President Lasso strongly implied that a political party was behind Villavicencio’s assassination. The candidate Otto Sonnenholzner and others in the media have also made similarly veiled accusations or have tried to blame Correa for the security situation. The correísta candidate Luisa González has responded by saying that her party fights its adversaries at the ballot box and not with violence, and strongly condemned Villavicencio’s murder and Ecuador’s slide into lawlessness and toward a “failed state.”
Villavicencio had been an outspoken opponent of correísmo for many years. As a result, it is likely that González and other Revolución Ciudadana (RC) candidates will be the most politically disadvantaged by his assassination. Moreover, his death means that other strong candidates on the political right, such as Otto Sonnenholzner and Jan Topic, are likely to recuperate the lion’s share of Villavicencio votes on August 20.
Security: New Prison Massacres and Political Assassinations
Weeks before Villavicencio’s assassination, several high-profile incidents of violence had already rocked Ecuador, with potential implications for the elections. Early the morning of July 17, Rider Sánchez Valencia, a legislative candidate with Otto Sonnenholzner’s SUMA-Avanza alliance, was shot dead in his car in Esmeraldas. Police believe the killing resulted from an armed robbery. Sánchez Valencia’s son, Rider Sánchez Intriago, is now running in his father’s place.
Six days later, Agustín Intriago, the recently reelected mayor of Manta, one of the largest cities in Ecuador, was assassinated in broad daylight while inspecting a public works site. A bystander, amateur soccer player Ariana Estefanía Chancay, who had been speaking with the politician, was also killed. While the motive for the attack remains unclear, police have said that Intriago, who was a member of the local Mejor Ciudad party, had received threats. The suspected get-away driver, a Venezuelan national, is in custody, but the killer is believed to still be at large.
There has also been more prison violence. In Guayaquil’s Penitenciaría del Litoral, Ecuador’s largest prison, violence between two gangs erupted into a full scale riot on July 22. Three people were killed amid gunshots and explosions, and then violent gang clashes left three more dead and eight wounded. On June 24, the government announced that close to 100 guards in five prisons nationwide were being held hostage by inmates, in what seemed to be a planned attack. Inmates began hunger strikes in another eight prisons. The hunger strikers’ motives remain unclear, but some media reports say the inmates may be protesting insufficient food, lack of drinkable water, and substandard hygiene conditions.
In response to the multiple acts of violence, the government declared a 60-day state of emergency, with a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the regions of Los Ríos, Manabí, and Durán. A 60-day state of emergency was also declared for all of Ecuador’s prisons.
After three days of riots, 2,700 Ecuadorian army and police personnel took control of the Penitenciaría del Litoral and other facilities, freeing 120 prison guards. Fourteen individuals, including a police officer and a soldier, were injured, and the final death toll was 31. Guillermo Rodríguez, the director of the country’s prison agency, resigned. Since 2021, over 400 inmates have died from gang-related prison violence.
As mentioned above, in a striking display of gang control over prisons, Fito, the leader of the Choneros gang, whom Fernando Villavicencio claimed had threatened him, recorded and posted a video on July 25 from the Regional del Guayas jail while security forces were in the process of raiding the nearby Penitenciaría del Litoral. In the video, Fito is seated at a table, surrounded by five other men — one of whom has since been confirmed by the government to be a police officer. After introducing himself, Fito announces a truce between his gang and eight other criminal organizations, and Fito’s men then place their weapons on the table. Weapons and cameras are, of course, banned in Ecuadorian prisons and jails.
The next day, a spokesman for the rival Los Tiguerones gang posted a video accepting the peace deal, and announcing their own peace with rival gangs. In the video, which was recorded at Esmeraldas jail, the Tiguerones spokesman is seated at a table alongside the jail’s director, a priest, a woman said to represent the High Commissioner for Human rights, and six others. Numerous knives of various sizes and two firearms are displayed on the table before them, which the inmates surrender to the jail’s director.
