Villavicencio, 59, was a conservative and former member of Ecuador's National Assembly. During his tenure, he was a vocal critic of corruption and organized crime. He was assassinated on Wednesday, Aug. 9, while walking to his car from a campaign rally in the capital of Quito.
Nine other people were injured during the assassination, including three police officers and a candidate for the National Assembly. A suspected gunman also died of wounds sustained during a brief exchange of gunfire with the Ecuadorian police.
During his tenure as a legislator and when he was a journalist, Villavicencio had railed relentlessly against graft and corruption. He also pledged to take the fight directly to Ecuador's drug gangs if elected president.
In response to the assassination, Lasso declared a 60-day nationwide state of emergency to bring down the levels of drug-fueled violence in the country. The declaration curtails certain civil liberties such as freedom of movement and assembly.
"The armed forces as of this moment are mobilized throughout the national territory to guarantee the security of citizens, the tranquility of the country and the free and democratic elections of Aug. 20," said Lasso.
Villavicencio's rivals for the presidential election have all suspended their campaigns following the assassination. Lasso, who described the assassination as a "political crime," also declared three days of national mourning and said the Aug. 20 election will proceed as planned.
"We aren't going to hand over power and the democratic institutions to organized crime," said Lasso. "The elections aren't going to be suspended."
The presidential candidates are set to resume campaigning sometime after the national period of mourning.
Authorities claim that the six suspects arrested right after the assassination are Colombians who are part of a drug trafficking criminal organization. A high-ranking police official noted that some of the Colombian suspects already had criminal records in Ecuador and had also committed crimes in Colombia, where the trade in cocaine continues to flourish. (Related: Cocaine-producing giant Colombia seeks to DECRIMINALIZE the drug.)
"They are part of organized crime," said the official. "They are connected to drug trafficking and other crimes."
Ecuadorian authorities are currently pursuing the "intellectual authors" of the assassination.
The involvement of Colombian nationals has drawn comparisons to the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, whose home was invaded by a group including at least 26 Colombians and two Haitian-Americans, killing him and injuring his wife.
Villavicencio's death has also drawn comparisons to the 1989 assassination of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, who had drawn the ire of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar after he campaigned on pledges to extradite drug traffickers to the United States. Escobar's henchmen, in cooperation with corrupt security officials, later assassinated Galan.
Days before his assassination, Villavicencio made multiple references to a criminal organization known as Los Choneros, a drug trafficking organization with origins dating back to the late 1990s in the coastal city of Manta. Los Choneros is regarded as one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Ecuador and is known to work with the extremely powerful Mexican Sinaloa Cartel to traffic cocaine to the United States.
It is still unclear whether Los Choneros was responsible for the assassination. At least one other group known as Los Lobos (The Wolves) has posted a video on Twitter with masked members claiming responsibility for the killing. Another video posted by unmasked Los Lobos members refuted this first statement and claimed that the gang was not involved.
In one of his last interviews, he accused authorities of not doing enough to deal with the recent crime wave gripping Ecuador. Villavicencio even spoke of threats made against him personally by a criminal nicknamed Fito. The man reportedly sent intimidating messages to him.
"If I continue mentioning Fito and Los Choneros, they will break me," he said. But Villavicencio refused to be blackmailed. "Here I am, I am showing my face, I am not afraid of them."
In his last speech, mere minutes before his assassination, Antonio Lopez, Villavicencio's campaign director, recalled the candidate telling his supporters that he was proud to be hated by criminals. Villavicencio then reiterated his promise to go after criminals and said that if elected he would give gangs 90 days to hand over all of their weapons before he goes after them.
"Democracy has been gunned down and the fight against corruption has been mutilated," said Lopez. "His biggest fight was to combat the narcopolitics."
Watch this short clip featuring the moment when Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated.