The Media Today

The crusading journalism of Ecuador’s assassinated presidential candidate

August 15, 2023
FILE - Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio waves a national flag during a campaign event at a school minutes before he was shot to death outside the same school, in Quito, Ecuador, Aug. 9, 2023. Villavicencio was fatally shot in broad daylight despite a security detail that included police and bodyguards. (API via AP File)

Recently, Martín Pallares was looking back on WhatsApp messages he’d exchanged with Fernando Villavicencio. The two men had come up through Ecuador’s journalistic circles in the eighties and had kept in touch; years later, both would be critical of Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s press-bashing populist president from 2007 to 2017. “We shared a lot of information,” Pallares recalled. He described his WhatsApp chat with Villavicencio as “a little treasure.”

Last week, Villavicencio—by now himself a candidate for the presidency—was assassinated while leaving a campaign rally in Quito, the capital. He ran on an anti-corruption platform and had recently been outspoken about the growing strength of cartels and other criminal groups in Ecuador, to the point, he said, where one imprisoned gang boss had warned him to shut his mouth. The full circumstances of Villavicencio’s assassination aren’t yet clear, though officials have stated that suspects in the killing are nationals of neighboring Colombia and have ties to organized crime. And the incident has drawn global attention to a once relatively secure country that is rapidly spiraling into violence.

The killing also drew attention to the rich, unorthodox career of Villavicencio himself, who rose to prominence as an outspoken challenger to other corrupt interests in his country, especially those close to Correa. He defined himself—according to people who knew or crossed paths with him—through his tenacious ability to find information. “No one could accuse him of being corrupt,” Pallares says. “The whole of Correa’s intelligence apparatus searched his life and never found any wrongdoing.” From the start of his career, “we could not say that he was a normal journalist,” Dagmar Thiel, who also met Villavicencio while working as a journalist in Ecuador and now leads the US office of the Latin American press-freedom watchdog Fundamedios, told me. But he was “a tireless investigator.” 

Villavicencio took up journalism while still a teenager, on the radio and in print; at eighteen, he founded a newspaper focused on workers’ rights that got him in trouble with the military dictatorship that then ruled Ecuador. Later, he worked in communications and was a union leader at Ecuador’s state oil company, where he helped bring to light environmental abuses that the fossil-fuel industry committed in the Amazon region of the country. “All the information he got was actually against the company,” Thiel, for whom Villavicencio was a source at the time, recalls. “So he eventually was fired.”

Villavicencio ran for office on the platform of a movement representing Indigenous communities and later became an adviser to Cléver Jiménez, a politician representing the party. He also wrote articles as a journalist. He became a thorn in Correa’s side and faced threats as a result. In the early 2010s—following an incident in which mutinous security forces blocked Correa in a hospital, loyal officers fought to get him out, and a number of people were killed—Villavicencio, Jiménez, and a colleague accused Correa of “crimes against humanity” and demanded an investigation; in return, Correa pursued the trio under criminal defamation laws. Later, after a court affirmed an eighteen-month prison sentence against him, Villavicencio sought refuge on Indigenous land in the Amazon. While on the run, he wrote a book about his experiences and talked to John Otis, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, about wading through tributaries to evade the police.

Correa’s administration also pursued Villavicencio in a different case—in 2013, police officers raided his house over Christmas, and confiscated documents and devices, after accusing him of disseminating private emails pertaining to a government dispute with the energy giant Chevron. (Xavier Bonilla, a cartoonist for the newspaper El Universo, was subsequently ordered by the state to modify a drawing showing officers dancing away from Villavicencio’s house in the throes of a cover-up; Bonilla complied in tongue-in-cheek fashion.) Years later, officials moved to arrest Villavicencio over his Chevron story, after he published a different investigation alleging corruption in the state oil company. On that occasion, he sought asylum in neighboring Peru.

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Over the years, Villavicencio wrote ten books and, by his own estimation, around two hundred and sixty investigations. Some of these had significant impact: in 2017, Villavicencio’s revelations about a scandal involving Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction behemoth, helped put Jorge Glas, Correa’s vice president, in jail; later, he had a hand in the revelations that led Correa himself to be convicted of corruption. (By that point, Correa had moved to Belgium, where his wife is from.) He also reported—including for The Guardian—on Julian Assange’s stay in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where Correa’s government had granted him asylum. On one occasion, Villavicencio sent WikiLeaks, Assange’s organization, documents showing that Ecuadorean officials had surveilled him at the embassy as part of a broader spying operation; when WikiLeaks didn’t bite, he published the information himself. “It surprised me it didn’t get out,” Villavicencio later told the New York Times, accusing Assange of journalistic “hypocrisy.”

