Ecuador on the Brink

The assassination of a presidential candidate days before the country’s snap elections shocks Ecuador. How do we make sense of the violence?

August 16, 2023

Ecuadorian Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated last week ahead of the August 20 elections. Here Villavicencio addresses the National Assembly in 2021. (Fernando Lagla / Asamblea Nacional / CC BY-SA 2.0)

This interview was originally published in Spanish by Nueva Sociedad.

Translated by NACLA.

The assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio is the latest episode in a swift and profound degradation of public life in the South American country, marked by an impressive increase in the power of organized crime. A journalist, former trade unionist, and politician, Villavicencio built his identity as an anti-corruption figure radically opposed to the government of Rafael Correa. As El País noted in a profile, Villavicencio’s electoral proposals included building “a very high security jail” to lock up the most dangerous criminals, the militarization of ports to control drug trafficking, and the creation of an anti-mafia unit with “foreign support” to chase down “narcotraffickers, kidnappers, and all kinds of criminal structures.” Toward the end of the Correa government, Villavicencio went into exile in Peru. He then returned during the government of Lenín Moreno, when he resumed political activity under a different party.

Villavicencio’s murder, allegedly at the hands of organized crime operatives, has shocked the country and altered the campaign leading up to the August 20 elections. The snap elections were triggered after President Guillermo Lasso invoked the “muerte cruzada” clause to avoid further impeachment proceedings in parliament.

Speaking separately with Nueva Sociedad, Pablo Ospina and Franklin Ramírez analyze the causes behind the country’s decline. Ospina is a historian who teaches at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar and a researcher at the Instituto de Estudios Ecuatorianos. Ramírez is a sociologist and professor-researcher at the Department of Political Studies at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO). Both have written several articles for Nueva Sociedad.

Pablo Stefanoni: Ecuador used to be characterized as a fairly peaceful country in the Latin American context. How can we interpret this assassination that recalls Colombia of the 1980s? 

Pablo Ospina: It's difficult to understand such a rapid change and such a radical degradation of the security situation. There was an increase in organized criminal activities since dollarization [in 2000], which enormously facilitated money laundering from drug trafficking and, as a result, the progressive installation or development of different criminal groups linked to transnational crime. But two recent events appear to have triggered this rapid deterioration.

First is the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia, which removed from the scene a group that offered order and a certain state rationality at the border. Above all, this group generally refrained from attacking Ecuadorian targets, because it wanted to avoid closer collaboration between the Ecuadorian and Colombian militaries in counterinsurgency operations. Ecuadorian territory was also a resting place, as demonstrated by the 2008 attack in Angostura, Ecuador, in which Raúl Reyes, leader at that time of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was killed. Once the FARC demobilized, the border began to be dominated by a dozen smaller dissident and irregular groups, which dispute territory and trafficking routes and don’t have the same policy toward Ecuador. They can kill journalists (as happened in March 2018) or penetrate that country’s rather weak and lax defenses.

The second factor is the pandemic, which seems to have detained drug trafficking and created a kind of drug distribution crisis, along with disputes between Mexican and Colombian cartels. But it also increased the potential for recruiting criminal groups in Ecuador given the desperation among a notable part of the population. Not only crime but also immigration has reached levels comparable to those during the 1999 crisis.

Franklin Ramírez: There are several factors, but a central one is without a doubt the signing of the Colombian peace accords, which reorganized drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and FARC dissidents. In relation to Ecuador, the accords affected the northern border, where two of the Colombian departments with the highest levels of cocaine production historically are located. With the fragmentation of the FARC, small groups and militias emerged that began to mobilize and move with greater ease across borders amid a virtual abandonment of these territories by both Colombia and Ecuador.

The murder of three journalists from El Comercio in 2018 at the hands of one of the FARC dissident groups sounded alarms. There is also illegal mining, smuggling, human trafficking, and arms trafficking. And all this, against the backdrop of the weakening of the state in recent years, has left the border particularly vulnerable and porous for gangs entering and leaving the country. That is why Esmeraldas, a province with a large Afro-Ecuadorian population and one of the most forgotten in Ecuador, is one of the areas with greatest violence and increases in crime, linked in many cases with Mexican cartels. We have lived through a cycle of a weakening state.

PS: How can we explain this degradation, which combines prison murders and political crimes—before Villavicencio, the mayor of Manta was murdered—and the feeling of lack of state control?

PO: In the February 2023 local elections, there were also a dozen attacks on local candidates and politicians. One candidate [in the coastal municipality of Puerto López, which is part of migrant smuggling and drug trafficking routes] was assassinated the day before the elections, which he won postmortem. The prison massacres are unprecedented in Ecuador, and it is said that they are linked to the loss of a trafficking monopoly by the criminal group "Los Choneros" [for Chone, a municipality in Manabí]. Fernando Villavicencio mentioned Los Choneros as the group that threatened him directly, characterizing them on the very day of his death as the most credible and worrying. The division of Los Choneros between disputing leaders is part of the prison conflict.

But beyond this, it is clear that drug trafficking is unthinkable and unviable without the collaboration or complicity of state authorities, customs officials, judges, members of the police and Armed Forces, and port administrators. These officials can collaborate out of fear or to gain a part of the business. Sometimes they are victims of disputes between these groups, or they can oppose and suffer the consequences. It’s very likely that an aggravating factor is the weakness, incompetence, and general indifference of the governments of Lenín Moreno and Guillermo Lasso, which have been completely overwhelmed not only by the security crisis, but even by the most basic governing tasks.

