GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — As the presidential candidate’s armored vehicle pulled up to the park, Otto Sonnenholzner’s security guard told him to wait in the back seat.
August 18, 2023 at 10:36 a.m. EDT
Ecuador’s election on Sunday is set to be unlike any other in its history.
It was already the first election of its kind in the country, a rushed vote called by President Guillermo Lasso after he dissolved Congress to avert his imminent impeachment.
Then, Fernando Villavicencio — a presidential candidate and former member of the National Assembly who had been outspoken about the cartels and corruption consuming his country — was assassinated in the nation’s capital, just 10 days before the election. It was the first time a presidential candidate had been murdered in a country once known as a relatively safe haven in a region that has long struggled with drug violence.
Now the remaining candidates have been left to navigate how to campaign in a changed country — and how to stay alive.
The killing reminded many of presidential assassinations from decades past in some of Ecuador’s more volatile neighbors, countries such as Colombia that have since built up entire government units to protect people facing death threats.
But Ecuador wasn’t prepared for this. There are no rules or protocol for protecting candidates. The government offers police officers for candidates, but it does not provide any armored vehicles.
Candidates like Sonnenholzner, a former broadcaster and vice president who is a leader in the polls, are risking their lives for a chance at a presidency they know could be brief — only the remaining 18 months of Lasso’s term. They are making promises to reclaim control from the cartels, a tall order in a country where corruption runs deep, the gangs run the prisons, and violence is spiraling to levels Ecuadorans find hard to imagine.
Last year, Ecuadoran police recorded 4,824 violent deaths, nearly double the total in 2021, which was already a record. A similar pace has continued this year.
Almost half of this year’s violent deaths have taken place here in Guayas province, home to the capital of Guayaquil, the country’s largest city and main port. Residents have been terrorized by car bombings, kidnappings, prison massacres and extortion. Bodies have been found hanging from a bridge in nearby Durán, a visceral sign of the brutality of the Mexican cartels that have swept into this country, working with local gangs to move cocaine to Europe and to the United States.
This was Sonnenholzner’s hometown, the city where he and his wife raised their three children. The city where he once loved to drive alone, even when he was vice president. Now he couldn’t even roll down the windows of his armored car to greet supporters.
The security guards and armor felt like a barrier between him and his voters. He thought back to the father and son who had asked him for a photo as he was getting off a plane a few days earlier. “Let’s get going quickly before we get shot,” the father said to his son.
If voters saw him as a danger, if they were afraid to even come near him, was it even worth it to go outside?
He decided it was. After a six-minute wait for his security guard’s signal, he walked out of the armored SUV and into the crowd.
A week before Villavicencio’s death, a local government official was gunned down by hit men in Durán, a violent town outside Guayaquil, as he was getting into a taxi. Watching the precision of the hit men in videos of the attack, Sonnenholzner’s chief of security sat him down in his home office for an urgent warning.
“What I saw here is not normal,” the security chief, a former member of Israel’s secret service, told Sonnenholzner. “Something is going to happen.”
Most assassinations of public figures happen when entering or exiting a car, the head of security said. “If something happens, it will happen this way.”
Days later, Villavicencio was stepping into his car after a rally at a high school in northern Quito when a gunman shot him in the head. The bullet sliced through his car, which was not armored. His only personal armored vehicle, which was borrowed from a friend and returning from Guayaquil, arrived minutes after the assassination, according to Patricio Carrillo, a former interior minister and police commander who was part of Villavicencio’s campaign. Villavicencio depended on government-provided security detail because he didn’t have the resources for his own, Carillo said in an interview. He said the attack — and the chaos after — reflected a government failure to protect presidential candidates.
Videos from the attack show some of those on Villavicencio’s police security team dropping to the ground. Other officers fired back and struck the hit man. A military lieutenant colonel, who happened to be in the area for work, rushed toward the gunman and pushed him to the ground, he said in an interview with The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details.
With few other officers offering to help, and with the crowd threatening to harm the gunman, the lieutenant colonel hoisted the wounded shooter into a police car. The officer in the driver’s seat was also injured in the shootout, but he drove more than 15 minutes through rush hour traffic to a police station where medics were waiting. The gunman died shortly after.
The lieutenant colonel, who stayed in the car until reaching the police station, saw one text message pop up on the gunman’s phone: “Ya está?” — “Is it done?” He turned the phone into the authorities.
