Remembering the journalistic legacy of slain Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio

Before serving as a legislator and presidential candidate in Ecuador—a role in which he was brutally shot dead at 59 on Aug. 9 — Fernando Villavicencio was one of the country's most prominent investigative journalists. 

Nicknamed "Don Villa," he produced a staggering number of investigations —reportedly as many as 260— that exposed billion-dollar frauds and helped lead to the convictions of high-ranking officials, including former President Rafael Correa (2007-2017).

At the same time, some of Villavicencio's methods diverged from standard journalistic practices. While he produced rigorously researched exposés backed by evidence, he also maintained his activism alongside his journalism. His career was a unique blend of journalism and politics, until he ultimately decided to fully commit to the latter. These traits made him especially vulnerable to persecution by Correa's administration, resulting in years of exile.

LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) spoke with communication scholars, former colleagues, and journalist friends of Villavicencio in Ecuador to reflect on his journalistic career and the persecution he endured. His achievements highlight the potential, challenges, and dilemmas of journalism in Ecuador. Despite his unconventional approach, Villavicencio's meticulous reporting and indomitable courage won him the admiration of journalists in Ecuador and beyond.

"You can review the investigations he published, and they are absolutely rigorous. There is a very clear line of argument. He had his own style, but I believe every journalist has their style, and that doesn't invalidate his work," Juan Carlos Calderón, editor-in-chief of Plan V magazine and a friend and colleague of Villavicencio, told LJR. “When he decided to be a politician, to be a legislator, he was already almost at the twilight of his career. We talked once when he was a legislator and he told me: 'Look, deep down in my heart, I'm still a journalist, but there's no going back.'"

From the unions to journalism

Villavicencio's career in communications began at 17 as a radio host for a Latin American culture program on Radio Tarqui. He stayed there for eight years, already reporting on corruption. Around the same time, in the early 1980s, he enrolled in journalism at the Central University of Ecuador, where he was involved in a Trotskyist organization. He dropped out before finishing his degree, although he would later earn one from a smaller private university in 2007.

In 1995, Villavicencio helped found Pachakutik, a political movement with Indigenous leanings. That same year, he began working in the communications department of the state-owned oil company of the country, Petroecuador. He quickly became active in the labor movement, eventually ascending to the role of leader of the Federation of Oil Workers (Fetrapec, for its acronym in Spanish), where he remained until 1999.

This experience was pivotal when he returned to journalism. During his time in the union, Villavicencio gained in-depth knowledge of the oil sector, including its corruption cases, and made numerous contacts. Once a source for other journalists, he now became the one breaking the stories.

"Fernando always tackled numerous issues related to state-level corruption, especially in the oil sector, because before being a journalist, he was a unionist at Petroecuador," Tania Orbe, a journalist and journalism professor whose family was friends with Villavicencio’s family, told LJR. "So he had reliable contacts who supplied him with information."

Martha Roldós, who initially served as a source for Villavicencio when she was an opposition legislator and later became his colleague at the investigative website Periodismo de Investigación, agreed.

"Fernando was a person with a large number of sources, one of the journalists with the most sources in all of Ecuador," Roldós told LJR. "The sources grew because people knew he was a reliable channel. Fernando was likely one of the most trustworthy avenues for making allegations in Ecuador."

The truth digger

These exposés would become the hallmark of his career. Villavicencio broke numerous high-profile corruption stories in strategic sectors, publishing his findings in outlets like the now-extinct Vanguardia magazine, the El Universo daily, and online platforms such as Plan V, Milhojas, and Focus. He also authored or co-authored 11 books.

His first major investigation in 2008, known as the Palo Azul case, accused the Brazilian oil company Petrobras of causing "massive financial harm to the country." Villavicencio made these allegations as a member of an oil expert commission and later published them in Vanguardia magazine and his book "Ecuador, Peaje Global," where he documented the case extensively.

Another case involved the overhaul of the Esmeraldas Refinery and featured accusations of inflated contracts and shoddy work. This would have led the repair to cost more than double the original estimates, in what turned out to be a multi-billion-dollar scam.

In the PetroChina case, detailed in the book "Ecuador Made in China," Villavicencio accused the company of lacking transparency in contracts and imposing unfavorable terms on Ecuador, including corruption allegations. According to his report, the country lost between two and four dollars per exported barrel.

