By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) - The assassination of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio shocked the South American country, where rising drug-related violence is a major concern for voters, leading some of his rivals to suspend campaigning.
Villavicencio, a vocal critic of corruption and organized crime, was killed on Wednesday during an evening campaign event in northern Quito.
A suspect in the crime later died of injuries sustained in a shoot-out and six others have so far been arrested, the attorney general's office said. Nine people, including a candidate for the legislature and two police officers, were injured, it added.
President Guillermo Lasso said after midnight the crime was clearly an attempt to sabotage the election, but that voting would go ahead as planned on Aug. 20, albeit amid a national state of emergency with the military mobilized to guarantee security.
Lasso also declared three days of mourning.
The murder prompted anger from Villavicencio supporters towards former President Rafael Correa, of whom Villavicencio was an outspoken detractor when he worked as a journalist.
Villavicencio had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation over statements made against the former president, but he fled to Indigenous territory within Ecuador and later was given asylum in Peru, before returning after Correa left office.
"Ecuador has become a failed state," Correa, who now lives in Belgium, said on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. "Hopefully those who try to sow more hate with this new tragedy will understand that will only continue to destroy us."
Candidate Luisa Gonzalez, who is running for Correa's party and leading with 29.3% support, expressed horror at the killing, but did not suspend her campaign.
Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez and law-and-order hopeful Jan Topic both suspended their campaigns, while businessman Otto Sonnenholzner begged the government to take action.
Lasso, who called the elections early amid an impeachment bid against him, has blamed heightened violence on the streets and in prisons on criminal infighting to control drug trafficking routes used by Mexican cartels, the Albanian mafia and others, and struggled to push back on crime.
Security concerns, along with employment and migration, are major issues in the presidential contest.
Villavicencio's party Movimiento Construye said on Wednesday discussions had been held recently about whether to suspend campaigning due to political violence, including the July murder of the mayor of Manta.
Villavicencio opposed the suspension, it said, saying it would be an act of cowardice.
Villavicencio had on Tuesday made a report to the attorney general's office about an oil business, but no further details of his report were made public.
Villavicencio, a married father, had 7.5% support in polls, placing him fifth out of eight candidates.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Lincoln Feast)