It was a moment that plunged the Ecuadorian presidential race into chaos. As anticorruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio ducked into a vehicle at the end of a campaign rally, gunfire ripped through the crowd, killing him mere days before the first round of voting.
Now, as Ecuador prepares for the pivotal second round on Sunday — a run-off vote that will decide the country’s next president — a fresh volley of bloodshed has once again rattled the race.
On October 6, rumours began to spread online that six of the suspects arrested in Villavicencio’s assassination had themselves been murdered behind bars.
“Could it not be that the government of [Ecuadorian President] Guillermo Lasso and the Ecuador Police want to hide the truth of these events?” SOS Prisons Ecuador, a human rights nonprofit, posted on the social media platform X.
Hours later, the news was confirmed. Ecuador’s corrections agency, the National Service for Attention to Persons Deprived of Liberty, or SNAI, acknowledged the suspects’ deaths, which took place in the infamous Litoral Penitentiary, known for its violence.
“All the [imprisoned individuals] were Colombian nationals and were charged with the assassination of ex-presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio,” SNAI said in its press release.
The following day, another suspect in the Villavicencio shooting was found dead in El Inca prison in northern Quito. Of the group of suspects under investigation for the assassination, only six remain alive.
The precise circumstances of the killings remain unknown. But experts and sources close to the case warned the suspects’ deaths could have wide-ranging implications for the future of politics in Ecuador.
“Five percent of voters are highly unpredictable,” pollster Omar Maluk told Al Jazeera. “If anything happens, they change their minds.”
A tight election
Maluk believes the fallout from the seven killings could weigh heavily on Sunday’s vote. The two candidates in the run-off election are in a dead heat: left-wing candidate Luisa Gonzalez and centrist business scion Daniel Noboa.
Noboa began the month with a slight lead over Gonzalez, Maluk explained, but the latter rebounded after the final presidential debate aired earlier this month.
Now, Maluk sees the dynamics changing once more. “Noboa is rising, while Gonzalez slowly declines,” he said. “It’s still a technical draw.”
But Gonzalez’s political mentor, former President Rafael Correa, has come under scrutiny since Villavicencio’s assassination on August 9.
A former journalist and politician, Villavicencio was a longtime critic of Correa, who governed from 2007 to 2017. He launched complaints against members of Correa’s government, and Correa filed a successful lawsuit against him, alleging defamation.
Journalist Christian Zurita — who replaced Villavicencio after his death as the presidential candidate for the Movimiento Construye party — believes the August assassination may be linked to that history of tension with Correa’s political movement.
He cited what he said was an unreleased witness testimony in interviews with Al Jazeera and media outlets in Ecuador, including the newspaper El Universo.
“This man said that the crime is connected to the government of former president Rafael Correa,” Zurita told Al Jazeera. No evidence has been presented publicly to substantiate this allegation. The witness gave his testimony to the public authorities last Sunday, but his identity remains a secret.
Correa, meanwhile, issued a forceful rejection of the accusation on social media, calling it an attempt to derail Gonzalez’s campaign.
“They made him accuse us on October 10, five days before the elections,” Correa said of the alleged witness. “Anything to impede our victory.”
Villavicencio had said he received death threats from cartels in the lead-up to his assassination. Crime has become a leading issue in the upcoming presidential run-off, with candidates wearing bulletproof vests to campaign stops.
A blow to the investigation
In the wake of the seven suspects’ deaths, Zurita has also been critical of public authorities under the government of outgoing President Lasso.
“The state is ultimately responsible for the life and death of these people. The secretary of prisons should have looked after their security,” Zurita told Al Jazeera.
After the deadly attacks on the Villavicencio suspects, Lasso fired the director of Ecuador’s prison agency and removed leaders in the national police as well. He also transferred the remaining six suspects from the facilities where they were being held.
Ecuador’s public prosecutor also opened an investigation into the prison agency SNAI for not complying with an order to transfer the suspects to safer facilities.
But the suspects’ deaths have shaken public faith in whether justice can be served in the Villavicencio case.
The situation “represents a serious problem”, lawyer Ricardo Vanegas told Al Jazeera. The suspects “were the only ones who knew who the instigators were”.
Vanegas represents Villavicencio’s adopted daughter Cristina Villavicencio. He has been vocal about his belief that the investigation has been riddled with irregularities.
Evidence has gone missing, Vanegas has alleged, including Villavicencio’s mobile phone, which he said was last seen in a health care centre after the shooting.
“Fernando said in radio and TV programmes that he had received threats from criminal groups and politicians,” Vanegas said. “The mobile is therefore instrumental to identify who these people are, but it has not been delivered yet.”
“There have been many things that don’t add up since the beginning of the investigation,” said Daniel Ponton, a professor of security and defence at Ecuador’s National Institute for Higher Studies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States is currently assisting in the case.
As for Zurita, he speculated that the seven suspects were killed to maintain their silence, in case they took a plea deal.
“In a legal trial, they could have likely reached an agreement to reduce their conviction,” he alleged. “They were murdered for this reason.”