All eight presidential candidates (temporarily reduced to seven after Villavicencio’s death) were officially certified to run in Ecuador’s upcoming elections by the country’s two electoral bodies, the National Electoral Council (CNE) and Electoral Dispute Tribunal (TCE). The last certification was of Xavier Hervas, whose candidacy was initially challenged by Luisa González’s Revolución Ciudadana (RC) party. RC’s objection arose from allegations that Hervas possesses offshore assets in Panama, potentially disqualifying him from the presidential elections under Ecuadorian law. Hervas has argued that documents presented as evidence against him refer to a namesake and not to himself. Despite what looked like convincing evidence, the TCE upheld his candidacy.
Following this decision, the CNE declared that the official campaign period could begin early, on July 13, instead of the original date of August 8 — giving candidates 35 days to campaign instead of the 10 days originally set.
Polls show varying results for the candidates, especially among the second and third tier. On July 11, Comunicaliza, a company approved and supervised by the CNE, showed Luisa González leading with 26.8 percent of the total vote; Otto Sonnenholzner followed with 12.8 percent, and Yaku Pérez ranked third with 10.3 percent. Other polls suggest that González’s lead may be more substantial. On July 26, Eureknow published a poll showing González with 35 percent of the total vote, Sonnenholzner with 17.1 percent, and Villavicencio with 15.2 percent prior to his assassination. Estrategas Infinity’s July 30 poll had González receiving 30.86 percent of the vote, Sonnenholzner getting 11.88 percent, and Pérez 10.01 percent. The latest figures from Telcodata, on August 4, put Jan Topič in second place with 10.4 percent of the vote and Pérez third with 8.4 percent. Polls also project that between 10.9 percent and 24.6 percent of voters are still undecided, which affords all candidates with space to grow and makes the result very hard to predict.
While the polls unanimously give González a commanding lead in the first round, they differ significantly on the runner-up, suggesting a tight race for second place. This is particularly relevant considering the first round of the 2021 presidential elections, when Lasso came in second with 19.74 percent of the vote, closely trailed by Pérez with 19.39 percent. Pérez subsequently cried fraud, and urged his supporters to cast a null vote in the runoff.
In Ecuador, elections can be won outright in the first round if a candidate secures 50 percent of the valid vote, or 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the next runner-up. (The valid vote is equal to the total vote minus blank and null votes.) If no candidate reaches either of these thresholds, a runoff between the top two candidates will be held on October 15.
Divisions in the Indigenous Movement
Ecuador’s Indigenous movement is deeply divided over the elections. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the country’s largest and most influential Indigenous organization, has said that it is not supporting any of the presidential candidates. However, the political party Pachakutik, the CONAIE’s political-institutional arm, which has become increasingly autonomous from its parent organization, announced in June that it was backing Yaku Pérez, despite CONAIE’s disapproval. But Pachakutik is also increasingly split internally, with a battle being waged over who should exert leadership.
Divisions between Pachakutik and the CONAIE have been ongoing for years, primarily over the issue of collaboration with the Lasso government. While Leonidas Iza, the CONAIE leader who led protests against Lasso in June 2022, has been totally opposed to working with the government, significant sectors of Pachakutik’s leadership have supported Lasso’s government and policies. A neoliberal faction within Pachakutik, meanwhile, opposed Lasso’s impeachment and has criticized Iza for his willingness to allegedly collaborate with former Correa supporters.
The Failure of Guillermo Lasso’s Decrees
Since the dissolution of parliament on May 17, and until the inauguration of a new government and National Assembly on November 30, Guillermo Lasso can rule by decree. Constitutionally, however, he is now merely a caretaker president, and cannot carry out bold measures or significant reforms. The Constitutional Court is required to ensure that all of Lasso’s decrees concerning urgent economic matters comply with the Constitution and do not exceed his limited mandate. Lasso, however, has been attempting to make the most of the absence of a National Assembly to push forward his agenda.
