(Bloomberg) -- Wearing a bulletproof vest, Christian Zurita is asking the people of one of the world’s most violent nations to vote for a dead man.
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Zurita is running for president of Ecuador in the place of his closest friend and fellow journalist Fernando Villavicencio, who was shot dead a week ago as he campaigned for the top job. Villavicencio was killed so close to the vote, scheduled for Sunday, that all of the ballots have already been printed with his name and photo on them.
“If I win, well, I’ll stop wearing the bulletproof vest,” Zurita said in an interview with Bloomberg, while surrounded by armed police officers who have been assigned to protect him. “In Ecuador, we must be able to live without bulletproof vests.”
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Villavicencio’s murder marked a defining moment in Ecuador’s rapidly deteriorating security situation. Last year, the country’s murder rate topped both Mexico and Colombia as cocaine cartels fought for control of shipping routes.
The winner of the election, triggered by President Guillermo Lasso’s decision to dissolve the congress and avoid impeachment, will lead Ecuador for less than two years to serve out his term. Yet they will face an imposing challenge in restoring order. Lasso has repeatedly sent the military to try to win back control of the country, but crime, intimidation and violence have left few aspects of daily life untouched.
In what would normally be a fevered final few days before the vote, Zurita and his rivals have avoided holding public rallies for fear of more violence. Before Villavicencio’s killing, left-winger Luisa Gonzalez was a comfortable front-runner, but polling restrictions ahead of the vote make it hard to tell whether the assassination has caused the race to shift.
“The outlook is tremendously unstable,” said Alvaro Marchante, a pollster in Ecuador who said major surprises are possible.
Read More: Murder, Cocaine and Tears: Ecuador Confronts a Perilous Descent
Ecuador’s recent political violence stands out for its brutality and impunity, and the presidential race isn’t the first time voters have a deceased candidate on the ballot.
In February, Omar Menendez, a small town mayoral candidate, was killed ahead of local elections. Hours after his murder, he won the vote and was replaced by a member of his party. In July, Agustin Intriago, the mayor of port city Manta, was also murdered. Pedro Briones, an activist for Luisa Gonzalez’s Citizen Revolution, was killed on Tuesday.
Six Colombian citizens have been arrested in connection with Villavicencio’s murder. The suspected gunman was shot at the scene and later died while in custody.
The most evident sign of organized crime’s infiltration of daily life in Ecuador is how people speak casually of “getting vaccinated” — a euphemism for falling victim to a security racket where they pay a gang to be spared from harassment, retaliation or violence.
“The idea is that a vaccine is there to protect you, but this is a double-edged sword” said Billy Navarrete, the director of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, a local nonprofit.
“There are communities today that are paying for vaccines in order to get their trash collected,” he said. “Even the person who cuts my hair pays vaccines.”
The so-called vaccines are most common in Ecuador’s most populous city, Guayaquil, where Navarrete is based. The owner of a small restaurant there said her bottled-water supplier was paying for a vaccine in front of her diner this week. A taxi driver said all of her neighbors are paying, including some colleagues.
“People end up giving up, there is no way to resist,” Navarrete said.
Guayaquil is also home to the country’s most violent jails. Hundreds have been killed in recent years in brutal massacres that include decapitations. The military is in charge, but has not been able to end the violence.
Villavicencio’s killing prompted the government to move Fito, a gang leader, from one Guayaquil prison to another. That triggered protests outside and inside the jail. Inside, inmates put up a huge poster atop a jail tower demanding that Fito come back to his former cell. Some inmates wandered the prison’s roofs.
Zurita traveled to Guayaquil on Tuesday from Quito, Ecuador’s capital. To keep him safe, his security detail dressed him in a black bulletproof vest, with a similar cover for his neck. A slender, bespectacled man with messy, curly hair, Zurita looked so uncomfortable his aides jokingly called him Quasimodo, after Victor Hugo’s famed hunchback.
Read More: Ivy League Businessman Wants to Take On Ecuador Cocaine Cartels
Before the flight, Zurita wasn’t in a positive mood. He feared electoral authorities wouldn’t sign off on his candidacy. He’d been giving interviews from a basement room where Villavicencio’s handwritten talking points for an upcoming debate were still visible on a white board.
Police with rifles drawn were outside his campaign headquarters, as were three black SUVs without license plates. A separate plate-less car was on the way to the airport to print his boarding pass and assess the security situation. For the flight, armed police boarded the plane with Zurita. Once in Guayaquil, police repeated the drill, including the plate-less SUVs.
Living in Fear
Beyond the extreme precautions to protect his personal safety, Zurita is surrounded by reminders of his country’s pervasive danger.
On Tuesday, he stayed at the Hilton Colon Guayaquil. The Hilton is considered one of the city’s safest enclaves, though in February thieves blew up a truck behind it to create a distraction while they entered an adjacent shopping area and robbed a jewelry store.
Zurita and his closest aides had dinner on Tuesday night at a private room in a Japanese restaurant just steps from the store. Zurita wore the bulletproof vest at all times as a police officer waited outside.
“I’m super scared,” said Natali Becerra, Zurita’s top campaign aide, “but I’m accompanying you even though I’m scared because I’m not a coward, that’s why I’m still with you.”
Word that Zurita would likely be allowed to take his friend’s place after all helped brighten the mood the dinner; the electoral board finally cleared him to run late on Wednesday.
Zurita’s family is also frightened. His two sons — one is nine, the other is 31 — have refused to talk to him since he told them he would step up and take his friend’s place in the campaign. They won’t take his phone calls.
“The older one said that I will become cannon fodder, and the younger one cried because he said ‘I don’t want you to be president,’” Zurita said. “They are terrified, my family is terrified. None of them have wanted me to do this.”
Zurita himself said he hasn’t had time to mourn his friend amid the whirlwind final days of the campaign. But he and his aides acknowledge that the murder keeps them up at night.
“It’s horrible,” Zurita said. “Every day, Ecuadorians live in fear.”
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