On August 9, 2023, Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was ambushed and killed following a campaign rally in Quito.
The Alausí-born journalist-turned-assemblyman had long been a proponent of social and governmental reform, framing his election bid as a crusade against the drug traffickers, corrupt corporate interests and “political mafia” besetting his country. His assassination has, in turn, sparked concerns and discussion over the current state of democracy in Ecuador.
Lowell Gustafson, PhD, is an expert on Latin American affairs and a professor of political science in Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. From his perspective, Villavicencio’s murder stands as the latest chapter in a saga of malfeasance, intimidation and violence in the region.
“This is not new in Latin American political history,” said Gustafson. “The role of private armies funded by economic sectors beyond state control has been an issue often for the national period. It has taken a stark turn with the riches pouring in from illegal drugs.”
In Ecuador, “narco-capitalism” has emerged as a particularly corrosive force.
According to Gustafson, Albanian, Mexican and South American criminal outfits established themselves within the nation by the early 2010s, drawn by the country’s vast network of ports and its proximity to coca-rich Colombia and Peru. “That became a problem for stability in 2016, when the government of Colombia signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [or FARC],” he stated. “FARC had long controlled cocaine trafficking routes from southern Colombia to Ecuador’s ports on the Pacific Ocean. With their dominance gone, other cartels began to compete for control.”
Since the opening of this power vacuum, the situation in Ecuador has grown increasingly volatile, with the governmental response ham-fisted at best and faciliatory at worst.
Under the presidential administrations of Rafael Correa, Lenín Moreno and Guillermo Lasso, the cartels succeeded in infiltrating the country’s privatized ports and airports, seizing control of the nation’s prison system and contributing to an ever-growing wave of crime.
“Violence against public officials and by vigilante groups have steadily increased since 2018,” Gustafson said. “With the familiar choice between bribes and cooperation or violence, it is no wonder that cartel influence throughout the Ecuadorian state and military is widely discussed.”
While Gustafson acknowledges the Ecuadorian government’s culpability for this disastrous situation and its escalation, he also cites another factor: the United States’ “war on drugs.”
According to the professor, the longstanding U.S. policy has only served to prop up criminal enterprises south of the border, fueling a market for illicit substances. “After a half-century of the war and over a trillion dollars spent on it, coca cultivation in Colombia in 2020 was at an all-time high,” he shared. “The war on drugs has led to the continued power of illegal drug cartels in many countries, now including Ecuador.”
In Gustafson’s estimation, the recent murder of Villavicencio only brings greater attention to this unfortunate state of affairs—a state of affairs common throughout Latin America.
“With his consistent and outspoken critique of the cartels’ influence in Ecuador, Villavicencio courageously knew he faced the threat of violence,” he concluded. “The assassination of a presidential candidate brings all of this to a higher level within Ecuador, but the likely reason for [his murder] plagues Mexico, El Salvador and other Latin American nations.”
Lowell Gustafson, PhD Professor of Political Science | College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Lowell Gustafson, PhD, is an expert in the politics, political structure and cultural heritage of Latin America.