In 2017, Villavicencio returned to Ecuador after Lenín Moreno replaced Correa as president. Even then, he initially had to move between safe houses to avoid the outstanding arrest warrant against him (per CPJ, he eventually resurfaced and agreed to wear an ankle tag), but in the years that followed he lived freely and eventually jumped into a frontline political career, winning election to the National Assembly. Villavicencio “was always a natural politician,” Dan Collyns, a Peru-based reporter who knew Villavicencio and worked with him on stories for The Guardian, told me—and his anti-Correa views had an influence on his investigative journalism. But he also brought his investigative chops to his work as a lawmaker, and then—after Ecuador’s current president, Guillermo Lasso, called an election earlier this year amid an impeachment effort—as a presidential candidate. In alleging ties between organized crime and politics, Collyns says, Villavicencio “always had a little bit more information” than others, and was “prepared to make the kind of direct accusations” that some media outlets might have shied away from.

In recent years, Thiel told me, Villavicencio grew apart from some of his former journalistic colleagues, some of whom came to see him as arrogant. A number of Ecuadorean journalists felt that Villavicencio had inappropriately blurred the line between their craft and politics. Thiel and other observers note, however, that it’s not that uncommon for journalists in Latin America to seek political careers and influence, seeing this as the only way to effect institutional change in countries where the independent press has been weakened. Indeed, on Sunday, Villavicencio’s party announced that it had tapped Christian Zurita—another investigative journalist, who was close to Villavicencio both professionally and personally—to succeed him on the ballot.

At the time Villavicencio was assassinated, he was not, strictly speaking, acting as a journalist. But his killing can, perhaps, still be seen as a crime against press freedom—even if only because Villavicencio, in his myriad roles, always retained a journalistic spirit. The same surge in drug- and gang-related violence that appears to have claimed Villavicencio’s life has also taken a terrible toll on journalism in Ecuador; as Carlos Lauría reported recently for CPJ, reporters who covered crime have also been killed in recent months, while others have gone into exile. In speaking out on the campaign trail, Villavicencio, at least, seemed to situate his fight against organized criminals within the broader arc of his varied career. “I am not afraid of them,” he said. “I have spent twenty years in this country fighting against these criminal structures.”

When we spoke yesterday, Pallares told me that he would never have felt comfortable imitating Villavicencio’s blend of journalistic and political work, so much so that he says he stopped talking to Villavicencio after the latter declared his bid for president. Since Villavicencio was killed, Pallares told me, he has felt sad about their lack of contact. “My decision was not because there was anything wrong with him,” he said. 

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a grand jury in Georgia indicted Donald Trump and eighteen associates on racketeering charges stemming from their efforts to subvert the 2020 election in the state. Earlier in the day, a reporter at Reuters seemed to have broken the news of charges based on a document that appeared on a court website, but the document was removed and a county clerk later called it “fictitious.” (It bore a different case number from the later, confirmed indictment.) Fani Willis, the district attorney charging Trump, said that defendants in the case will now have ten days to surrender at the courthouse, setting up what Politico describes as the prospect of “a rolling spectacle.” And Trump’s arraignment could itself be televised, since Georgia has more permissive rules around cameras in court than other jurisdictions in which Trump has been charged.
  • Writing for The Bulwark, Nicholas Grossman makes the case that while journalists flocked to Trump Country in a bid to better understand voters there following the 2016 election, they have not made any parallel effort to understand the eighty-one million people who voted for Joe Biden in 2020. After seeing recent arguments by David Brooks and Matt Yglesias, Grossman “was struck by the asymmetry of our political moment,” he writes. “I’ve never seen centrists like Yglesias say to people on the right (or center) that it’s important to read progressives. … Nor have I seen traditional conservatives like Brooks call for empathy with people on the left, or claim that any left-wing extremism is merely an inevitable reaction to centrist and conservative elites’ mistakes.”
  • Yesterday was a bumper day for media-jobs news. Following the departure of Neeraj Khemlani as copresident of CBS News, the network promoted Wendy McMahon, the other copresident, to a broader role, with Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews reporting to her. Elsewhere, CNN announced an overhaul of its programming lineup, with prime-time slots for Abby Phillip and Laura Coates and new weekend shows for Chris Wallace and Christiane Amanpour. The Miami Herald tapped Alex Mena as its new executive editor. New York magazine made Matthew Schneier its restaurant critic. And, per Axios, the crypto-news site CoinDesk is cutting 40 percent of its editorial team as it seeks a sale.
  • Dozens of journalists at the Washington Post spent a year investigating the “racial brain collection” at the Smithsonian, a massive historical collection of human remains that were, in many cases, taken from Black, Indigenous, and other people of color without the consent of them or their families. (The Post has translated its reporting on a victim from the Philippines into Filipino.) While the paper was investigating, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian, apologized for the institution’s handling of the remains and set up a task force to work on returning as many of them as possible.
  • And Christian Paz, of Vox, charts how @PopCraze and @PopBase, two Twitter accounts that initially shared pop-culture news, turned into a sort of “wire service” for political news online, with the former even being shared by Biden’s reelection campaign. (“We’re proud of our work with ‘nontraditional’ sources of news and information,” a White House official said.) The accounts “fit into a long tradition of melding entertainment and news,” Paz writes, “but they’re also disrupting it: clickbait, without the click.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.