Why Are Political Candidates Being Assassinated in Colombia?

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The murder of seven candidates in Colombia’s upcoming municipal elections within a month, the highest rate since 2015, has raised new questions about the motives behind the violence. 

According to the most recent report on political violence by the Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral – MOE), 364 political, social and community leaders around the country have been the victims of assaults within the past year, 91 of whom were killed. 

Among the most recent killings, when Karina García, a mayoral candidate from the Liberal party in Suárez, Cauca, was shot to death in her car along with five other people on September 1. 

The following day, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, Miguel Ceballos claimed in an interview with W Radio, that a dissident member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) was responsible for the murder [of Karina García in Cauca]. 

Since García, two more political candidates have been murdered, bringing the total to seven assassinated in the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Valle del Cauca and Caquetá between August and early September.

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In addition to the deaths, the MOE report counted other acts of violence during this pre-electoral period, including 224 threats, 45 physical attacks, two kidnappings and two forced disappearances nationwide.

The next regional elections will take place on October 27, when Colombians nationwide will elect governors, local department representatives, mayors and more.

InSight Crime Analysis

Territorial control, the positioning of armed actors and campaign financing are among the major factors behind the assassinations of political leaders and candidates in Colombia. 

Colombia’s complex criminal and electoral landscape means that different motives in different areas may explain separate spikes in electoral violence. However, as the MOE report shows, political violence affects all communities, independent of where they fall on the political spectrum. 

Over the past few years, leaders from at least 15 different political parties have been attacked. Candidates ranged from a conservative Democratic Center mayoral candidate in Toledo, in the department of Antioquia, to two municipal candidates from Bucaramanga and Socorro in Santander from the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común), the party of the now demobilized FARC.

InSight Crime has been able to confirm through field visits that candidates are often murdered by armed groups looking to stamp their authority on a region. Candidates seen as a threat to this control or to illegal revenue streams often become targets.

Candidates in favor of specific actions, such as promoting the forced eradication or voluntary substitution of illicit coca crops, or supporting the development of alternative economies to replace coca, are especially at risk.

SEE ALSO: Uncertainty Surrounds Protection Plan for Colombia’s Crop Substitution Leaders

According an early warning issued by the Ombudsman’s Office on August 31, there is a risk that ex-FARC dissidents, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional-ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación-EPL) and various paramilitary groups operating around the country will seek to influence the upcoming elections. 

A second risk factor, also pointed out by the Ombudsman’s Office, is the political stigma that candidates suffer during the election season. 

A week before her murder, for example, Karina García had recorded a video in which she stated that her political opponents wrongly accused her of wanting to allow paramilitaries to enter the region, of bringing multinational companies into the municipality to extract gold and of supporting local inhabitants having their land repossessed. García claimed that these accusations put her at risk considering the current tumultuous security situation in Cauca.

Camilo Vargas, the coordinator of the MOE’s Observatory on Political and Social Violence, said that the motives for violence may also be related to factors such as internal disputes within political parties and campaign financing. 

“The internal negotiation processes on the local stage tend to be settled with violence,” Vargas told InSight Crime.

Sometimes, he explained, the candidates themselves start disputes in order to receive their party’s endorsement or win races, and even hire armed groups to get their opponents out of the way. 

Another risk factor is related to campaign financing

“Due to the lack of control over financing, there is a perverse incentive to launder illicit funds in electoral campaigns,” Vargas said. 

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