The attempted assassination of family members of Colombia’s vice president underscores the deteriorating situation in the southwest of the country and puts at further risk an already faltering peace plan with the major group in the area.

On June 16, men on motorcycles shot at a vehicle carrying Sigifredo Márquez, the father of Vice President Francia Márquez, as well as her six-year-old nephew, on a road near Jamundí, Valle del Cauca. 

The pair was traveling from Márquez’s hometown of Suárez in Cauca to Cali in Valle del Cauca when they were attacked. The family escaped without any injuries.

SEE ALSO: Violence in Valle del Cauca Highlights Rise of Gang Massacres in Colombia

Authorities claim the attackers belonged to the Jaime Martínez Front, a subgroup of the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC), a federation of dissident fronts of the now defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). 

The EMC is behind a recent sharp rise in violence in Cauca and Valle de Cauca.

The day after the attack, members of the Carlos Patiño Front, a separate EMC subgroup, dropped explosives from drones on houses in Argelia, Cauca, injuring four people. On June 12, the group injured three soldiers in a drone attack in the same municipality.

EMC groups have previously launched violent attacks elsewhere in these departments. During May and June, EMC fronts assaulted police stations, shot at military helicopters, detonated motorcycle bombs, and attacked a bank, leaving dozens dead and injured.

The wave of insecurity began following the Colombian government’s decision to partially suspend a cease fire with the EMC in Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño after members of the group murdered an Indigenous leader in Cauca. The sides had maintained the cease fire since October 2023 as part of President Gustavo Petro’s ambitious Total Peace plan, which seeks to negotiate peace deals with Colombia’s main armed groups and criminal gangs.

In response to the suspension of the cease fire, the EMC’s top leader, Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco,” declared that the group would not continue the dialogue unless the nationwide ceasefire was reinstated.  

This led to a split within the EMC. Some groups have renewed their attacks against the government, while others – roughly 40% of the total organization – remain in negotiations, according to Camilo González, the administration’s chief negotiator in the EMC dialogues.

In response to aggressions from EMC groups, Petro has adopted a “total war” approach, a markedly different strategy to his previous attempts to deal with the EMC, which have used ceasefires as an attempt to reduce violence. 

“The offensive against the EMC in Cauca must be total. They are murderers of the people and traffickers,” Petro posted on the social media site X at the beginning of May.

InSight Crime Analysis

The attack on the vice president’s family and sharp rise in violence in southwestern Colombia suggests that peace in that region is becoming an increasingly distant possibility.

Cauca and Valle del Cauca play crucial roles in the drug trade as principal coca-growing regions, housing cocaine production laboratories and serving as departure points for drugs.

The municipalities where most violent actions have been concentrated, including Argelia, El Tambo, Morales, Suárez, and Jamundí, form part of a strategic corridor. This corridor connects coca-growing enclaves and producers in Cauca with Valle del Cauca, home to Buenaventura, a key port for drug trafficking along the Pacific coast.

SEE ALSO: Social Leaders in Cauca, Colombia Face Down Threats From Crime Groups

The Commander Jacobo Arenas Western Bloc (Bloque Occidental Comandante Jacobo Arenas – BOCJA) is the EMC faction in these municipalities. Its various fronts control virtually all the drug trafficking and illegal mining in the area.

The BOCJA is one of the strongest branches of the EMC, comprising over 50% of the organization’s total members, according to the Conflict Responses Foundation (Fundación Conflict Responses), a Colombian non-governmental organization researching armed conflict and organized crime. Its fronts control most of the territory where the government suspended the ceasefire with the EMC in March, and has since become one of several factions that have stopped negotiating. Its absence is one of the main causes of the ongoing violence.

During the government’s ceasefire with the group, the EMC faced no imminent threat from security forces and redirected their military efforts towards other armed groups, Colombian Minister of Defense Iván Velásquez said in April.

In practice, this meant that BOCJA fronts had the breathing room to increase their involvement in drug trafficking, mining, extortion, and other illicit economies in Cauca and Valle del Cauca while negotiating a peace deal.

It also gave them time to recruit new members to fend off rival criminal groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Second Marquetalia, another group of FARC dissidents, who were trying to make inroads into this lucrative coca-cultivation enclave.

“There’s a lot of money moving in Cauca due to illicit economies,” a retired Colombian army colonel who asked for anonymity told InSight Crime. “Will the [EMC] leave the area so that other groups can enter? They will never do that.”

With the ceasefire off the table, the BOCJA is facing increasing pressure from military forces. Its attacks are likely attempts to increase their leverage and exert pressure on the government to return to the ceasefire. However, the government has not changed its position.

“If what this criminal organization wants is for us to surrender and agree to a ceasefire again, they are wrong, because there will be no resumption of the ceasefire with the EMC in Nariño, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca,” Velásquez said in a speech to the Colombian Congress on June 17.

Despite Velásquez’s statement, the government has not completely closed the door to negotiations, demanding a de-escalation of violence from the dissidents. However, the continued violent actions of the BOCJA fronts and the government’s military operations against them have made the possibility of resuming dialogue increasingly remote.

Feature image: Police clear debris after a motorcycle bomb explodes in downtown Jamundí, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. Credit: EFE