The murder of six Colombians and one Ecuadorian suspected of involvement in the high-profile assassination of an Ecuadorian presidential candidate has seen security rhetoric drift to hard-line policies ahead of the October 15 election.

Six inmates held for the murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio were killed on October 6 in Litoral Penitentiary, Ecuador’s largest prison. A seventh was found dead the next day. 

The murders came a week before Ecuadorians are due to head to the polls for the second round of the presidential elections and amidst an investigation assisted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at uncovering the intellectual author behind the dramatic assassination of  Villavicencio, who was shot dead as he left a campaign event in Quito on August 9. Of the 13 detained in connection with the murder, six remain alive and are being held in an undisclosed location. 

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So far, the government has failed to explain how the killers were able to access these high-profile prisoners. 

President Guillermo Lasso referred to the killings as a “prison crisis,” and he cut short a trip to the United States. He also suspended a diplomatic trip to South Korea in order to lead an emergency security cabinet meeting.

“There will be no complicity nor cover-up — the truth will be known here,” he wrote on X, previously known as Twitter. 

His cabinet’s immediate response included an overhaul of the country’s prison and police systems. The president fired top brass, including the head of the penitentiary system, the commander of Ecuador’s national police force, and the national director of police investigations.

A judge ruled that the deputy prison director, who was detained for questioning after the incident, should remain behind bars while the inquiry proceeds. Officials said he is under investigation for failing to carry out a transfer ordered to protect the same prisoners who were murdered.

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Ecuador’s presidential candidates have built their security platform on investment and social reform. But in the face of this latest emergency and under increasing scrutiny from the public to act decisively, their rhetoric is hardening.

The apparent frontrunner, Daniel Noboa, who early on proposed reinforcing the judicial system and training the police in conflict resolution, took to social media to push his “Fenix” security plan, which includes major security sector reforms, high-security prison boats, and an expansion of military authority. 

Though the plan isn’t new, he has doubled down on his use of military imagery in publicizing it and evoked the language of security crackdowns already in use by some of the region’s strongmen leaders, including El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele.

“We have to use an iron fist if we want to save Ecuador from this insecurity,” he wrote on X, previously Twitter.

His rival, Luisa González, meanwhile, has focused less on pushing her security policy than defending her party against accusations that her political mentor — former President Rafael Correa — orchestrated the assassinations. 

SEE ALSO: Is Gang Legalization Responsible for Ecuador’s Security Crisis? 

Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General del Estado) announced that one of the suspects confessed to his part in the killing under oath and accused the Correa administration of orchestrating the assassination. The government is withholding his identity for security reasons.

A statement released by her party, Citizen Revolution (Revolución Ciudadana), suggested that the scandal is a conspiracy by the Lasso government to undermine González’s election campaign.

However, her rhetoric had already become more militarized in the wake of Villavicencio’s murder.

“I am going to take back control of the country. Take back control of the prisons, the roads, public spaces, and, above all, the ports and airports, which I will militarize,” she said during a presidential debate on October 1. 

The candidates’ response to this most recent security crisis may well decide who wins the election on October 15. The issue of security has recently overtaken the economy as the most pressing issue for Ecuadorians aged 16-25, who have the largest percentage of undecided voters among Ecuador’s population, according to polls.

Whoever wins will have a shortened term to address Ecuador’s spiraling security crisis, and while taking a harder line on security may be politically advantageous, results so far have offered little encouragement.

Between 2016 and 2022, Ecuador’s homicide rate skyrocketed by almost 500% as gang members killed police officers, set off car bombs, and left bodies hanging from bridges. Gangs flourished as Ecuador’s role as a transport point in the cocaine pipeline to Europe grew. Though they now pose extreme security threats nationwide, they were born in the country’s prisons and still run their operations from the inside.

“They continue to control the prisons with the complicity of the authorities,” Arturo Torres, an Ecuadorian journalist and crime expert, told InSight Crime. “From here, they plan attacks, organize shipments of cocaine and firearms, and commit countless other criminal acts.”

The Lasso administration has already tried to implement a militarized approach by giving the army an increasingly central role in prison and anti-gang operations. But violence has continued.

“Governing will be harder than campaigning,” James Bosworth, founder of political risk analysis firm Hxagon, told InSight Crime. “Neither candidate has a clear policy or a magic wand that will undo the prison violence and find justice for the murdered presidential candidate. This is likely to be a long and difficult process that will extend well beyond the brief term of office the next president will win.” 

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