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A presidential candidate in Ecuador is shot and killed at a campaign event

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In Ecuador, a presidential candidate has been assassinated. It happened last night as he was leaving a campaign rally in the northern city of Quito. Fifty-nine-year-old Fernando Villavicencio had served as Ecuador's National Assembly and was among the candidates in the presidential election set for later this month. Villavicencio had made strong allegations of links between organized crime and corrupt state officials. Samantha Schmidt joins us now from neighboring Colombia, where she's the Bogota bureau chief for The Washington Post. Hi, Samantha.

SAMANTHA SCHMIDT: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So, first of all, just tell us what happened last night.

SCHMIDT: Yeah. Fernando Villavicencio was walking out of a political rally at a high school in northern Quito last night when he was shot in the head several times as he was surrounded by security guards and getting into a car, which was not armored. He was rushed to a nearby clinic and was pronounced dead. And it quickly stunned this country and shook up the election cycle just days before - less than two weeks before the presidential elections.

MCCAMMON: And as we said, Villavicencio served in Ecuador's National Assembly. What more can you tell me about him?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, he had been in the National Assembly since 2017 until earlier this year when the Assembly was dissolved by the president. He was a former journalist. He had also been an outspoken critic of the former president, Rafael Correa. And he had really spoken out about corruption over the years. And in recent weeks, during his campaign, he had been speaking out fiercely against drug trafficking that has consumed this country. And he had talked a lot about the death threats he had received in reaction to these comments he's made.

MCCAMMON: So what could be a motive for his killing?

SCHMIDT: It's still hard to know. But he had said as recently as last week that he had received multiple death threats from - in less than 48 hours - that claimed to be from a leader or at least someone with ties to a leader of one of the most powerful drug trafficking groups in Ecuador, a local gang known as Los Choneros. It's still unclear, you know, who prompted this, but recently, you know, similar assassinations have taken place, targeting political leaders. You know, in a port city of Manta, the mayor was assassinated late last month. So this is clearly something that is - has been happening too frequently in Ecuador.

MCCAMMON: And just generally - right? - there's been a spike in violent crime in Ecuador. How does that factor in?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, this is a historically peaceful country that has really been ravaged by drug trafficking and gang violence in the last few years. And, you know, this is a country that is between the two largest cocaine-producing countries in the world, Colombia and Peru. And increasingly, Mexican cartels and even Albanian mafias have been working with local gangs and terrorizing cities that had previously never seen these levels of violence. We're talking about record levels of homicide, record levels of cocaine seizures heading to the U.S. and Europe. And this is now clearly spilling over into politics. And late last night, the president, President Guillermo Lasso, described this as a political crime. And it is clearly affecting democracy in the country. Multiple other candidates have announced that they're, at least for now, suspending their campaigns.

MCCAMMON: Quickly, the election is just about 10 days away. What might this mean for the election?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, last night they announced that the elections will still go on, but there will be a fierce presence of the armed forces throughout the country trying to maintain order. The president has announced a 60-day state of emergency. So this is going to be a very tense election cycle in the next 10 days.

MCCAMMON: Washington Post Bogota bureau chief Samantha Schmidt, thanks so much.

SCHMIDT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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