Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio has been shot dead as he left a campaign event in Quito, just days before an election where the central issue is the country’s slide into violence and crime.

Videos on social media show Villavicencio, a former journalist who has worked for the Guardian and was outspoken about alleged links between organised crime and politics, surrounded by supporters and being escorted by security guards to a waiting vehicle when gunshots ring out as people start to scream and take cover.

The country’s president, Guillermo Lasso, said he was “outraged and shocked by the assassination” and would convene a meeting of his security cabinet. “For his memory and his fight, I assure you that this crime will not remain unpunished,” he said.

A suspect in the killing died from injuries sustained during the shootout that lead to his capture, the attorney general’s office said later.

The assassination comes amid a shocking surge in violent crime in the small South American country, as rival drug trafficking gangs perpetrate prison massacres and murder rates have more than doubled between 2020 and 2022. Lasso said in the wake of Wednesday’s killing: “Organized crime has gone too far, but they will feel the full weight of the law.”

Villavicencio was one of eight presidential candidates running in early elections due to be held on 20 August. More than half of Ecuadorians said in a poll that fixing the country’s insecurity problem is their biggest priority.

His fellow candidates expressed remorse. In a message on Twitter , Otto Sonnenholzner, said: “Our deepest condolences and deep solidarity with the loved ones of Fernando Villavicencio. May God keep him in his glory. Our country has gotten out of hand.”

“Today more than ever, the need to act with a strong hand against crime is reiterated. May God have him in his glory,” fellow presidential hopeful Jan Topic said.

Just days prior to his murder, Villavicencio, who was 59, had alleged on national television that he had received several death threats which he said came from the jailed leader of the Choneros gang, known as “Alias Fito”, ordering him to step mentioning his name.

Bullet holes are visible in the car that presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was entering when the attack happened in Quito on Wednesday. Photograph: Galo Paguay/AFP/Getty Images

Villavicencio, from the Andean province of Chimborazo, was the candidate for the Build Ecuador Movement. He was a former union member at state oil company Petroecuador and later a journalist who denounced alleged millions in oil contract losses.

Villavicencio was especially critical during the government of former president Rafael Correa from 2007 to 2017, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation over statements made against the former president.

He fled to Indigenous territory within Ecuador and later was given asylum in Peru.

As a legislator, Villavicencio was criticised by opposition politicians for obstructing an impeachment process this year against Lasso, which led the latter to call the early elections.

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