As a result, on August 2, the Constitutional Court provisionally struck down Lasso’s Executive Decree 754, aimed at speeding up environmental consultations and, as a result, the provision of licenses for mining and oil extraction operations. Under the Constitution, Ecuadorian citizens who will be affected by these projects must first be consulted. Before Lasso’s decree, the Constitutional Court had ordered a reform of the Environmental Code following its ruling that the environmental consultation process fell short of required standards. Ironically, Lasso enacted Executive Decree 754 to comply with the court, but it fell short of expectations, including those of the CONAIE. The Indigenous organization filed a lawsuit before the Constitutional Court, claiming that Lasso’s decree was unconstitutional and arguing that constitutional rights should be regulated by law, not decrees, as specified in the Constitution. The CONAIE also argued that the Lasso administration did not adequately consult with local communities in drafting the decree, thereby violating community rights in favor of transnational corporations. The Court ultimately ruled in favor of the CONAIE and provisionally suspended the decree, potentially impacting some 100 public and private projects. The government now has 15 days to defend Executive Decree 754’s constitutionality. If the administration’s arguments are unconvincing, the court’s decision may stand permanently.
This was not the first time the Constitutional Court has ruled against Lasso’s decrees since he dissolved the National Assembly. Thus far, four of Lasso’s five executive decrees concerning the economy — Executive Decree 754, as well as decrees on student loans, bankruptcy and corporate restructuring, and the establishment of special economic zones — have been deemed unconstitutional. Only one decree — on tax reform — was approved by the Court.
Accusations of Undue Intervention in the Elections
The Esmeraldas jail video, which adopted the format of a press conference by imprisoned criminals and penitentiary authorities, created an uproar. On July 26, during a town hall broadcast by Durán TV, Luisa González criticized the government’s handling of the security situation, highlighting the control gangs have over the country and citing Fito’s video as evidence. González urged Diana Salazar, Ecuador’s prosecutor general, to investigate the presence of “narco generals” in the police force, which she said the US Embassy had informed Salazar about.
The following day, the prosecutor general’s office posted and pinned a tweet, seemingly in response to González, urging candidates not to “interfere” with its work. Later, on August 2, the prosecutor general’s office posted another tweet refuting other criticisms made by González.
Salazar is known for her unabashed anti-correista positions and for having indicted Correa and several former collaborators in highly politicized court cases that have been denounced for lack of due process. This has heightened concern about her involvement in electoral politics.
This is not the first time that Diana Salazar has interfered in Ecuadorian elections. Prior to the second round of the 2021 presidential elections, Salazar launched an investigation into Andrés Arauz, González’s current running mate and then the leading presidential candidate. Salazar’s investigation stemmed from accusations published by the conservative Colombian outlet Semana that suggested that Arauz had received a campaign “loan” from the Colombian guerrilla group, the ELN. Francisco Barbosa, Colombia’s attorney general, then traveled to Quito to meet with Salazar and officially hand over “evidence” at her request. Arauz denied these allegations, was not charged once the electoral campaign was over, and is no longer being investigated. Arauz argues that he was the victim of a media stunt aimed at undermining his candidacy and has filed a legal complaint against Barbosa in Colombia, accusing him of election interference, abuse of power, and procedural fraud. A separate incident in which Arauz was accused of ELN ties was definitively exposed as deliberate misinformation.
Between the two rounds of the 2021 elections, when polls still clearly favored Arauz, Salazar and Ecuador’s comptroller general attempted to postpone the second round by investigating the CNE over allegations of voter fraud. Since the CNE is by law an independent authority, this interference by the prosecutor general and comptroller general violated the Constitution and was denounced by the Organization of American States’ Electoral Observer Mission. Ultimately, the comptroller general’s investigation was halted. The CNE surrendered digital information to Salazar’s office for an audit, and no irregularities were reported.
Disclaimer: Andrés Arauz has been previously employed as a Senior Research Fellow at CEPR.