Ecuador is reeling from the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who was shot dead Wednesday after a campaign rally in the capital Quito less than two weeks before the August 20 general election. Villavicencio was running on a platform opposing corruption and organized crime. Authorities have arrested six Colombian nationals and say they are members of a drug trafficking group, but many questions remain about who was behind the murder. “We see that there are clear links between the current government and these mafia organizations,” says vice-presidential candidate Andrés Arauz, who is running mate to Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution Movement. “We need to take care of our democracy. We are really in a moment of great despair in Ecuador.” Arauz ran for president in 2021 and previously served as director of Ecuador’s central bank and a minister in former leftist President Rafael Correa’s government.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.
We end today’s show in Ecuador to look at last week’s assassination of presidential hopeful Fernando Villavicencio. He was shot dead at a campaign rally on Wednesday in Quito. He was shot in the head three times. He was running on a platform opposing corruption and organized crime. His death came just 10 days before Ecuador’s general election, which is scheduled to proceed on Sunday as planned.
Authorities in Ecuador have arrested six people in connection with the murder. One suspect was killed. Officials said all of the suspects in custody are Colombian and alleged members of a drug trafficking group.
Over the weekend, Villavicencio’s party, the Build Ecuador Movement, tapped journalist Christian Zurita to replace him as its presidential candidate, reversing an earlier decision to go with Villavicencio’s running mate, Andrea González, because they were concerned that since she was on as VP candidate, she might be disqualified in running for president. Christian Zurita spoke in Quito Sunday.
CHRISTIAN ZURITA: [translated] Fernando’s ideas and our government plan are totally intact, and we are going to fulfill them. Together with him, we created this anti-terrorism plan, this anti-mafia plan to protect Ecuador.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday night, presidential candidates took part in a debate, where they vowed to address violence and security issues. An empty podium stood in Villavicencio’s place. They observed a moment of silence. This is presidential front-runner Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution Movement.
LUISA GONZÁLEZ: [translated] We already did it once. We’ll return security on the streets, so they don’t kill us, with a firm hand against crime.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Ecuador’s presidential front-runner, Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution Movement.
We go now to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where we’re joined by her running mate, the economist, former presidential candidate Andrés Arauz. He served as director of Ecuador’s central bank, then minister of knowledge and human talent under former President Rafael Correa. You can go to democracynow.org to see our interviews with President Correa when he was president. Our guest is now joining us from Quito.
Thanks so much for being with us. Can you start off by responding to the assassination of Villavicencio?
ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Thank you, Amy. Good morning.
Yes, we are extremely concerned about the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio. This is a direct attack on Ecuador’s democracy. It cannot remain in impunity. We, unfortunately, are extremely — we suspect that there is a direct link between the current government. There is wide enough evidence, ample evidence, that shows that there have been clear omissions and responsibilities in the security team directed by the national police that was supposed to protect him. There is even evidence of negligence in this case. And it is extremely worrisome, because it is an attack on democracy, and it is an attack on all of us, all Ecuadorians.
We are precisely in this election — it’s a snap election — because of Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso’s links to narcotrafficking organizations, the famous León de Troya report that showed that he had links to the narcotrafficking mafias even in the early stages of his government, and that, unfortunately, for the first time in Ecuador, have led this country into being completely polluted with narcotrafficking organizations in the highest levels of government.
AMY GOODMAN: A week before his murder, the slain presidential candidate had accused Adolfo “Fito” Macías of threatening him and his campaign team. He is in prison. And this weekend, authorities went to the prison and moved him to a high-security prison. Can you talk about the significance of this?
ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Yes. It’s a move that has been widely expected and been something that Ecuadorian society has been pressuring for for a long time. But Guillermo Lasso’s government had been, you know, quite reticent from doing that because of suspected links with this organization, with this criminal organization. Just a couple of weeks ago, after the assassination of the mayor of Manta, one of the biggest cities in Ecuador, Fito, precisely this character, you know, was giving a press conference from within the jail, from within prison, escorted by a police intelligence officer. So, it really is worrisome. We see that there are clear links between the current government and these mafia organizations. The U.S. ambassador to Ecuador, in December of 2021, accused of the Ecuadorian police being filled with narco generals. And unfortunately, our Prosecutor’s Office in the Ecuadorian government has not gone forward with the investigations since then.