In 2013, he and Belén Palma published "El Expediente Chevron" in Plan V, detailing 50 years of Chevron's relationship with Ecuador and exposing the contradictions of the Correa government. The 2019 Ina Papers scandal linked offshore companies to then-President Lenin Moreno, along with his associates and family members.

Working alongside Christian Zurita, one of his closest partners and his successor in the presidential race, Villavicencio also exposed the Arroz Verde (Green Rice) or Sobornos 2012-2016 (Bribes 2012-2016) case in 2019 on digital news sites Mil Hojas and La Fuente. The investigation revealed contributions from various multinational companies, including Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, to the Alianza PAIS movement led by former President Correa, during the 2014 election campaign and after.

He exposed many other cases, such as Coca-Codo Sinclair, mobile phone contracts, and gas storage contracts. He was also one of the journalists most focused on investigating the infiltration of drug trafficking into the Ecuadoran state. His work earned him several awards, including the National Jorge Mantilla Ortega Prize and an international mention at the 2018 Latin American Conference on Investigative Journalism (COLPIN). The irregular contracts he denounced totaled billions of dollars.

"Primarily, he investigated large state contracts and corruption. I estimate that as a journalist, he must have exposed over US $10 billion in theft from the state, and I'm not exaggerating," Calderón, of Plan V, said.

Many of these allegations led to legal actions and arrests, including those of high-ranking government officials in the oil sector. The Odebrecht case also resulted in convictions, and in the "Green Rice" case, former President Correa himself was sentenced in 2020 while in exile in Belgium.

Harsh Persecution

According to Calderón, one of Villavicencio's peculiar practices was not just to publish his findings in the most high-profile cases, but to also formally present them to the Public Prosecutor's Office.

"Although this practice is sometimes seen in Latin America, I personally don't share this approach. However, his aim was to fight impunity, especially given the flaws in the Ecuadoran justice system. He focused on exposing white-collar crimes and believed that, without legal action, all his investigative efforts would be in vain," Calderón said.

However, Villavicencio's revelations came at a great personal cost. Since publishing the Palo Azul case in 2008, when he was sued for defamation by Correa, he faced relentless legal and intimidatory persecution.

In May of that same year, he was abducted by masked men who were seeking documents; they robbed him of his computer and car. The death threats, which would accompany him until the end of his life, were already occurring at that time. The crime remains not fully resolved; since he had many enemies, it is difficult to pinpoint the mastermind.

Starting in 2010, the most severe phase of Correa's judicial persecution began. Plan V described it as "over seven years of persecution, including two exiles, and an unprecedented level of judicial, political, and intelligence surveillance harassment."

After a police uprising in September 2010, Villavicencio, then working as an advisor to legislator Cléver Jiménez, filed a complaint with the Attorney General and asked for an investigation of Correa for alleged crimes against humanity

The claim was eventually declared "malicious and reckless," leading to legal action against the trio. In March 2014, a court sentenced them to 18 months in prison, along with a fine of $141,000 and a requirement for a public apology.

Between 2009 and 2013, Villavicencio balanced his journalistic activities, publishing articles critical of the government in Plan V, with his role as a parliamentary advisor. Organizations like Fundamedios and the Committee to Protect Journalists viewed his sentence as retaliation for both his journalistic and political activities.

A particularly severe episode of state persecution occurred on the night of Dec. 26-27, 2013, when police raided Villavicencio's home in Quito, where his wife and two young children were present. All of his devices and documents were confiscated.

"It was a very serious issue. He vowed to keep fighting until the culprits were brought to justice. I remember the terror it caused, especially for his young son. I believe it changed him deeply and caused a great deal of anguish," Calderón said.

Faced with persecution, Villavicencio traveled to Washington, D.C. to seek precautionary measures against his arrest from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which were granted in March 2014. However, upon his return to Ecuador, arrest warrants had already been issued, forcing him to hide among the Sarayacu people in the Amazon jungle.

The government continued to pressure Villavicencio, even making incursions into the jungle to capture him, until his sentence expired in March 2015. Afterward, there was a ban on leaving the country and the seizure of his books and communications. Through his wife, he had to pay nearly US $50,000 to Correa to avoid complete asset forfeiture. A public fundraising campaign was launched to gather the money.

