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In Ecuador, an Assassination Brings a Turning Point

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On Aug. 9, Genevieve Glatsky, a reporter for the Andes bureau of The New York Times, received an alarming text message: A presidential candidate in Ecuador had been shot and killed on the campaign trail.

The text, sent by Julie Turkewitz, the Andes bureau chief, led Ms. Glatsky on a quest to understand the events that resulted in the country’s latest act of political violence. The candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, was an outspoken critic of the ties between drug trafficking money and Ecuador’s political establishment.

“He was known for being a muckraker and someone who spoke truth to power,” Ms. Glatsky said in an interview. And his views made him a target.

Here, Ms. Glatsky, who is based in Bogotá, Colombia, shares her thoughts on the first round of Ecuador’s election, held Sunday, and why the assassination is a tragic turning point for the country. This interview has been edited.

Who was Fernando Villavicencio?

Villavicencio was a journalist, activist and former union leader for the state oil company. He was known for exposing corruption in Ecuador’s government and had an adversarial relationship with Rafael Correa, who was president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017 and a divisive figure in politics; Villavicencio received death threats after criticizing Correa’s administration and fled to Peru in 2017.

Later that year, he came back to Ecuador. There was an arrest warrant out for him, but he was cleared of those charges. He ran for office in the National Assembly in 2021 and continued to speak openly about corruption, mafias and drug trafficking groups. That earned him a lot of enemies, and people suspect that is what led to his assassination.

He wasn’t considered a top contender based on recent polls, correct?

Right. He was polling in the middle of the eight candidates. Luisa González, a candidate representing Correísmo, a political movement made up of Correa supporters, was leading the polls. It was expected that the assassination would negatively affect González in the polls. (Because of Villavicencio’s criticism of Correa, some Ecuadoreans blamed Correa for his death even though there’s no evidence of that.) But that didn’t end up happening. Correísmo has a strong base of support and González still came out as the top candidate with more than 33 percent of the vote.

After Villavicencio died, he was replaced on the ballot by a friend of his, Christian Zurita, another journalist. He came in third with 16 percent of the vote.

I’m surprised the election wasn’t delayed.

The reason the election was called in the first place was that President Guillermo Lasso was facing impeachment charges. Before the government could impeach him, however, he used this constitutional mechanism called “muerte cruzada,” which means mutually assured death; it calls for new presidential and congressional elections and gives Lasso the authority to rule by decree until those elections happen.

That’s why Ecuador is having this presidential election. It’s going to be a short presidential term, only lasting a year and a half. Then they will hold another election.

The head of the country’s electoral authority said the election couldn’t be moved because of constitutional and legal reasons.

What has the last week been like for you in terms of coverage?

I’m working with José María León Cabrera and Thalíe Ponce, local reporters in Ecuador who have been interviewing people on the ground. I’ve been working from Bogotá, speaking with analysts and looking at the root causes of Ecuador’s recent violence and how drug trafficking infiltrated the country so profoundly.

Polls can be unreliable in Ecuador, so it wasn’t really clear who was going to win the first round of elections. Daniel Noboa, who came in second, was a real surprise; he was polling in the single digits a few weeks ago. He only surged in the polls in the week before the elections.

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What can we expect from the runoff election?

Voters will decide between two candidates in October: González, who represents the party of the socialist former president, and Noboa, who is a relative political newcomer. Before the runoff, González will likely try to find voters outside of Correa supporters. Noboa has the opposite problem. He comes from one of the wealthiest and most well-known families in Ecuador, but as an individual and a politician, most Ecuadoreans don’t really know what he stands for. So he will spend these next few weeks trying to define himself.

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