The murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio is the culmination of an unprecedented spiral of violence unleashed by criminal groups in Ecuador who have taken advantage of the country’s role in the worldwide cocaine trade.
Villavicencio was gunned down while leaving a campaign rally in Quito on the evening of August 9. According to media reports, he was shot several times and transported to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead.
Shortly after, the alleged shooter was arrested. Hours later, authorities reported he had died while in custody from wounds received during the confrontation with security forces. Six other people -- reportedly Colombian nationals -- have been arrested in connection to the attack.
Following the assassination, President Guillermo Lasso announced a 60-day state of emergency, and the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral - CNE) stated that the elections, scheduled for August 20, would move forward.
Still, the government did not provide information regarding the identities of those captured or the ongoing investigation into Villavicencio’s assassination. Initial hypotheses around the intellectual authors of the crime pointed to Ecuador’s powerful Choneros gang.
Villavicencio was a former journalist, activist, and member of the National Assembly who was openly critical of organized crime and corruption, something that he said had earned him threats from the Choneros.
"Several people working on in my presidential campaign in the province of Manabí have received visits from emissaries of [Choneros leader] ‘Fito’ to tell them that if I keep mentioning the Choneros, they're going to break me," the candidate said, perhaps prophetically, in what would be his last campaign speech on August 9.
However, following the murder, a video circulating on social media showed alleged members of another criminal group, the Lobos -- a former faction of the Choneros -- claiming responsibility for the attack. The claim has been refuted by other members of the group.
The killing of Villavicencio is the first murder of a presidential candidate in Ecuador’s history and the latest development in the country’s growing security crisis.
Below, InSight Crime details four reasons why Ecuador, once considered a relatively peaceful country, has become a cauldron of organized crime and violence.
1) Ecuador’s Rise as a Cocaine Transit Hub
Ecuador sits in a strategic position for the cocaine trade. And with cocaine production booming in Colombia and changing worldwide consumption patterns, the country has become even more important for legacy markets like the United States and emerging cocaine markets in Europe and Asia.
This is reflected in the data. In 2015, Ecuadorian authorities seized 63 tons of cocaine. Over the next two years, more than 80 tons were seized annually. In 2018, as a result of the Colombian Peace Process, only 35 tons were confiscated. But seizures rose again in 2019, and the country hit a record in 2021 when it seized 210 tons of cocaine. Since then, the numbers have remained high; in 2022, Ecuador seized nearly 180 tons of cocaine.
As Ecuador’s drug trafficking route has grown in popularity, capital flows have surged, helping jumpstart the growth of the country’s criminal groups. As noted below, it also increased competition.
2) Atomized Criminal Landscape
Over the several years, Ecuador’s criminal landscape has gone from having just a handful of local criminal gangs to scores of sophisticated and violent criminal groups, each competing for control over the country’s prisons and the lucrative drug routes that have made the country a cocaine highway.
Among those first groups were the Choneros, who emerged in the late 1990s as a drug trafficking group in the coastal city of Manabí. The group became one of the country’s largest and most powerful gangs through alliances with key players in the drug trade like Washington Prado Alava, alias “Gerald,” Ecuador’s most prolific drug trafficker.
However, following a period of rapid expansion, the tide turned against the Choneros. After the murder of Choneros leader Jorge Luis Zambrano González, alias “Rasquiña,” in December 2020, smaller groups, who once operated under the Choneros umbrella, grabbed power for themselves.
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What came next was a wave of massacres inside the country’s prisons. Violence soon hit Ecuador’s streets. Since then, a confederation of gangs -- including former allies like the Tiguerones and Chone Killers -- led by Los Lobos, a splinter group of the Choneros, has disputed the group’s power inside and outside prisons ever since.
As part of their increasingly violent tactics, these gangs have appropriated the use of what in Colombia is called sicariato, or hired killings. Many observers see this as part of the third reason for increased violence: the presence of foreign criminal organizations.
3) Foreign Criminal Organizations
For years, Ecuador was the purview of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), Colombia’s oldest insurgency. The FARC controlled cocaine departure ports in the southern Colombian department of Nariño, which borders Ecuador. The fumigation of crops and the persecution of the FARC moved the guerrillas' operations to Ecuador, where they found allies to smuggle cocaine, as well as a place to hide.
The FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016, paving the way for dissident groups, also known as ex-FARC mafia, to take over the former guerrillas' territories. Along the Ecuador border, this centered around the control of cocaine trafficking, and resulted in a trail of violence that lasted until a few years ago.
Since the 2000s, Mexican groups have also been forging connections between cocaine trafficking networks and Mexican emissaries to ensure the flow of the drug to the United States and Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) have formalized alliances with groups like the Choneros, as well as other gangs in the country.
Eastern European groups have also been involved in Ecuador for over a decade, through connections with national and transnational groups. An InSight Crime investigation detailed how several of them have entered Ecuador or extended their networks there.
These groups have provided local gangs with weapons and money that have fueled their territorial disputes. Indeed, at least part of the rise in violence in the country is believed to be linked to the local groups' efforts to maintain control of specific drug corridors where foreign groups operate.
4) The Ecuadorian State Is Unprepared
As violence in the country increases, the Ecuadorian government has shown it is not prepared to face a criminal threat of this scale.
Since 2022, threats and attacks on prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials have become a common occurrence in Ecuador. The recent legislative and local election cycle has also been plagued by violence. In July, Rider Sánchez, candidate for the National Assembly, was murdered in the northern province of Esmeraldas.
That same month, Agustín Intriago, the mayor of Manta, in the Manabí province, was killed as he inspected a public infrastructure project in the 15 de Septiembre neighborhood. And in May, the mayor of Durán in Guayas province, survived an attempt on his life.
So far, the government has resorted to implementing states of emergency and increasing the capacity of the country’s prisons. However, as the murder of Villavicencio shows, these measures have not curbed violence or significantly undermined the power of the gangs.