Villavicencio Had a Long History as Journalist and Activist

From a New York Times story by Genevieve Glatsky headlined “Long History as Journalist and Activist”:

Union leader. Muckraking journalist. Legislator. Presidential candidate. And, now, assassin’s victim.

Fernando Villavicencio, who was gunned down at a rally on Wednesday, had a long history in Ecuadorean public affairs, largely as an antagonist to those in power. He rose to prominence as a union leader at the state oil company, Petroecuador, and later played a crucial role in exposing a bribery scandal that eventually led to the conviction of former President Rafael Correa.

Mr. Correa, a socialist, led the nation for a decade through 2017, the longest continuous tenure of a democratically elected president in Ecuador. A commodities boom helped him lift millions out of poverty, but his authoritarian style and the corruption allegations that trailed him deeply divided the country

And Mr. Villavicencio was “always contesting the power” of Mr. Correa, according to Caroline Ávila, an Ecuadorean political analyst.

He held “a prominent place among the activists of the social movements in Ecuador,” said Mauricio Alarcón Salvador, the director of Transparency International’s chapter in Ecuador.

For two decades, Mr. Villavicencio worked in investigative journalism, with a focus on corruption in the oil sector. “This among many other things provoked the rage, the anger of those in power,” said Mr. Alarcón.

Born in a small town in the central province of Chimborazo to a poor family, he moved to Quito as a teenager to complete high school through night classes, said Juan Carlos Calderón, director of the investigative news organization Plan V and a university classmate and journalistic collaborator of Mr. Villavicencio’s.

His classmates at the Central University of Ecuador described him, then a journalism student, as an ardent leftist and an excellent debater.

“I always saw him as a very courageous person, very powerful in everything he undertook,” said Mr. Calderón. “He never really stopped being that way.”

As a journalist, Mr. Villavicencio obtained documents about a government surveillance program that he sent to WikiLeaks but eventually published himself. Some of his work led to death threats and charges that were widely criticized as politically motivated.

He worked alongside the politician Clever Jiménez and the activist Carlos Figueroa, who was with him at the campaign rally where he was shot.

Mr. Correa unleashed “an unprecedented judicial persecution” against the three, and particularly against Mr. Villavicencio, said Mr. Alarcón, who served as his lawyer before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which granted them precautionary protection measures. The persecution included raiding their homes on Christmas Eve and threatening their families, he added.

“This is also a sign that Villavicencio’s work permanently touched sensitive fibers” that “before were believed to be untouchable,” he said.

In 2014, Mr. Villavicencio sought refuge for several months with the Indigenous Sarayaku community in the Amazon after he was sentenced to prison for insulting Mr. Correa. He also spent six months in hiding in 2017 before seeking political asylum in Peru.

There, he met with a friend from his undergraduate days at the Central University of Ecuador. He had no money to fight the charges against him, and had been forced to leave behind his two young children.

“He felt bullied and diminished,” said the friend, Grace Jaramillo, who is now a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.

But later that year, Mr. Correa left office, and Mr. Villavicencio returned home. A federal court declared him innocent, and he continued to publish corruption investigations and to file complaints with the Ecuadorean attorney general, many of which were corroborated.

He was sometimes criticized for mixing his roles as journalist and activist, and even Mr. Calderón disagreed with his decisions to file complaints with the attorney general.

“I always considered that one is a journalist, period. Not a prosecutor or whistle-blower,” he said.

But he said Mr. Villavicencio “had this idea that being a journalist was not enough; it was not enough to expose. He considered it important to take even further action so that there wouldn’t be impunity.”

That determination led him to move definitively into politics, and in 2021 he won a seat in the National Assembly, where he served until May, when the legislature was dissolved by President Guillermo Lasso, who was facing impeachment proceedings over embezzlement accusations.

Mr. Lasso’s move also triggered a presidential election, with a vote set for Aug. 20. For his presidential run, Mr. Villavicencio, 59, cast himself as the anticorruption candidate. He was representing the Build Ecuador Movement, a broad coalition, and campaigned on issues like personal safety in a country that has been consumed by violence related to narco-trafficking.

He was outspoken about links between city governments and drug-trafficking money, which earned him enemies, said Mr. Calderón.

“I always thought that he was a trade unionist at heart, wasn’t he?” he said. “And he took that spirit to the campaign.”

Mr. Villavicencio was polling near the middle of an eight-person race, but remained hopeful about his chances, according to Ms. Jaramillo. But he was gunned down before voters could deliver their verdict.

The last time Mr. Calderón spoke to the presidential candidate was on Tuesday, the day before he died. When he found out about the killing, he and other friends rushed to the hospital, where they stayed until Mr. Villavicencio’s body was moved to the morgue.

“We knew he was threatened; we thought he was protected,” he said. “You don’t think that this could happen to someone very close to you.”

Soon after the killing, Mr. Correa issued a lament on social media.

“They have assassinated Fernando Villavicencio,” he wrote. “Ecuador has become a failed state.”

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