QUITO (Reuters) - Supporters of assassinated Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio have been hosting gatherings in his memory and waiting to see whether his family on Friday will give details of plans for his funeral.
Villavicencio, a former lawmaker and crusading anti-corruption journalist, was gunned down leaving a campaign event on Wednesday evening, less than two weeks before the election.
The murder was a shocking example of rising violence and crime in the South American country and led some voters to weigh whether they will go the polls on Aug. 20. It has made an unsettled election even harder to forecast.
Villavicencio's body was released to two family representatives, including his lawyer, on Thursday, according to the attorney general's office.
Some family members are believed to be outside Ecuador and traveling back for the funeral. Villavicencio's family has so far kept his wake private.
Supporters clad in white gathered at events in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca on Thursday afternoon in honor of the slain candidate, with more memorial events expected for Friday.
As a labor organizer and then a journalist, Villavicencio had long been exposed to threats due to his scathing and meticulously documented corruption accusations targeting some of the biggest names in Ecuador's political and financial establishment.
Despite the suspension of campaigning by two opponents and widespread condemnation of the murder, politicians lost little time in trading barbs.
Villavicencio's party denounced "political use" of his death and some supporters lobbed criticism at former President Rafael Correa, whom Villavicencio clashed with as an investigative journalist.
Luisa Gonzalez, the Correa-backed candidate who leads the race with just below 30% voter support, accused outgoing President Guillermo Lasso of ties to the Albanian mafia, an allegation Lasso has always denied.
The mud-slinging could worsen citizen confidence in the electoral process and its results, analysts said.
Villavicencio, a married father, had 7.5% support in polls, placing him fifth out of eight candidates.
Violence in Ecuador has surged in recent years, especially in cities along drug-trafficking routes like Guayaquil and Esmeraldas where citizens say they live in fear.
Several Latin American countries have seen similar issues since the coronavirus pandemic.
Lasso, who is dealing with an impeachment bid against him, called the elections early. He has been criticized for failing to tamp down violence, and his government blames bloodshed on the streets and in prisons on criminal infighting to control drug trafficking routes used by Mexican cartels, the Albanian mafia and others.
Beyond security, employment and migration are major issues in the presidential contest.
One suspect in the crime died from injuries sustained in the shoot-out with authorities on Wednesday. Six others were arrested.
All the suspects are Colombian and belonged to organized crime groups, Ecuadorean police said on Thursday.
The government has said it is pursuing the "intellectual authors" of the murder and has promised heightened security nationwide to ensure peaceful elections.
A televised debate will take place on Sunday.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Julia Symmes Cobb; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by David Gregorio)