Assassinated Ecuador candidate Villavicencio mourned by family, public

QUITO, Aug 11 (Reuters) – Assassinated Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was honored on Friday at a funeral mass and public memorial in Quito, as a legislative candidate reported an armed attack during which she was lightly injured.

Villavicencio, a former lawmaker and crusading anti-corruption journalist, was gunned down as he left a campaign event on Wednesday evening, less than two weeks before the election.

Amid a tide of rising violence and crime in the South American country, the murder has led some Ecuadoreans to weigh whether they will vote on Aug. 20 and has made an unsettled election even harder to forecast.

Villavicencio’s family remembered him at a mass at a cemetery chapel in Quito, accompanied by heavily-armed police.

“My son left a legacy of struggle, of transparency, of sacrifice,” Villavicencio’s mother, Gloria Valencia, told attendees. “All this struggle and all that he did – I hope it will not be merchandise used by others.”

The coffin was loaded into a hearse to chants of “Fernando lives forever!” and moved to the city’s events center, where supporters gathered to place flowers and shrouds – many featuring the Ecuadorean flag – on the casket.

Meanwhile, legislative candidate Estefany Puente, who is running for a seat in the province of Los Rios, told Reuters on Friday she had been attacked by a gunman and suffered light injuries.

Puente, whose party has paused campaigning out of respect for Villavicencio, said a man approached her car on Thursday in the city of Quevedo and shot at it.

She drove several blocks to escape, she said by phone, and had not received previous threats.

“I have light injuries on my body,” Puente said. “It’s a way to repress us, to quiet us, to perhaps make us afraid. But I’m not scared, this motivates me to continue.”

Six suspects – all Colombians who police have said belong to criminal groups – were charged with Villavicencio’s murder and were remanded in custody for 30 days by a judge late on Thursday, the attorney general’s office said on X, the platform previously known as Twitter.

According to charging documents uploaded to the justice system’s website, all six were also charged with illicit trafficking of substances.

Two of the men had been previously charged, on July 5, with reception of stolen goods, according to documents on the website.

All the men had previous criminal records in Ecuador and Colombia, an Ecuadorean police spokesperson said.

A search of the public records database run by the Colombian police listed three of the men as having no criminal record, while the remaining three were listed as “currently not required by any judicial authority.”

One other suspect in the crime died from wounds sustained in a shootout with authorities on Wednesday.

‘WHO HIRED THEM?’

As a labor organizer and then a journalist, Villavicencio had made many enemies and had long been exposed to threats due to his scathing and meticulously documented corruption accusations targeting some of the biggest names in Ecuador’s political and financial establishment.

“He was aware that the threats against him were real,” Villavicencio’s wife Veronica Sarauz told Colombia’s Caracol Radio.

“We know they are the material authors,” she said of the six charged men. “But we need to know who the intellectual authors are. Who hired them?”

The government has said it is investigating who is behind the murder and has promised heightened security nationwide to ensure peaceful elections.

Villavicencio died from cranial trauma, hemorrhage and cerebral laceration caused by a bullet, an autopsy quoted in the charging documents said. He also suffered a cranial fracture.

The state had failed to protect him from the threats against him, said Patricia Aguilera, an assembly candidate for a rural area of Quito.

“They killed him because they feared an honest man assuming power and saying the truth about all the corruption in this country,” she said earlier on Friday outside a wake held by Villavicencio’s family.

Violence in Ecuador has surged in recent years, especially in cities along drug-trafficking routes like Guayaquil and Esmeraldas where citizens say they live in fear.

President Guillermo Lasso, who called early elections to avoid an impeachment vote, has been criticized for failing to tamp down the violence.

His government blames bloodshed on the streets and in prisons on criminal infighting to control the drug trafficking routes used by Mexican cartels, the Albanian mafia and others.

Villavicencio, a 59-year-old father, had 7.5% support in polls, placing him fifth out of eight candidates. Beyond security, employment and migration are major issues for voters.

Candidates will participate in a mandatory televised debate on Sunday. Villavicencio’s party had asked for the debate to be postponed, but the electoral authority declined.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Additional reporting by Oliver Griffin and Nelson Bocanegra in Bogota; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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