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Ecuador reels after leading presidential candidate is assassinated

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ecuador is under a state of emergency today following the assassination on Wednesday of leading presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. The former investigative journalist had been ruffling feathers with his firebrand attacks on the corruption and drug trafficking that has been besieging Ecuador. The elections are due to be held in just over a week. Simeon Tegel reports from neighboring Peru. And a warning - this piece starts with the sound of gunfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SIMEON TEGEL, BYLINE: This was the moment that hitmen opened fire on Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio as he left a campaign rally in the capital Quito, killing him instantly.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS FIRING)

TEGEL: Members of his security detail fought back. And the alleged assassin, as well as several bystanders and police officers, were hurt in the shootout. The gunman later died from his injuries in police custody.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GUILLERMO LASSO: (Speaking Spanish).

TEGEL: President Guillermo Lasso announced a 60-day national state of emergency and said he would be sending the military into the streets to crack down on the cocaine gangs, who in recent years have unleashed bloodshed on this once-peaceful South American nation, including deadly prison riots and an epidemic of gangland killings. Ecuador grows minimal amounts of cocaine but is sandwiched between the two largest producers, Colombia and Peru. It has become a major transit hub for the drug on its way to the United States. Increasingly, cartels from Mexico have been building alliances with Ecuadorian gangs and bringing their uber-violent tactics to the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDO VILLAVICENCIO: (Speaking Spanish).

TEGEL: Villavicencio, who, according to polls, had a chance of finishing second and heading to a runoff vote, had repeatedly warned of the death threats he was receiving on the campaign trail, including from the Sinaloa cartel, one of Mexico's bloodiest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

F VILLAVICENCIO: (Speaking Spanish).

TEGEL: But, as he said at this recent rally, he refused to wear a bulletproof vest or tone down his outspoken attacks on the drug traffickers and corrupt officials who, he said, have turned Ecuador into a narco-state. The assassination of the 59-year-old former investigative journalist has left Ecuador in a state of shock. It also marks a watershed in a country which, despite years of vicious political infighting and even persecution of opponents, has been almost entirely free of political violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDRA VILLAVICENCIO: (Speaking Spanish).

TEGEL: Villavicencio's sister, Alexandra, told journalists that she blames the government for her brother's death and what she calls a plot to silence him. The big question is whether Villavicencio's murder turbo-charges a new push in Ecuador to confront the cocaine trade or whether it leaves the drug mafias stronger than ever. For NPR News, this is Simeon Tegel in Lima, Peru.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z AND KANYE WEST SONG, "NO CHURCH IN THE WILD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Simeon Tegel