QUITO, Ecuador — Heavily armed security guards watched Ecuadorians vote Sunday in a presidential election marked by the murder of a top candidate and despair over the anarchy that has engulfed the once peaceful nation.
Polling stations closed after a tense day, with soldiers and police searching voters at the entrance to polling stations, while some of the eight presidential candidates wore helmets and bulletproof vests to vote.
The tiny South American country has in recent years become a scene for foreign drug mafias seeking to export cocaine, stoking a brutal war between local gangs.
The killing of serious presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio during the election campaign less than two weeks before the vote underscored the challenges facing the country.
“The biggest problem is insecurity,” voter Eva Hurtado, 40, said as she left a polling station north of the capital Quito on Sunday morning. “So many crimes, murders, disappearances. We are scared.”
“Security, especially the safety of our families, of our people, needs to be improved,” said civil servant Luis Veloso, 52.
Villavicencio’s murder reshuffled the electoral cards, with none of the eight candidates expected to secure an outright majority – likely forcing a runoff on October 15.
Ecuadorians have voted for a successor to conservative leader Guillermo Lasso, who called a snap election to avoid an impeachment trial just two years after coming to power.
Lawyer, journalist, sniper
Leading the polls before Villavicencio’s murder was Luisa Gonzalez, 45, a lawyer for former President Rafael Correa’s left-wing party.
Villavicencio, who was second in the polls before his assassination, was replaced at the last moment by a close friend, fellow journalist, Christian Zurita, who witnessed his assassination.
Hours before the vote, Zurita said he was receiving death threats on social media.
“Threats to my life and my team won’t stop us, but they force us to adopt stricter security protocols,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter, adding that his party had alerted authorities and officials. election observers.
Political analysts say the candidate who has seen his popularity rise the most is 40-year-old right-wing businessman Jan Topic.
Nicknamed “Rambo”, the former French Foreign Legion paratrooper and sniper has vowed to eliminate criminal gangs and build more prisons, emulating El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele.
During the vote, Topic urged voters to elect “the candidate who has the experience, the will and the plan to eradicate violence in the country.”
The other main candidates are right-wing former vice president Otto Sonnenholzner and left-wing indigenous lawyer Yaku Perez.
In one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, two key referendums are taking place alongside elections on Sunday.
One will ask voters to choose whether or not to continue oil drilling in an Amazon reserve that is home to three of the world’s last uncontacted indigenous populations.
Another concerns the advisability of prohibiting mining activities in the Choco Andino forest.
“I feel bad to vote in favor of oil exploitation, but Ecuador lives on this oil,” said electrician Magdalena Maurisaca.
Brutal gang war
Ecuador was once considered a haven of peace wedged between cocaine-producing countries Colombia and Peru.
The small country straddles the Andes and the Amazon, and was best known as the world’s leading exporter of bananas and is home to the biodiversity-rich Galapagos Islands, where British scientist Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution.
However, in the past five years, its large ports, lax security and corruption have attracted foreign cartels that have come under increased pressure from the war on drugs in Mexico and Colombia.
A power struggle between local gangs has mostly taken place in prisons, where 430 people have been killed since 2021, leaving a trail of dismembered and burned bodies.
“Ecuadorians will vote with three feelings: fear of insecurity… pessimism about the economic situation and mistrust of the political class,” political scientist Santiago Cahuasqui of SEK International University told AFP. .
In 2022, the country hit a record high of 26 murders per 100,000 people, higher than the rate in Colombia, Mexico or Brazil.
Voters will also elect members of the 137-seat parliament.
The first results should fall on Sunday evening, with a final count expected in 10 days.
To win in the first round, a candidate must collect 40% of the vote or be 10 points ahead of their closest competitor.
The new president will take office on October 26 and will only serve the remainder of Lasso’s term, a year and a half.
How Ecuador became one of the most violent countries in Latin America
Ecuador declares state of emergency after assassination of anti-corruption presidential candidate
Pope Francis calls for an end to political violence in Ecuador
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