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Ecuador presidential candidate death is the latest attack in nation seeing crime rise

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ecuador is still in a state of emergency after the assassination of a leading presidential candidate. Fernando Villavicencio was shot in the head multiple times outside a campaign event on Wednesday. He was a vocal critic of organized crime and government corruption, and his death is the latest in a string of violent incidents in a country that used to have a peaceful reputation in the region. Joining me now to explain how Ecuador reached this shocking moment is Will Freeman. He's a Latin America studies fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. Will, welcome.

WILL FREEMAN: Thanks, Juana.

SUMMERS: I just want to start off by asking you what went through your mind when you first heard about Fernando Villavicencio's assassination.

FREEMAN: It just struck me as so tragic. I was in Ecuador in April and May. You already feel when you're there that life has been turned on its head by this huge surge in crime since 2020. But what you're seeing now is it's not concentrated to one part of the country. No one is safe, not even a candidate running for president. And, you know, I think a growing number of Ecuadorians feel almost abandoned by their own state institutions, left to fend for themselves.

SUMMERS: You mentioned a growing surge in crime since around 2020. What's the cause of that? Why is that happening?

FREEMAN: Yeah, well, I mean, it's a story that's been building for a while. People look at homicide rates shooting up since 2020, and sometimes they assume that that's when the crisis began. I'd argue that it began years earlier. Now, there are several features of Ecuador that make it an ideal country for drug trafficking. And lately we've seen the amounts of cocaine trafficked through the country just going through the roof. So one is that it's sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, two of the world's largest coca producers. Ecuador also has a dollarized economy. That's very attractive for crime groups. It allows them to launder money easily. And Ecuador also had just had a devastating experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. And with poverty and hunger spreading, it created a big pool of recruits for organized crime.

But on the other side, it's also - you know, this crisis is a, you know, accumulation of serious political blunders by president after president. The armed forces and police and judiciary all became more susceptible to corruption, to co-optation by organized crime. And unfortunately, what you see today is polarization between the left and right, which is preventing Ecuadorian politicians from coming together and finding a solution to this terrible crisis.

SUMMERS: Stepping back a bit here, can you help us get a sense of the broader regional consequences of Ecuador becoming more destabilized?

FREEMAN: Well, one that we're seeing throughout the region is even, you know, arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border, the fact that Ecuadorians this year have become the second largest group by nationality to cross Panama's Darien Gap in their path towards migrating towards the United States. So you're seeing, really, an outflow of migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, which we haven't seen from Ecuador in 20 years. So that's one major consequence. Another is that as Ecuador has become this hub for cocaine trafficking by criminal groups from as far away as Mexico - there are even Albanian criminal groups involved - it's really given organized crime in Latin America a new hub to operate from, a new hotspot. I think we're going to be seeing all sorts of reverberations across the region.

SUMMERS: Election Day is still scheduled for August 20. What will you be watching for us that day approaches?

FREEMAN: Well, first, I'll be watching just in the short term for how this investigation advances. If we really get new information, that could potentially impact the election itself. Noticias Caracol, a Colombian news station, has reported that six of the suspects taken into custody in the killing of Villavicencio had cellphones on them which had - and those phones had recorded three calls to Ecuadorian politicians. Now, we don't know yet the name of those politicians. This information has just been reported, not verified. But I think we need to really get to the bottom of whether there's potentially a political story behind this assassination.

To some extent, all the candidates will be scrambling to pick up the votes that Villavicencio would have had. And I think all of them will be trying to, you know, send a strong message on organized crime, show that they're the candidate that's best positioned to tackle impunity and resolve whatever happened in this terrifying incident.

SUMMERS: That was Will Freeman. He's a Latin America studies fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. Will, thank you.

FREEMAN: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tyler Bartlam
Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.