Caucasia, Colombia – Nine bullet holes dot the front door and window of Jhon Jairo Vasquez’s home in the northern town of Caucasia in Colombia‘s Bajo Cauca region.
Gunmen opened fire on September 11 at 1:30am. It was the day after the 53-year-old local incumbent councillor held a campaign rally, where he spoke against criminal groups and coca production – the base ingredient for cocaine – in the region.
Vasquez said has not slept well since the attack.
“I’m taking sedatives. I’ve become depressed, but trying to keep going,” he told Al Jazeera inside his humble home, where holes from ricocheted bullets mark the walls, many just outside his bedroom where he was sleeping at the time of the attack.
Threats and intimidation have become common in this town and region, but the situation has spiralled nationwide since campaigning began on June 27. Seven candidates have been killed and 62 others have been attacked or threatened.
It is a stark contrast from last year’s relatively peaceful presidential election. But this year’s poll is also the first of its kind at the local level since the signing of the landmark 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Such local and regional elections have traditionally seen high levels of violence, and this year proves to be no different.
Around 117,000 people are running for provincial governorships, mayorships and seats on provincial legislatures and local councils in the October 27 election.
Vasquez showed Al Jazeera threatening messages he received from criminal groups in the area, even before his reelection campaign as local councillor had started. He was sent a bulletproof vest as protection.
Local counsellor John Jairo spoke out on coca production & opportunities for young people. That night, gunmen opened fire on his home in Caucasia – a notoriously violent town – leaving 9 bullet holes. My story on the rise of electoral violence in 🇨🇴 coming later for @AJEnglish pic.twitter.com/DFrWaFzBV8
— Steven Grattan (@sjgrattan) October 10, 2019
Following a surge of attacks and threats on candidates, President Ivan Duque on September 16 promised to strengthen protection for candidates through the National Protection Unit (UNP) – the agency that provides bodyguards and other protections to public figures – promising all requests would be updated within 72 hours.
After the last attack, Vasquez decided to stop his campaign outside of Caucasia’s main urban area for security reasons.
He contacted the UNP to ask for more protection. After nearly a month of waiting, he was sent a bodyguard last week.
Nearly 2,000 candidates around the country who have requested protection now receive it, the UNP told Al Jazeera. But some who had to wait too long have already left their races or fled their towns out of fear.
“It’s a really difficult situation. If you go to Caceres you’ll learn that 60 percent of the councillors have had to leave because of threats. They couldn’t stay there,” Vasquez said, referring to a town about a town some 60km (37 miles) away.
The councilman added that young people in the region need opportunities as they are “completely disheartened”, causing many to join illegal groups that work in drug production, selling and extortion.
“I can’t go around telling young people not to join these illegal groups when I have nothing to offer them. They don’t have enough to live on. What we need now in Caucasia and in Bajo Cauca is the creation of jobs,” he said.
Informal work in Caucasia is at 87 percent and 73 percent of the residents are unemployed. Violence in the town is a daily occurrence and more 250 than have been killed in the city so far this year, according to Jesus Alean, founder of Fundacion Redes, a local human rights NGO.
Alean himself has received death threats this year from the Clan de Golfo – one of the most powerful drug cartels in Colombia. Like Vasques, he also requested help from the UNP.
“They sent me a bulletproof vest and a cell phone to call in emergencies,” he laughed. “How am I supposed to defend myself with a cell phone?”.
Four soldiers were killed in an ambush by Clan de Golfo in Caucasia five weeks ago and a young shop owner was shot dead for not paying “protection money” – known locally as “vacunas” – to the local paramilitary groups, the day after Al Jazeera’s visit in September.
“Even teachers and informal workers like motorbike taxis get charged, nobody escapes [paying protection money] here,” Vasquez said.
Slow implementation of peace process to blame
The Andean nation has a long history of electoral violence, but this new streak is much more worrying in a post-conflict context, says Camilo Vargas, director of the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) in Bogota, who have been monitoring the sharp rise in electoral violence.
The 2016 peace agreement ended five decades of civil war between the FARC and the government.
“What’s happening is evidence of the slowness of the peace processes implementation, which stated that once the FARC guerillas left the areas where they were present, the State would quickly invest in these areas to create alternatives to the growing of illicit drug crops,” Vargas said.
Points one and two of the peace deal are related to crop substitution – illegal to legal farming – and generating more opportunities for rural communities.
“So in these areas where there is drug cultivation or other activities like illegal mining, new groups have emerged,” he said.
FARC dissidents, National Liberation Army (ELN) fighters and paramilitaries aggressively vie over the land to use for drug cultivation and illegal mining.
Since 2013, the aggressions and attacks had been lowering during election periods, but this year the high figures return.
“In just two months, 69 candidates have been a victim to violence and most worrying of all, seven of them have been killed, a number higher than four years ago, and the campaigning hasn’t even finished,” Vargas told Al Jazeera. “We’re seeing this violence affecting all types of political parties, from the left and right, it’s not an ideological violence, but it has to do with local issues.”
Although the evidence is scarce, some also question whether candidates from rival political groups may be paying hitmen to deter their opponents in these regions.
Maurico Tobon, running as an independent candidate for governor of Medellin, told Al Jazeera over the phone that he and his team had been threatened four times since his campaign began, including in Medellin’s urban area, where they were made to leave by armed gunmen.
“Unfortunately, in Caceres, when our team was delivering campaign publicity, we were threatened by an individual who told us that we had to immediately withdraw from the area and not deliver the publicity, otherwise, they were going to shoot us,” Tobon said about another more rural threat.
The Colombian government is focusing international attention on Venezuela while its own house is burning down. The peace accord allowed for the most non-violent presidential election in Colombian history and due to Duque’s neglect of the accord, we are seeing a rising tide of electoral violence and death threats in these regional elections.
Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Running to become the first female mayor of Suarez, in the Cauca region of Colombia, Karina Garcia was one of the seven people killed while campaigning this year. Images circulated online of the burned-out car attacked by gunmen and set on fire, leaving her, her mother and four others dead. She, too, had received threats weeks before her murder and had contacted the government for protection.
“The Colombian government is focusing international attention on Venezuela while its own house is burning down. The peace accord allowed for the most non-violent presidential election in Colombian history and due to Duque’s neglect of the accord, we are seeing a rising tide of electoral violence and death threats in these regional elections,” said Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think-tank.
Like many, Vasquez and people in this rural region are still suffering under armed groups and have lost hope in the peace process.
“I don’t see any truth in the peace process under this presidency. In Caucasia and in Bajo Cauca, we haven’t seen any change with what was talked about in the peace process.
“Bajo Cauca has more than 20,000 victims of the conflict. We are still seeing people disappear. In the last months, seven young people have disappeared from Caucasia. Everyday, things like this are happening, and nobody says anything,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez, who one day hopes to run for mayor in his hometown, now has some peace of mind with a gun-bearing bodyguard by his side. But he still nervously glares at every passing motorbike, fearing another attack, this time to silence him for good.