Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio assassinated at campaign event

People take cover after shots were fired at the end of the rally

People run for cover after shots were fired at the end of the rally – AFP

Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was shot dead at a campaign event in “hit-man style” local media reported, with the suspect later dying from his injuries sustained in the shootout.

Videos and images on social media purportedly from the campaign rally in the country’s capital of Quito showed people taking cover and screaming as gunfire sounded.

According to local media, Mr Villavicencio, a former lawmaker who had been polling around fifth, was shot three times in the head in an attack described as “hit-man style”.

“A suspect, who was injured during the shootout with security personnel, was apprehended and moved, badly injured, to the (attorney general’s) unit in Quito,” the attorney general’s office said.

“An ambulance from the fire department confirmed his death, the police are proceeding with collection of the cadaver.”

Villavicencio’s party, Movimiento Construye, said on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, armed men attacked its Quito offices.

Fernando Villavicencio pictured speaking during a campaign rally in Quito, Ecuador

Fernando Villavicencio pictured speaking during the campaign rally

President Guillermo Lasso issued a warning to organised crime groups, telling them they would feel “the full weight of the law”.

“For his memory and for his fight, I assure you that this crime will not go unpunished,” Mr Lasso posted on social media.

He said he was “outraged and shocked”.

“My solidarity and condolences to his wife and daughters,” Mr Lasso said.

The president and senior officials gathered in Carondelet Palace, the president’s official residence in Quito, for urgent security talks.

Meanwhile, the seven other presidential candidates quickly moved to denounce the violence and called for a tougher stance on organised crime.

People run after Villavicencio was shot and killed

People run after Villavicencio was shot and killed – API

Supporters of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio take cove

Supporters of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio take cove – API

“As an Ecuadorian, I deeply regret the murder of Fernando Villavicencio at the hands of criminals,” said Jan Topic, an opponent with the alliance For a Country Without Fear.

“Today more than ever the need to act with a strong hand against crime is reiterated.”

Yaku Pérez, candidate for the Claro que se Puede alliance, said: “Dismayed by the tragic and condemnable murder of Fernando Villavicencio. My condolences to his family and loved ones. This fact will not go unpunished, Ecuador does not deserve one more death, it is time to unite and recover La Paz.”

Xavier Hervas, candidate for the RETO movement, said the country had “reached a critical point”.

“He is one more Ecuadorian who has fallen victim to organised crime,” Mr Hervas said.

“Today is a black day for democracy.”

Police officers outside the rally site

Police officers outside the rally site – Reuters

Villavicencio, a 59-year-old centrist, was one of eight candidates in the first round of the presidential election scheduled for August 20.

From the Andean province of Chimborazo, he was a former union member at state oil company Petroecuador and later a journalist who denounced alleged millions in oil contract losses.

He was known as being an outspoken critic of former President Rafael Correa and was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation over statements made against the former president.

Villavicencio fled to Indigenous territory within Ecuador and later was given asylum in Peru.

As a legislator, Villavicencio was criticised by opposition politicians for obstructing an impeachment process this year against Mr Lasso, which prompted early elections.

Ecuador battling surging rates of violent crime

With a homicide rate higher than Mexico, Ecuador is ranked 31st out of 193 countries on the global Organised Crime Index and sixth out of 12 South American countries.

Once nicknamed “the island of peace”, the nation has been battling surging rates of violent crime attributed to a result of successive government policy failures, economic downturn following a steep drop in the cost of oil – the country’s main export – and the ease of access to ports, roads and visas for foreign nationals.

Massacres and targeted shootings of police and officials has become a weekly occurrence in the port cities of Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, which are major trans-shipment hubs for heroin and for Peruvian and Colombian cocaine trafficked to large markets including the United States and Europe.

Security has been more stable in Quito, the capital, however some parts of the city have become so dangerous that some businesses have been shuttered at night.

Mr Lasso’s government had been under pressure to strengthen its response to violent crime and to put an end to corruption of officials suspected of assisting drug gangs.

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