By David SALAZAR
Two years after a Colombian squad allegedly shot dead the president of Haiti, authorities in Ecuador have accused a group of Colombians of being behind the assassination of a top presidential candidate, pointing to the export of a culture of political hitjobs.
Colombia has a long history of politicians being assassinated by opponents, drug traffickers, or paramilitaries, and even its president, Gustavo Petro, campaigned before his election from behind a wall of bulletproof shields.
After the shock assassination of Ecuador journalist and anti-corruption crusader Fernando Villavicencio on Wednesday, authorities released pictures of six Columbian suspects, one of them splattered with blood.
A seventh suspect was killed in a shootout at the scene of the crime.
The country’s main newspaper, El Universo, reported Villavicencio was assassinated “hitman-style and with three shots to the head.”
Police said the suspects were arrested in a series of raids in which they also found a rifle, a machine gun, grenades and ammunition.
In a message of support to Ecuador, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro drew a direct link to the murder of Haitian president Jovenel Moise in his home in July 2021 by a group of 17 Colombian mercenaries.
“A gang of Colombian hitmen, mercenaries, went to Haiti to assassinate a president,” he said during an official event.
“These criminal gangs of hitmen are unfortunately taking this Colombian model of political assassinations outside of its borders.”
Jorge Mantilla, a Colombian investigator into organized crime, said that the arrests showed the “specialization among Colombian criminals in the use of violence” after six decades of armed conflict between the state and guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug gangs.
He said the two assassinations “show the capacity that these violence professionals have of connecting with transnational crime networks.”
– Cross-border ties –
Villavicencio said last week he had received several threats from Los Choneros, one of Ecuador’s most powerful criminal groups which the Insight Crime thinktank said became the armed wing of a Colombian drug cartel. It also has ties to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
Late Friday Villavicencio was buried in Quito during a private ceremony after hundreds of people paid tribute at an exhibition center, where his coffin was draped with the flag and a symbolic presidential sash with the words “My power is in the constitution.”
While there has been no clear claim of responsibility, the murder has highlighted the once-peaceful nation’s decline into a violent hotbed of drug trafficking and organized crime.
Wedged between the major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru, Ecuador — seen as having laxer controls — has in recent years attracted foreign drug cartels that have linked up with local gangs to move drugs through the country to the United States and Europe.
Mantilla explains that Ecuador’s drug gangs “acquired their power from working with Colombian organizations and later became independent” and grew stronger.
On Thursday, Ecuador’s Interior Minister Juan Zapata referred to the detainees simply as “foreigners,” saying they were “members of a criminal group” that assassinated Villavicencio in an “attempt to sabotage” snap presidential elections due on August 20.
Colombian media said the suspects had criminal records in their home country, including for arms manufacturing and trafficking, drug trafficking, murder, or domestic violence.
– Colombia partly ‘responsible’ –
After the Haiti assassination, a US investigation revealed that two men at the head of a Miami security firm had devised a plan to kidnap Moise and replace him with a Haitian-American citizen.
In March this year, dual Haitian-Chilean citizen Rodolphe Jaar pled guilty in the United States to housing the Colombian commando team and giving them weapons.
That same month Colombia’s president Petro said his country was partly responsible for Moise’s assassination.
“Colombia has a co-responsibility… it was Colombian mercenaries who went to kill the president of Haiti, unleashing a crisis even worse than the one they were already going through,” he said.
Petro has not commented on the Ecuador assassination.
— Agence France-Presse VIDEO