QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — The Ecuadorian presidential candidate fatally shot at a political rally fearlessly took on his country’s criminal networks and the political elite that he accused of corruption at the hands of organized crime.
Fernando Villavicencio, a journalist before entering politics, waged a yearslong battle against the forces that he saw transforming Ecuador, including crime seeping into nearly every aspect of life. The quest made some of his country’s most powerful people into his enemies.
The 59-year-old received multiple threats and he linked some to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, a powerful drug-trafficking network on the rise in Ecuador. Regardless of the danger, Villavicencio promised in his final speech that he would lock up the “thieves.”
“Here I am showing my face. I’m not scared of them,” Villavicencio told reporters before he was killed.
Born in a rural part of Ecuador, Villavicencio moved to the country’s capital, Quito, with his family as a teenager. He would study at night and work during the day, he told local newspaper El Universal this month.
Villavicencio began taking on the powerful at 18, when he founded a small newspaper, Prensa Obrera, which focused on workers’ rights, and went on to study journalism at the Central University of Ecuador.
After working at a state-run oil company, he went on to write books and articles for national media about corruption and the environmental damage caused by the petroleum industry.
Among his biggest scoops as a journalist was reporting on a trove of documents that pointed to inflated prices, shoddy workmanship and extravagant kickbacks that were involved in some of the country’s largest infrastructure projects, including some built by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. The evidence he uncovered was later used to help convict former Vice President Jorge Glas on bribery charges.
Villavicencio also wrote about obscure deals in which former President Rafael Correa’s leftist government took billions in loans from state banks in China in exchange for oil shipments.
The oil deals, harshly criticized by Villavicencio, have since been restructured by President Guillermo Lasso to give the OPEC nation more financial breathing room at a time when the dollarized economy has been losing competitiveness to its neighbors, all of which have flexible exchange rates that have helped buoy exports.
For his fearless reporting and whistleblowing, Villavicencio paid a high price.
He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for defaming ex-president Correa, but went on the run and sought refuge in the dense jungles of Ecuador’s indigenous territory.
As he dodged authorities closing in on him, he survived by eating crocodile, bird and monkey meat, and dodged police checkpoints by wading through jungles and rivers, according to a 2014 Committee to Protect Journalists profile.
“The president wants me to get down on my knees and apologize,” Villavicencio told CPJ from a safehouse, where he was writing a book. “But I will never do that.”
In 2017, he fled into exile in Peru. Upon his return home, he could be seen shuttling around the capital, Quito, with armed bodyguards. When he returned, he began to work in politics.
Villavicencio has also filed judicial complaints against high-ranking government officials. The most notorious case, often referred to as “Las Torres,” ended in the prosecution of Comptroller General Pablo Celi on corruption charges.
The anti-corruption complaints made Villavicencio “a threat to international criminal organizations,” said Edison Romo, a former military intelligence colonel.
Groups from Mexico and Colombia largely focused on narcotrafficking have increasingly flocked to Ecuador in recent years, leading to an uptick in violence as traffickers use the country’s ports to ship cocaine.
Gunfire is heard in many major cities as rival gangs battle for control, and gangs have recruited children.
The greatest violence in decades has left Ecuadorians reeling, and put critical voices like Villavicencio’s in greater danger.
Yet he continued with his work as a leftist politician and started to serve in 2021 as a deputy in Ecuador’s congress, a representative of the Honesty Alliance. As a legislator, he would regularly denounce energy and oil companies that had contracts with the government.
Villavicencio stayed in that role until President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the legislature in May as he was facing impeachment charges for alleged embezzlement.
Villavicencio then ran as an anti-corruption candidate for Ecuador’s presidency for the leftist Build Ecuador Movement. One of eight candidates, Villavicencio spoke often about the rising levels of violence in his country, but was not the frontrunner in the race.
Despite that, the candidate had received at least three death threats before the shooting and reported them to authorities, resulting in one detention, according to Patricio Zuquilanda, Villavicencio’s campaign adviser. His death was met by an outpouring of grief by other candidates, campaign staff, supporters and even Lasso.
“The Ecuadorian people are crying, and Ecuador is mortally wounded,” Zuquilanda said. “Politics cannot lead to the death of any member of society.”
Janetsky reported from Mexico City.