The man that police identified as the shooter, Jhojan David Castillo Lopez, was a Colombian who was living in Ecuador for some time and was arrested in June on an illegal weapons charge. A judge initially released him but ordered his detention after he skipped a hearing, according to court records. He was supposed to be in court on the day of the assassination.
Prosecutors arrested six other Colombians in connection with the attack, some of whom had also been in Ecuador for at least a month. Four have previously been charged with crimes in Colombia, two with drug trafficking and violent crimes. And all are associated with criminal organizations, authorities said. They have not yet said which groups might be behind the attack.
The day of the killing, Sonnenholzner’s wife, Claudia Salem Barakat, was on a walk, she recalled in an interview. A woman she didn’t know approached her, telling her she should go home. “They just killed Fernando Villavicencio.” She immediately texted her husband, asking him where he was and if he was okay. She urged him to start being more careful.
In Ecuador, a candidate’s security apparatus generally follows a candidate’s instructions. Now, for Sonnenholzner, it’s the other way around. His security chief has taken on a key role in planning campaign activities, insisting the candidate travel only in an armored vehicle and canceling riskier public events. But he still doesn’t wear a bulletproof vest.
“To me it feels like accepting that we as a country are losing, that the criminals are winning, ” Sonnenholzner said. “That’s not the message I want to send.”
Villavicencio is part of a growing list of political officials and candidates assassinated in the past year in Ecuador. The mayor of Manta, a port city, was killed late last month. A candidate for the National Assembly, gunned down a week earlier in Esmeraldas. A mayoral candidate in Puerto López, assassinated in February. Another, in Salinas, killed in January. Less than a week after Villavicencio’s death, a political leader for the leftist party of former president Rafael Correa was also assassinated.
The night of the presidential candidate’s death, Lasso called for a nationwide state of emergency. He has mobilized around 100,000 police and military troops to maintain order ahead of the elections, amid fears the violence could escalate.
Few troops could be seen in Guayaquil on Tuesday. But days earlier, authorities blocked off several streets around the site of a presidential debate. “I felt like I was entering a war zone,” Sonnenholzner said.
Still, his security chief said he was appalled at the event’s emergency preparations.
“If I wanted to kill someone,” the Israeli security chief said, “it would have been very easy.”
Standing before a crowd of about 200 college students and young people sitting on plastic lawn chairs in Guayaquil, Sonnenholzner promised, above all, to bring security back to Ecuador.
He vowed to throw his support behind the police: “The delinquent who dares to risk his life and threaten us with a weapon will receive a corresponding shot, without hesitation,” Sonnenholzner said.
A girl in a blue cropped top stood up and introduced herself as Emily, a student at Guayaquil University.
“Right now we’re going through a really hard crisis,” she said. “These days, even carrying our student IDs is a danger.” She spoke about the men who extort students by charging them a fee in exchange for their safety. “What is your proposal for eradicating this once and for all?”
Sonnenholzner promised to establish a new anti-extortion unit. “We won’t have any fear toward the people who want to threaten us in that way,” he said.
Ever since the assassination, the presidential campaign has become focused on solving the crisis of organized crime in the country. Many of the candidates, including Sonnenholzner, have promised an iron-first approach to controlling the prisons and ramping up law enforcement to combat drug trafficking.
Jan Topic, a millionaire businessman, has touted his military experience as a sniper and soldier in the French Foreign Legion. He has been called the “Ecuadoran Rambo” and his messages sometimes echo those of controversial Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who has used mass incarceration to crack down on organized crime. In an interview with The Washington Post, Topic doubled down on his admiration for Bukele, praising his determination and “clarity” in bringing down the murder rate in El Salvador.
Polls show a recent boost in support for Topic and Sonnenholzner, edging them close behind — or even tied with — the leading candidate, Luisa González, an ally of Correa, the still widely influential former president. At a closing rally in Quito, complete with fireworks and confetti and dancers, González promised to bring back the Ecuador of Correa’s days.
As he left the rally with college students, Sonnenholzner still wasn’t sure how he was going to close his campaign. It felt wrong to throw a party in a plaza when the country was in the midst of a crisis, when at any moment another candidate could become a target. But he would ultimately decide to appear at a large closing event anyway, at a stadium in Guayaquil.
A member of the campaign team in the seat behind him told him about his media appearances planned for the rest of the day. One of them was a TikTok live. The host wanted to cook with him. Sonnenholzner pushed back.
“They’re killing us and we’re cooking?” Sonnenholzner asked.
“But you also have the right to cook,” the campaign leader responded.
Sonnenholzner insisted. “It sends the wrong message,” he said.