Ecuador News Round-Up No. 4: Hours Before the Election, the Notion of State Involvement in Villavicencio’s Death Begins to Take Hold

August 18, 2023

Elections and Presidential Debate

Despite the tragic August 9 assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, the National Electoral Council (CNE), Ecuador’s electoral authority, maintained the electoral calendar without any alterations. The presidential debate took place as planned on August 13.

The debate was divided into five sections: security, the economy, social policy, democracy, and sustainability. Initially, both candidates and moderators struggled with the debate’s format, resulting in frequent interruptions by the moderators, who intervened heavy-handedly to try to keep answers focused on policy instead of attacks and accusations. The result was a truncated debate lacking in any fluidity or spontaneity.

All candidates stressed the need for a tough and firm response to the country’s free-falling security situation. Jan Topic, for instance, said he would take control of Ecuador’s prisons and the country’s northern and southern borders as a means to curb drug and arms trafficking, in addition to investing $1.2 billion from fines collected by the police into his security strategy. Luisa González spoke of increasing security budgets, the establishment of a new Penitenciaría del Litoral prison outside Guayaquil’s urban center, and the strengthening of security forces, intelligence systems, and international coordination. Yaku Pérez stressed his formal qualifications in criminal law and promised to couple a strong presence of law enforcement with social policies that promote prevention.

Despite their best efforts, moderators were evidently not able to refrain candidates from attacking each other. Otto Sonnenholzner, for instance, leveled allegations against Jan Topic, citing Topic’s alleged ownership of a radar company and claiming a conflict of interest in his security strategy’s advocacy for enhanced deployment of monitoring technology. In response, Topic clarified that he is no longer the owner of that company, although he did not mention that he had sold his part of the company to his brother, with whom he owned the business, in late July.

Jan Topic later criticized Luisa González’s anti-corruption proposals, asking why “so many” members of her own political movement are “fugitives” living abroad who refuse to face justice in Ecuador. González countered by asserting that convictions against correístas were the result of political persecution and founded on baseless charges, highlighting Brazil’s annulment of evidence against Rafael Correa’s former vice-president, Jorge Glas. On August 11, two days before the debate, Brazil’s Supreme Court annulled evidence against Glas in connection with the Odebrecht case, saying it was “contaminated” and “unusable” after the Federal Police acknowledged it could have been falsified.

Prior to Villavicencio’s assassination on August 9, polls had continued to project Luisa González as the leading candidate. Click Research’s poll, which uses data from August 5 and 6, had González receiving 29.3 percent of the total vote, Pérez getting 14.4 percent, and Sonnenholzner 12.4 percent. A poll released on August 10 by Comunicaliza showed González with 31.0 percent of the total vote, Topic with 15.7 percent, and Sonnenholzner with 9.2 percent. It is important to note that, in the election, a candidate’s total is calculated based on a percentage of total votes, eliminating the null and blank votes. This meant that Gonzàlez could actually have been close to winning the election in the first-round, when a candidate needs 50 percent of the vote or 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the next contender.

Several polls conducted after Villavicencio’s death have suggested the González-Arauz ticket is the candidacy most hurt by the assassination, with some pollsters predicting a six-point drop within three days of the murder. This is not surprising, considering the proliferation of online conspiracies speculating about Rafael Correa’s links to Villavicencio’s assassination and the frequent insinuations of right-wing news outlets

The credibility of these claims, however, has been increasingly debunked by pundits and analysts in the days since the murder. For his part, Correa has suggested that the assassination was a plot to prevent Gonzàlez from winning in the first round. It is evident that the correísta ticket had most to lose from the political backlash resulting from the elimination of a staunch political adversary such as Villavicencio. Moreover, most polls put Villavicencio in 3rd, 4th or 5th place. It is also clear that having a greater number of candidates on the right, especially those unlikely to make it to the runoff, created an electoral fragmentation that played into the hands of correísmo’s electoral strategy. 

Villavicencio’s assassination has also caused an increase in the value of Ecuadorian bonds, as investors believe the candidate’s death puts González at a political disadvantage in favor of more conservative candidates like Jan Topic and Otto Sonnenholzner. Indeed, Comunicaliza’s latest poll shows Topic with 21.7 percent of the total vote. 

In addition to general elections, two referendums will also be held on August 20. The first one asks residents of Quito if they wish to prohibit metal mining in the Chocó Andino region, while the second asks Ecuadorian citizens whether oil production should be prohibited in extraction block 43 ITT. The latter is also known as the “Yasuní” referendum.

The “Yasuní” question nevertheless appears to suffer from some technical issues. It is true that block 43 ITT is primarily situated within the Yasuní National Park, which has led political organizations, the media, and the CNE to dub the vote the “Yasuní” referendum. It is important to note, however, that the question on the ballot refers to block 43 and does not explicitly mention the Yasuní National Park. As a result, extraction might still be a possibility in extraction blocks 31 and 16, also located within the Yasuní National Park. Furthermore, block 43 ITT is not exclusively confined to the Yasuní, which means extraction could also be prohibited in areas outside the National Park.

The debate on these two environmental referenda revolves around their potential impact on Ecuador’s economy, the state budget, transition to post-extractivism, biodiversity, indigenous communities, and CO2 emissions. An August 12 survey revealed that, with regards to the “Yasuní” referendum, 35 percent of people want to prohibit oil extraction, 25 percent want to continue the practice, and another 25 percent are undecided. In the case of the vote on mining in the Chocó Andino, 61 percent of Quiteños are in favor of prohibiting mining and 19 percent are in favor of allowing it. 