RF: There was an institutional reform that began with Moreno and his agreement with the IMF and was continued under Lasso, that weakened the state intervention that worked historically. [Up until 2013-2014, Ecuador had record lows in homicides]. Those reforms lacked a strategic vision regarding how they affected different sectors and policies and reduced state capacities, not only at the northern border but also in Guayaquil, Quito, Manta...

In addition, the increase in cocaine production in Colombia, coupled with the fact that Ecuador is a dollarized country with a deregulated financial system, has made Ecuador not only a transit country but also a place for collection and processing. Ecuadorian drugs leave from the ports of Guayaquil and Manta, and that has exponentially multiplied disputes between gangs seeking to control those export circuits and also micro-trafficking.

Here, prisons play an important role, because that is where business is directed from. They are places where the state has completely lost the monopoly on violence. The police and the Armed Forces have gained autonomy at the same time they are penetrated by organized crime, with very little civilian oversight. We cannot understand the criminal control over the prisons without understanding the complicity of the police. We are in the state of exception number 17, but it isn’t linked to any institutional strategy or state presence. Nor is there a social strategy. Many students left school during the pandemic and did not go back, and they are cannon fodder for the gangs. We see a growing penetration of the criminal economy into the formal economy, as well as in the state.

PS: Villavicencio appeared close to President Guillermo Lasso and had a profile associated with anti-Correísmo and the fight against corruption. Why was he a target for organized crime when his chances of winning were very low?

FR: Villavicencio came from the oil union movement and won a lot of notoriety as an opponent of Correísmo. After becoming a journalist, he made constant denunciations and always had access to privileged information, within the framework of a certain opacity. Even in this campaign, the electoral body identified him as the candidate with the most resources, which he denied. In his party there are several ex-military and ex-police officers, some of whom propose that a civil-military junta would be a solution to the current political crisis.

His murder must be seen in light of other murders in this cycle that began with the “muerte cruzada” declared by Lasso. There was the case of Agustín Intriago in Manta, and of a senior official in the municipality of Durán, one of the largest municipalities in Guayas. Already in the February elections, more than 30 attacks were reported against political figures. It's a systematic campaign against political actors. This has to be interpreted as conditioning the democratic process and, more specifically, the August 20 elections. It was even speculated that the elections would be postponed. Panic is conditioning the entire process.

Armed actors want their presence to be felt. And from now on candidates have a gun to their heads. These organized crime groups seek to become actors with whom the state must negotiate and without whom the country cannot prosper. I wouldn’t say that Villavicencio had such low chances. Under Correísmo, the possibilities are very open.

PO: Villavicencio was rising in the polls and appeared to have upstart potential. This could be due, in my opinion, to two factors. First, the Correísta camp has had a strategy of centering its campaign around the achievements and successes of Rafael Correa’s administration. The former president is omnipresent in campaign materials in a way that far exceeds what happened in the 2021 elections, reinforcing the feeling that if the party were to win, it would be Correa who would govern and not Luisa González, the Citizen Revolution candidate. Anti-Correísta sentiment grew, or was activated or awakened, in the shadow of that campaign strategy. Villavicencio was one of the main beneficiaries of that resurgence.

Second, Villavicencio had strong rhetoric related to the dismantling of mafias, corruption, and organized crime taking control of the state. He spoke of an iron fist and supported it with his robust and energetic personality. He sought to radiate an image of an incorruptible cleaner of the “Augean stables.” In addition, his denunciations often included specific names. In this way, although Jan Topić was the candidate promoted as the “Ecuadorian Bukele,” it is possible that a growing fraction of the electorate saw Villavicencio's style in these terms, considering he was a lot better known than Topić. So his chances were far from null. We could speculate that his real possibilities in a second-round scenario was worrying to some criminal groups.

PS: Correísmo is polling strong in the first round, with about 30 percent, but weak in the second. How do you think the new context will affect presidential candidate Luisa González?

FR: Villavicencio was running with the Movimiento Construye, founded by María Paula Romo, a former minister of Lenín Moreno and previously a lawmaker with the “Ruptura 25,” a faction representing middle-class interests that broke away from the Citizens Revolution. For the national assembly, Movimiento Construye is running Patricio Carrillo, who was chief of police during the Moreno era and later under Lasso, and was at the helm of the repression of 2019 and 2022. It is likely that part of their very anti-Correísta votes will go to Topić of the Social Christian Party (PSC), who has assumed a very Bukele-like role, a RoboCop against insecurity. But some of the votes may also go to Otto Sonnenholzner, the young candidate of the old Guayaquil oligarchy who quickly came out with hardline anti-Correísta rhetoric. But the null vote could also grow, which, if it increases a lot, could favor Correísmo in the first round. [Another well-placed contender is former presidential candidate Yaku Pérez, who has the support of Indigenous sectors].

PO: With a such an unprecedented event, it is difficult to predict what might happen. However, it is difficult to see how this can favor the Correísta candidate Luisa González. Sympathy with the victim and emotions accompanying an event like this are inextricably linked to the fact that Villavicencio was the most vocal enemy of Correísmo in the entire electoral race. Rumors and veiled or direct accusations of Correísmo’s complicity or tolerance of different criminal structures have already circulated, which surely will become more widespread. So it is clear that this will be negative for González. What is difficult to know is the exact extent to which that will be the case.

Pablo Stefanoni is editor-in-chief of Nueva Sociedad. He is coauthor, with Martín Baña, of  Todo lo que necesitás saber sobre la Revolución rusa (Paidós, 2017) and author of  ¿La rebeldía se volvió de derecha? (Siglo Veintiuno, 2021).

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