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Ecuador Detains Six Colombians as Suspects in Killing of Anti-Corruption Presidential Candidate

4 men standing beside white wall

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Colombian nationals have been apprehended as the primary suspects in the assassination of an Ecuadorian presidential candidate known for his anti-corruption stance, according to a police report released on Thursday. This shocking crime has left the nation grappling not only with the loss of a prominent figure but also with the escalating drug-related violence that has plagued the country.

The six men were captured while attempting to evade capture in a residence in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, as detailed in the report, which underwent scrutiny by The Associated Press. The authorities also confiscated a cache of weapons including four shotguns, a 5.56-mm rifle, ammunition, and three grenades, in addition to seizing a vehicle and a motorcycle.

Fernando Villavicencio, aged 59, was an outspoken critic of drug cartels and corruption. His tragic assassination in Quito occurred less than two weeks prior to a special presidential election. While he was not a frontrunner in the race, his murder heightened the sense of crisis surrounding organized crime, a challenge that looms large for Ecuador’s future leader.

Ecuador’s interior minister, Juan Zapata, had earlier confirmed the detention of foreign individuals in connection with the case, refraining from disclosing their nationalities.

Zapata characterized the assassination as a “politically motivated act of terrorism” aimed at undermining the presidential election set for August 20.

The police report refrains from explicitly stating whether the Colombian suspects are believed to be part of a criminal syndicate. Zapata indicated that the detainees were linked to organized crime, though he refrained from providing further specifics.

Villavicencio had previously reported threats from associates of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, one among several international criminal groups operating in Ecuador. His campaign was perceived as a threat by such organizations.

The involvement of Colombian nationals draws parallels to the 2021 killing of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who was fatally shot in his residence. Among the suspects apprehended in connection with that case were 18 former Colombian soldiers.

Social media footage from the rally in Quito seemed to depict Villavicencio leaving the event surrounded by security personnel. The video then captured the candidate entering a white pickup truck just before gunshots rang out, followed by shouts and commotion near the vehicle.

The sequence of events was corroborated by Patricio Zuquilanda, an adviser to Villavicencio’s campaign.

Villavicencio had previously received multiple death threats, three of which were reported to authorities and led to one arrest, according to the adviser.

“The people of Ecuador are in mourning, and our nation is deeply wounded,” lamented Zuquilanda. “Politics should never result in the loss of any member of society.”

Former Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, who is also vying for the presidency, expressed sorrow during a press conference, stating, “We are suffocating, drowning in a sea of tears, and we don’t deserve to live in such a manner.”

In an attempt to cover their escape, the assailants hurled a grenade onto the street, which fortunately did not detonate, President Guillermo Lasso revealed. Subsequently, the police safely neutralized the grenade through a controlled explosion.

One suspect died in custody due to injuries sustained in a firefight, as disclosed by the attorney general’s office. Although the authorities had initially reported the detention of six individuals on Wednesday, no further details were provided until Thursday.

Lasso indicated that the assassination may be linked to organized crime but asserted his determination to proceed with the scheduled August 20 election. He declared a three-day national mourning period and implemented a state of emergency, leading to the deployment of additional military personnel across the nation.

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