Aftermath of Villavicencio’s Death

Ecuadorian authorities have revealed that six Colombian citizens, some with extensive criminal histories, were apprehended in relation to the assassination of Villavicencio. Although authorities have stated that these individuals entered the country with the intention of joining criminal organizations, and that their allegiance to such groups has been confirmed, no specific organization has thus far been blamed for the assassination. On August 14, at the invitation of President Lasso, a delegation from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrived in Quito and engaged in discussions with local authorities to establish the terms of international cooperation. This marks the fourth instance since 2018 that Ecuador has reached out to the agency for assistance. 

Regardless of the involvement of any specific gang, suspicions of the government’s role in Villavicencio’s killing have begun to take hold. Verónica Sarauz, the slain candidate’s widow, described the assassination as “a state crime” on August 12, adding that “the state is directly responsible for the murder of my husband…and must provide many answers about everything that happened, because his security did not do their job and I do not want to think that they sold out my husband to be murdered in such an awful way.” 

Various security experts interviewed by Ecuadorian media affirmed that there was negligence in Villavicencio’s security. The candidate’s car was not bulletproof, with police admitting that his armored vehicle was on its way from Guayaquil. Videos also show that there was no security on the side of Villavicencio’s car from which the shots were fired, and none of the police officers protecting Villavicencio got in the car with him. Furthermore, Villavicencio’s security detail arranged for him to leave through the main door of the building that had hosted the event, rather than through the parking lot where several other participants exited, including National Assembly candidate Patricio Carrillo, a retired police officer. 

Amanda Mattingly, head of ACM Global Intelligence, an international risk consulting firm, said “Villavicencio built his campaign on an anti-corruption, anti-narco platform, and it seems he was targeted by those criminal organizations operating in Ecuador and with the complicity of the state.”

On August 15, Édison Carrillo, a legislative candidate affiliated with Bolívar Armijos’ Amigo movement, logged a formal complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor General against President Guillermo Lasso, the Minister of the Interior, and the Police chief for the crime of willful omission, a form of negligence.

Villavicencio’s Replacement

On August 12, Fernando Villavicecino’s Ecuador Construye movement tapped his vice presidential candidate, Andrea González, as its new presidential candidate. However, article 108 of Ecuador’s Democracy Code does not allow candidates to renounce their post once their candidacies have been registered and certified. Villavicencio’s widow, who disagreed with the party’s decision, pointed this out when she described the move as “arbitrary.”

Due to concerns that electoral authorities might disqualify González’s presidential candidacy, the party changed course the next day and announced that the replacement would be Christian Zurita, an investigative journalist and a close friend of the deceased candidate. Zurita, like the other candidates before him, still has to be approved by electoral authorities. Since Zurita’s announcement occurred hours before the presidential debate, he was not able to participate. The debate included an empty podium representing Villavicencio’s candidacy.

On August 15, an hour before the 48-hour deadline parties were given to object to Zurita’s candidacy, Luisa González’s Revolución Ciudadana (RC) party formally did so. They claimed that Zurita was officially affiliated to an unspecified political organization, which was later revealed to be RETO, and not to the Construye movement. The law establishes that a candidate must have renounced any prior party affiliation at least 90 days before their registration with a new party; this is to avoid the frequent practice of last minute party hopping and to strengthen parties and political organizations.

The CNE reviewed the RC’s objection and ruled in favor of Zurita on the night of August 16. They have nullified the candidate’s affiliation with RETO on the basis that the signature on the affiliation paperwork does not match his own, allowing Zurita to officially campaign. However, both parties retain the right to appeal this decision before the Electoral Dispute Tribunal (TCE), meaning that Zurita’s candidacy will only be finalized if the body receives no further objections. If Zurita’s candidacy is formally confirmed after the elections, any votes cast for Villavicencio —whose name will remain on the ballots which have already been printed— will be attributed to Zurita.

Zurita has said he will campaign on a platform based on security and the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking. Zurita has also publicly disclosed accusations made by Villavicencio, in which he claimed that five former legislators were plotting to assassinate him. One of the accused immediately responded on Twitter, saying that it was the other way around and that Villavicencio had threatened him. The four others denied any links with his death and stated that Villavicencio’s complaint did not follow the proper process, adding that their public disagreements with the slain candidate were political, not personal. 

In addition to Zurita’s accusations, the candidate has brought to light a complaint that Villavicencio purportedly planned to file. This complaint alleges that Telconet, a technology company linked to Jan Topic’s family, entered into a $30 million contract with the city of Guayaquil for non-functional security cameras, which the city continues to pay for. Telconet has responded by saying that they have not yet received any payment, despite complying “in excess” with the contract and continuing to provide services that have led to the “resolution” of “a very high number of crimes.”

Security: Continued Political Violence and a Gang Protest

Fernando Villavicencio’s assassination has not stopped political violence. Just one day after his death, on August 10, Estefany Puente, a legislative candidate for the Los Ríos province, was injured in an apparent assassination attempt.

Four days later, Pedro Briones, an RC party organizer and local party leader in the rural area of San Mateo de Esmeraldas, was shot dead in front of his home by men on a motorcycle. The killing is under investigation and no arrests have yet been made. This marks the third assassination of a politician in one month.

Ecuadorian authorities also decided to transfer Adolfo Macías (alias “Fito”), leader of the Los Choneros gang, from the Regional del Guayas jail to the La Roca maximum security prison. Despite having threatened Villavicencio, Fito has not been formally accused of involvement in the candidate’s assassination. Fito’s transfer required close to 3600 police officers and soldiers. This action prompted a response from several inmates within the Regional del Guayas jail, who staged a protest on the facility’s roof, displaying signs that read “we want Fito back.” One hundred and fifty sympathizers joined the protest by blocking a Guayaquil road with motorcycles.

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