BOGOTA, Colombia—A candidate who aspired to become the first female mayor of a municipality in southwestern Colombia, a candidate running for city council, and four others were brutally killed by former members of the Marxist guerrilla group FARC, who refused to disarm during the country’s 2016 peace process, the government has said.
The bodies of mayoral candidate Karina Garcia and the others were found in a car incinerated on the side of the road in the Cauca region on Sept. 1. The assassination, which follows the alarming announcement by two former FARC leaders last week that they would return to war, is the first killing of a candidate during the campaign season for local and regional elections in October.
Experts monitoring an uptick in electoral violence across the country expect more to follow.
Garcia, who was 32, sensed that she was in danger from criminal groups eight days earlier, when four armed men threatened members of her campaign and ordered them to take down all electoral banners and posters. Posters touting the candidate had been previously defaced by unknown actors with black spray paint.
But rather than backing down, Garcia continued to campaign for bringing political change to the municipality, requested assurances from the town’s mayor, and pleaded with rival candidates not to spread rumors that she said were putting her life in peril.
“Please, for God’s sake, don’t act so irresponsibly,” Garcia pleaded in a video she shared online on Aug. 24, refuting claims that she would bring paramilitaries or multinationals to the area. “This can bring fatal consequences for me.”
Eight days later, despite her pleas, Garcia’s charred body was discovered alongside five others in a burned-out car on the side of the road.
The vehicle was hit by two grenades before coming under fire from another SUV and was then torched, a bodyguard who escaped the attack told local media.
Killed along with Garcia were a man and four other women, including local activists, a candidate for the city council, and Garcia’s mother.
Local residents held a candlelit vigil on Sept. 2 for the young politician, who leaves a husband and a 3-year-old daughter behind.
“They didn’t take the reports seriously,” the victim’s father told local press, denouncing the authorities for not protecting his daughter. He said his daughter “felt the need to help her community, in her veins.”
A peace agreement reached with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in 2016 that formally ended a half-decade of conflict was supposed to open a new peaceful chapter in the country’s history. But while many areas witnessed a decrease in violence as 7,000 guerrillas put down their guns, in some regions, the violence continues, and targeted killings of human rights defenders and community leaders are surging.
“After 2016, the statistics on lethal and non-lethal violence have skyrocketed, and the situation is critical, not only for political actors but also for social leaders and human rights defenders that have been constantly attacked and murdered by these groups,” said Giorgio Londoño, researcher for the Peace, Conflict, and Postconflict department at the Bogotá-based research institute PARES.
Violence in the Cauca region is driven by rampant drug production and its strategic proximity to the Pacific coast, from where drugs are shipped abroad. Its volatile security panorama is complicated by strong social movements from indigenous groups that criminal bands aim to silence with intimidation and violence.
Among the bands warring for control of the territory are guerrillas, paramilitaries, and several new fronts formed by FARC rebels who refused to disarm. All, which were previously minor actors, have strengthened since the FARC left its power vacuum, analysts say.
The government has blamed the latest incident on FARC dissident rebels of the Sixth Front and offered a $45,000 reward for information that could lead to the capture of the alleged perpetrator, alias ‘Mayimbu’—a FARC dissident known for dominating illegal marijuana production in the region.
As local and regional elections approach, violence committed by such groups is likely to spike in the coming months, experts say.
Since nominations for departmental and municipal elections were submitted over a month ago, five applicants have already been killed, according to Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission.
PARES reports eight threats, two killings, and three attempted murders to electoral candidates in Cauca since late October last year.
“Our research on electoral violence leads us to think that there could be more actions of this kind,” Londoño predicted, calling on the government to implement promises made in the peace agreement and offer better protection to those who report threats against them.