The assassination of a presidential candidate in Ecuador, just 11 days ahead of voting, shows that even its top politicians are not safe from organised gangs that have, in recent years, turned this South American nation into a hub of narco-trafficking. Fernando Villavicencio, a former journalist and lawmaker, was one of the most outspoken critics of what he called “narco-politics”. During the election campaign, he had promised measures to tackle gang violence such as building a maximum-security prison in the Amazon for gang leaders, enhancing anti-drug cooperation with the U.S., cracking down on cocaine exports from Ecuador and rooting out corruption in the government, police and judiciary. He rose to fame during the presidency of leftist leader Rafael Correa. In 2014, when Mr. Correa, now in exile, was the President, Villavicencio had to flee fearing a government crackdown; he briefly sought asylum in Peru. He returned after Mr. Correa’s presidency ended and was elected to the National Assembly where he made a name for himself as an enemy of drug cartels. It is this relentless fight against organised crime that seemed to have cost him his life. Officials say criminal gangs are behind his murder, and police have arrested six Colombian nationals who they say have ties with a drug trafficking cartel.
Ecuador, a relatively peaceful country of 18 million people until 2017-18, is now one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America. Situated between Colombia and Peru, both major producers of cocaine, it has seen a spurt in violent crimes with drug cartels shifting their focus to the country in order to get drugs shipped to North America and Europe. Murders have quadrupled since 2019, with 4,800 recorded last year. Officials say two international crime organisations, a Mexican cartel and a Balkan one (known as the Albanian mafia), have recruited local gangs to build drug networks, and their fight to take control of the supply routes has led to rising gang violence. The gangs have turned prisons into operating bases and ports into fighting zones, while extortion networks flourish across the country. The government of President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative who is facing serious allegations of corruption, has remained largely helpless when cartels built a parallel system. It is this impunity that led to the assassination of Villavicencio. If Ecuador’s politicians and state institutions continue to let criminal gangs have their way, it is only a matter of time before the country becomes a failed state. Investigators have to find out how and why Villavicencio’s security broke down, and bring the perpetrators to justice. But a bigger message of the murder is that Ecuador should start an uncompromising war against organised crimes. Other countries in the Americas should offer a helping hand to Quito in this battle.