Six Colombian suspects in the August assassination of Ecuador presidential candidate and anti-corruption crusader Fernando Villavicencio were killed in prison on Friday, officials said, just a week to a key election run-off.
Right-wing President Guillermo Lasso, who is on a private trip to New York and was due in South Korea on Saturday for an official visit, called off his foreign trip to immediately return to Ecuador to handle the incident.
The SNAI prisons authority announced that “an event occurred” in the Guayas 1 prison in Guayaquil “resulting in six dead people.”
It later clarified the deceased were “of Colombian nationality and accused of the murder of former presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.”
Villavicencio, a 59-year-old journalist, was gunned down on August 9 as he left a campaign rally in the capital Quito days ahead of the first round vote, 11 days to the first round of voting.
After news broke of the prison deaths, Lasso said he was returning home.
“In the next few hours I will return to Ecuador to attend to this emergency. Neither complicity nor cover-up, here the truth will be known,” Lasso said on X, formerly Twitter.
The public prosecutor’s office said that its agents, along with police and the military, were “executing security protocols… in light of the disturbance that occurred Friday afternoon.”
It added in a statement on X that “in the coming hours, specialized military personnel will carry out the first raids and reconnaissance of Cellblock 7, where the incidents originated, to take control of the situation.”
Authorities have provided no further details about the killings, which come just days before the second round of voting in the presidential election on October 15.
The run-off will be between a close associate of former socialist president Rafael Correa, of whom Villavicencio was a fierce opponent, and a right-wing candidate.
- Key election issue –
The assassination of Villavicencio, a centrist who had been polling in second place, rocked Ecuador days ahead of the August 20 national elections in which corruption and the country’s declining security situation were major themes.
Six Colombians with long criminal records were arrested shortly after, while a seventh was killed at the scene of the crime.
Villavicencio had carried out scores of investigations, including exposing a vast graft network which led to former president Correa being sentenced to eight years in prison.
Correa fled the country to avoid jail time and has been living in exile in Belgium for six years.
Villavicencio had drawn the ire of gangs and drug traffickers with his reputation for speaking out against the cartels, many of which operate out of prisons across Ecuador.
Guayas 1, which houses some 6,800 inmates, is one of five facilities that make up a large prison complex in Guayaquil, a key port city that has become one of the country’s increasingly bloody centers of a turf war between rival drug-trafficking gangs.
More than 430 inmates have died violently since 2021, dozens of them dismembered and incinerated amid disputes between rival gangs.
In late August, dozens of guards were taken hostage at several prisons around the country before eventually being released.
On Ecuador’s streets, homicides have quadrupled between 2018 and 2022, climbing to a record 26 per 100,000 inhabitants.
That rate could climb as high as 40 this year, according to experts.
Ecuador was once a peaceful haven nestled between the world’s largest cocaine producers — Colombia and Peru.
However, the war on drugs in other South American nations displaced drug cartels to Ecuador, which has large Pacific ports with laxer controls, widespread corruption, and a dollarized economy.
The prisons crisis has become a key point of debate ahead of the second round election on October 15, between leftist lawyer Luisa Gonzalez and 35-year-old upstart Daniel Noboa.
Noboa has proposed leasing ships to hold the country’s most violent prisoners offshore.
by Santiago PIEDRA SILVA
©️ Agence France-Presse