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GUAYAQUIL: Ecuador transferred a powerful gang leader, accused of threatening a presidential candidate before he was slain, to a maximum security prison via a massive military and police operation on Saturday, officials said.

At dawn, around 4,000 heavily armed agents entered Prison 8 in Guayaquil in southwestern Ecuador, where the head of the powerful Los Choneros criminal group, Jose Adolfo Macias, alias “Fito,“has been held since 2011.

Images shared by security forces showed a bearded man in his underwear, with his hands on his head in some shots and lying on the floor with his arms tied in others.

Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso announced on social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, that Fito had been transferred to La Roca, a 150-person maximum security prison that is part of the same penitentiary complex where the gang boss was already being held.

Ecuador has been under a state of emergency since the shock assassination Wednesday of journalist-turned-politician Fernando Villavicencio.

The anti-corruption crusader – up to then second in polls – was gunned down as he left a campaign rally in the capital Quito.

A week before the 59-year-old was killed, he had said that Fito was threatening him.

On Saturday, Villavicencio’s party announced that his running mate, Andrea Gonzalez, would take his place in the August 20 election. Gonzalez, 36, is an environmental advocate who has fought for the protection of oceans, forests and mangroves.

‘State crime’

Villavicencio’s widow, Veronica Sarauz, blamed the state for her husband’s death, accusing police of not adequately protecting him.

“This is a state crime because he was under the custody of the state through the police,” she said during a press conference on Saturday.

She also blamed supporters of ex-president Rafael Correa, who was sentenced in 2020 to eight years in prison after Villavicencio had investigated him for corruption.

The day before his assassination, Villavicencio had filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office alleging irregularities in oil contracts negotiated during Correa’s administration, estimating a loss to the country of around $9 billion.

Sarauz, who was escorted by police and wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet, said that she and her three children were “also in danger.”

President Lasso has blamed the murder on organized crime.

Six Colombians have been arrested in suspected connection with the murder, while a seventh was killed in a shootout with his bodyguards. Authorities have not said who hired and paid the hitmen.

Before his murder, Villavicencio told a local program that an “emissary” for Fito had contacted him and told him to stop talking about the gang.

“If I continue… mentioning Los Choneros, they are going to break me,” he said.

‘Unjustifiable violence’

Villavicencio had drawn the ire of gangs and drug traffickers with his reputation for speaking out against the cartels.

Since 2018, drug seizures and homicides have increased alarmingly in Ecuador, blamed widely on transnational organized crime groups.

Prisons have become the center of operations for drug trafficking.

More than 430 inmates have died violently since 2021, dozens of them dismembered and incinerated amid disputes between rival gangs.

Fito, who had been sentenced to 34 years for organized crime, drug trafficking and murder, had controlled at least one cellblock in the prison he was removed from.

The global community has condemned Villavicencio’s murder, including the United Nations, United States and European Union.

On Saturday, Pope Francis rejected the violence plaguing Ecuador in a message to the archbishop of Quito, Alfredo Espinoza.

The pope condemned “with all his strength” the “suffering caused by unjustifiable violence.”

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