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Ecuador will elect a president — 2 weeks after candidate was assassinated

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This weekend's presidential election in Ecuador is making news for all the wrong reasons. It was once a relatively quiet corner of South America, but one of the candidates was just assassinated. His successor now wears a bulletproof vest and helmet even to TV interviews. Violence and crime fueled by international cocaine cartels has rocketed to the forefront of voter concerns. NPR's Carrie Kahn has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Vendors, like this woman selling nail clippers for a dollar, dot the downtown street of Ecuador's largest port city, Guayaquil. And many, like 63-year-old Narcisa Paredes, tells a producer there with NPR that she just doesn't feel safe anymore.

NARCISSA PAREDES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Every time I step out my door, I ask God to watch over me, because these days, we live in a very violent country," says Paredes, who sells cigarettes and cosmetics to passersby. The city, home to the biggest port in the country, has been hit hardest by Ecuador's surging crime. International cartels from Mexico and even far away Albania have turned it into a transit hub for cocaine brought from Colombia and Peru. It's then shipped to the U.S. and Europe as corrupt authorities look away.

PAREDES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Parendes says she was heartbroken when less than two weeks before the election, 59-year-old Fernando Villavicencio was gunned down right after a campaign rally. She says he was the only one standing up to the thieves ruining her country. Villavicencio, a former investigative journalist, made a career of exposing Ecuador's dirty politics, especially during the presidency of leftist Rafael Correa. After time in exile for his own safety, Villavicencio returned and won a seat in Congress. Before his assassination, he had said a local drug boss tied to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel had threatened him. His longtime friend and fellow journalist Christian Zurita has taken over the campaign in the presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTIAN ZURITA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Speaking on a nightly news show, Zurita, wearing a bulletproof vest under his dress jacket, says he promises to clean up Ecuador's security forces, fight the criminal gangs and their protectors in honor of his fallen friend. Seven others are in the race, including the front-runner and only woman from the main leftist party. There's also an environmental activist and a conservative lawmaker running on a tough security platform. Whoever wins will have an uphill fight against Ecuador's entrenched crime and political corruption, says Will Freeman, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

WILL FREEMAN: We're not just talking about any type of corruption. We're talking about the capture of parts of the state by organized crime groups.

KAHN: The roots of which go back several governments, says Freeman, including this last one of President Guillermo Lasso, which was paralyzed from political battles and an opposition Congress ready to impeach him.

FREEMAN: He has not really made any meaningful progress on, you know, reversing this increasing criminal capture of hordes of the police, of other state authorities. So I think there's blame all around.

KAHN: Humberto Salvatierra, a 52-year-old gas station attendant, is fed up with politicians and the violence. He's not sure yet who he's going to vote for.

HUMBERTO SALVATIERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I just want someone to come into the presidency and do something," he said. If none of the candidates gets a majority of votes, the top two will go to a runoff in October.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News. 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.

Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.