Third Political Leader in Ecuador Slain

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP) -- The unprecedented violence shaking Ecuador claimed the life of another political leader Monday, bringing the number of politics-related slayings within the last four weeks to three, including that of a presidential candidate.

The fatal shooting of Pedro Briones, a local leader of Revolucin Ciudadana, the party of former President Rafael Correa, was confirmed by Luisa Gonzlez, the frontrunner in Sunday's special presidential election and member of the same party.

The shooting happened in the northern province of Esmeraldas. Details were not immediately available.

"Ecuador is experiencing its bloodiest era," Gonzlez tweeted. "A heartfelt hug to the family of colleague Pedro Briones, fallen by the hands of violence."

The killing of Briones, who was a political leader in a rural area of San Mateo de Esmeraldas, came less than a week after the South American country was rocked by the assassination in broad daylight of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who had a famously tough stance on organized crime and corruption. Villavicencio was killed at the end of a political rally in Quito, the capital, despite having a security detail that included police and bodyguards.

Their slayings followed the July 26 fatal shooting of the mayor of Manta, Ecuador's third largest city. Agustn Intriago, 38, had recently been re-elected to a term that began in May.

Thousands of people have been killed over the past three years in Ecuador as the country has transformed into a major drug trafficking hub and cartel-aided local gangs battle for control of the streets, prisons and drug routes. Crime and violence have dominated the discussions around Sunday's election.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Gonzlez said she revamped her security detail following Villavicencio's killing but continued to refuse to wear a bulletproof vest, arguing that she is a Christian woman.

"I have faith in God; he is the one who takes care of us," she said.

Should she become president, she said she plans to take a tough stance on crime, cleaning up police forces, increasing control along the country's borders, and investing in equipment for law enforcement.

Gonzlez criticized the government of President Guillermo Lasso for lacking control inside detention facilities, which she said prisoners and organized crime have turned into their productive and recreational centers.

At least 400 inmates have died since 2021 during various riots.

On Saturday, authorities moved the leader of one of the country's most powerful gangs, Los Choneros, into a maximum-security prison. Villavicencio had accused the group and its leader, Adolfo Macas, alias "Fito," whom he linked to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, of threatening him and his campaign team days before the assassination.

The gang boss was moved out of a jail with lighter security into a maximum-security prison in the same large complex of detention facilities in the port city of Guayaquil. The transfer occurred after about 4,000 soldiers and police officers raided the jail where Macas was being held and seized weapons, ammunition and explosives.

In response, jail inmates on Monday protested and hung signs demanding Macas be transferred back.

"We want peace return Fito," read one of the signs visible from the road outside the complex, which dozens of police officers and members of the armed forces guarded after supporters of Macas arrived on motorcycles to protest his relocation.

Authorities have not disclosed a motive for Villavicencio's killing. An Ecuadorian judge on Friday ordered preventive detention for six Colombian men described by authorities as being suspected of involvement in the slaying. The FBI is assisting in the investigation.

Authorities did not immediately release details of Briones' slaying.

The country's National Police tallied 3,568 violent deaths in the first six months of this year, far more than the 2,042 reported during the same period in 2022. That year ended with 4,600 violent deaths, the country's highest in history and double the total in 2021.