In 2016, a judge ordered his arrest again for allegedly using hacked emails in an investigation into alleged corruption at Ecopetrol. He took refuge in Lima, Peru, until September 2017, when Correa's successor, Lenin Moreno, eased the pressure, allowing him to return to Ecuador.

Dangerous ties

While the unconventional blend of journalism and politics that Villavicencio maintained raised eyebrows, other Ecuadorian journalists stand by his work, asserting that his exposés were rigorously researched.

"Although the style might not have appealed to everyone, the crucial thing was the content, the information. The information he disclosed came from official sources and was completely valid. Many within the government would pass on important information to him. That was pivotal, and that's why I decided to keep working with him. I had to weigh two aspects: form and content, and content was more crucial," Marlon Puertas, director of the media outlet La Historia, told LJR. The two also collaborated on the portal Focus, launched while Villavicencio was in the Amazonian jungle.

All journalists consulted concur with this assessment. According to them, the quality of Villavicencio's reporting wasn't undermined by his continuous flirtation with politics, though this doesn't mean the relationship was devoid of conflict.

"We had some differences, particularly in our approach to journalism. I come from a background in traditional journalism, so naturally, we would disagree and argue. Fernando contended that the Correa era necessitated a different, almost subversive form of journalism. When I questioned what he meant, he clarified that it was imperative to portray things as they truly were. He was less concerned with adhering to the conventional norms of the profession," Puertas said.

The decline of Ecuador's journalistic landscape, primarily due to governmental pressure, partially explains this alignment with politics, according to journalist and professor Saudia Yaniré Levoyer.

"When the press faces significant pressure, it either investigates more rigorously or falls silent. In Ecuador, there were many years where the press chose to continue investigating, exacerbating an already difficult situation. Given the national and media crises, many journalists, particularly the more experienced, were edged out and began seeking alternative publishing avenues," she told LJR.

According to her, this closeness to politics engendered vulnerabilities: Correa capitalized on political leanings of critical journalists to assail the press at large.

"During Correa's administration, journalists considered to be opinion leaders or who were active debaters on social platforms or in the media were branded by him as 'corrupt press.' He conflated opinion with factual information. When something wasn't to the government's liking, he would say, 'Here are the corrupt journalists.' This was a vulnerability," Yaniré Levoyer said.

The political path

In the 2017 elections, Villavicencio endeavored to run for president but was disqualified by the National Electoral Council (CNE). By then, his political activity was increasingly pronounced. The transition culminated in the 2021 elections when he was elected as a legislator for the Alianza Honestidad (Honesty Alliance).

Friends believe that Villavicencio felt compelled to amplify his exposés into a sphere where they could exert broader influence.

"The last time he was at my home, he queried my husband, [journalist] Iván Flores, about running for president in 2018. My husband was opposed, primarily because Fernando was perpetually under the threat of death and persecution," said Tania Orbe, suggesting that such a candidacy would intensify such threats.

The journalist and professor pondered the implications for those contemplating this trajectory.

"Transitioning from journalism to politics is relatively easy. Politicians routinely seek our counsel, as journalists excel in generating, contextualizing, and verifying information. Yet, reverting from politics to journalism while retaining credibility is more complex. Some attempt it, especially if they don't win elections or secure public office, but they don’t have the same credibility as before," Orbe said.

According to Juan Carlos Calderón, Villavicencio sensed his destiny was in politics.

"The situation mirrors that of Christian Zurita. Christian has a respectable career and chose to engage in this issue, wagering on loyalty to his friend and carrying on as the candidate. Neither sought political life; it found them," Calderón said.

Villavicencio leaves behind a journalistic legacy that stands as a lesson in fearlessness, zeal and skillfulness.

"In evaluating Fernando's life, it's important to highlight his courage in confronting the most powerful mafias, something that, sadly, cost him his life,” Marlon Puertas said. “The courage he displayed serves as an example for those of us who remain in the field of journalism. I would like for him to be primarily remembered for his valor in facing Ecuador's most dangerous criminal and political structures, regardless of the consequences.”

(Photo of the banner and cover: Plan V/Courtesy)