We also think that the government has prime responsibility in this murder because of specific statements from Villavicencio’s widow, from his sister and from now his former political mate from his political party, specifically Captain Edwin Ortega, a former military officer, who has said that characters, like María Paula Romo, have close links to the intelligence establishment in Ecuador and are now trying to persecute him for disagreeing in the replacement of Fernando Villavicencio.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Verónica Sarauz, the widow of the assassinated presidential candidate, Villavicencio, speaking over the weekend.
VERÓNICA SARAUZ: [translated] They did not protect him as they should have protected him. The state was in charge of Fernando’s security. The state is directly responsible for the murder of my husband, Fernando Villavicencio. The state still has to give many answers about everything that happened. His personal guards did not do their job. I do not want to think that they sold my husband to be murdered in this infamous way.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrés Arauz, you’re making a very significant accusation, talking about the president, President Lasso, being connected to narcotraffickers. I wanted to ask you if you could further elaborate on that and also talk about President Lasso recently securing over 24 million gun cartridges, now declaring a state of emergency, announcing immediate mobilization of the Armed Forces. Do you think these measures will be sufficient to address the root causes of security and violence in Ecuador, something you’re connecting him directly to?
ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Yeah, Lasso has been completely negligent in terms of the security policy in Ecuador. He is always reacting to problems on the ground. He basically dismantled the security ministry, the coordination that used to exist between the police and the military intelligence with the civilian intelligence that we have in the country. Unfortunately, Lasso has been linked by the police intelligence to mafia organizations, including through his brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, who is the current president of Banco Guayaquil, via Rubén Cherres. You see, in Ecuador, we have had recently these really amazingly incredible murders — for example, the murder of Rubén Cherres. Rubén Cherres was a person linked to Lasso’s brother-in-law, also linked to the Albanian mafia, a drug trafficking organization. And this person was a key witness in Lasso’s impeachment process. He was found assassinated only a few blocks away from Lasso’s beach home in Santa Elena, a province in Ecuador. And this has not been cleared so far. People in the establishment media and in the government have stopped talking about Rubén Cherres.
And we think that this type of behavior is similar to what happened now with Fernando Villavicencio. It is extremely worrisome, I insist. We are in these snap elections precisely because Lasso was linked to narcotrafficking organizations and there was wide opposition in the parliament against his government and his policies. And he decided to basically close parliament and call for these snap elections. So, we’re in this process precisely because of his links with the narcotrafficking organizations.
Now, we think that we need an investigation. We need immediate support from all around the world. We need the international community put their eyes on what’s happening in Ecuador. We know Lasso tried to postpone or suspend the elections after the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio. And we need to take care of our democracy. Now, we are really in a moment of great despair in Ecuador, and we’ve had a crisis very recently because of this assassination. And we need to go forward with these elections to seek, finally, truth, to seek reconciliation, to seek justice in Ecuador.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about speaking out so directly against the president? And also, what will happen to him after he leaves the presidency? Do you think he should be charged, that he should be put on trial?
ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Of course I am concerned. This is not the first time I have been outspoken about Gulliermo Lasso. I was one of the prime people who accused him of having offshore resources hidden in tax havens and in, you know, trusts. And then, finally, the Pandora Papers came out, and they showed that I was right about these accusations. I was — also, earlier this year, I accused Lasso directly of creating an offshore bank in Panama for money laundering purposes, to hide money from trafficking organizations and also from tax evasion. I was threatened by President Lasso himself, saying that he would sue me for defamation and other causes. And I said, “Bring it on.” That way, I could prove that I was right. He hasn’t done it since, but he has also gone to Colombia to pressure the Colombian prosecutor general to accuse me of unfounded links. I then accused the attorney general, the prosecutor general of Colombia for that.
So, I have been in this place before, and I am sure of what I’m doing. Just like the Pandora Papers proved me right, I know that in this case the links are very serious. And it is sufficient for anybody interested in what’s going on in Ecuador to ask the question: Who killed Rubén Cherres? And we will have clear answers that will help us respond who killed Fernando Villavicencio.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrés Arauz, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Ecuadorian politician, economist, running for vice president of Ecuador along with presidential candidate Luisa González. She’s the only woman running for president in the 2023 Ecuador election. In 2021, Arauz ran for president and lost to Gulliermo Lasso. Go to democracynow.org in Spanish for our Spanish interview that we’ll conduct just after this show.
Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.