Gissella Cecibel Molina doesn’t know if she will lose her right eye, which was injured last week when her colleague and friend, presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated in front of her as they left a political rally in Ecuador’s capital, Quito.
“I was leaving the place with Fernando and, because people were pushing and shoving [to get close to him], I got separated about one to two meters,” Molina, who is running for re-election in the National Assembly, told CNN.
“As he (Villavicencio) approached the car, there was a man with a flag around his neck that said ‘Fernando Villavicencio for President.’ The man ran around the car to the other side, pulled out a gun and started shooting,” she said.
The last thing Molina remembered before passing out was Villavicencio shaking as bullets hit him in the head, she said. “I then felt like something hit me in the face and fell to the floor. When I regained consciousness, I could still hear gunshots and there were many people injured around me,” she added.
The brutal murder of Villavicencio, an outspoken anti-corruption candidate and former investigative journalist, has shaken the country ahead of this Sunday’s crucial presidential and legislative elections. It has also brought international attention to the powerful criminal organizations driving the violence that has plagued Ecuador.
The suspected shooter died in police custody, officials said, while six Colombian nationals were arrested in connection with the killing. The suspects are members of organized criminal groups, said Ecuador’s Interior Minister Juan Zapata, citing preliminary evidence.
Several other politicians have been assassinated this year. On Monday, a left-wing local party official, Pedro Briones, was shot dead in Esmeraldas province, officials said. Last month, Agustin Intriago, the mayor of Ecuador’s sixth largest city Manta, was shot dead alongside a young athlete he was talking with on the street, and in May, candidate-elect Walker Vera was murdered just before he was going to take office in the city of Muisne, Esmeraldas province.
The root of this political violence is the fact that Ecuador is a transit point in the cocaine route from South America to the United States and Europe, Jan Topic, one of several candidates running for president, told CNN. Porous borders, he said, make it easy for transnational drug cartels to operate in the country.
The dire situation is a stark change from a decade ago, when Ecuador was known as a relatively safe country in the region. According to figures by the Ecuadorian National Police, the murder rate in 2016 was 5.8 homicides per 100,000 people. By last year, it had spiked to 25.6, a similar level to that of Colombia and Mexico, countries with a long history of drug cartel violence.
Now, foreign syndicates like Mexican cartels, Brazilian urban gangs, and even Albanian mafia cells are working with local Ecuadorian criminal groups to fuel the ongoing conflict, say analysts. A report published in March by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime said “traffickers from the Balkans and members of Italian crime groups have set up in Ecuador to establish supply lines to European markets.”