Colombia‘s government is making more effort than ever before to keep criminals from winning political power in the coming elections, but it is up against serious odds, with an overwhelming 130,000 candidates standing for office across the country.

A man struts through town in a cowboy hat, flanked by a glamorous woman and three bodyguards with fingers on the triggers of their weapons. He puts a horse through its paces, drinks at a sidewalk bar, and shows off cattle, while a singer accompanies him with the lyrics:

I am the Boss of Bosses … I am happy with my gun, I defy death … My people are ready to fight with anyone … My people look after me and finish off snitches, who are going to have a very nasty run-in with the Boss of Bosses.

This is not a “narcocorrido” declaiming the exploits of a Mexican drug lord, but rather a music video featuring an aspiring Conservative Party candidate for the governorship of Caqueta province, in southern Colombia (watch, below). The party was quick to drop the would-be candidate, Arnulfo Gasca, removing its endorsement after the footage hit the media in July.

Gasca is among hundreds of candidates deselected by political parties amid the Santos government’s unprecedented efforts to tackle corruption and the influence of criminal groups on the elections. The government has taken a forceful public stance against criminal infiltration in local government, with Interior Minister German Vargas Lleras declaring, “Make no mistake, the government is determined that the mafias will not take over governors, mayorships, or public institutions … Let there be no doubt, the government intends to protect the coming elections and avoid the improper use of public money.”

Colombia has a long history of candidates with ties to criminal groups, and, after the 2006 congressional elections, almost a third of winning candidates were later investigated for ties to paramilitaries, in what became known as the “parapolitics” scandal.

Local politics is perhaps even more vulnerable to criminal infiltration. Many parts of the country are not entirely under the control of the central government, and are often dominated by powerful local elites with links to drug trafficking and illegal armed groups. In a recent report, International Crisis Group pointed to moves to decentralize government in the 1980s and 1990s, giving more power and bigger budgets to local governments, as having inadvertently created an environment in which these local administrations became juicy financial prizes for criminal groups. The paramilitaries were at the forefront of the resulting powergrab.

One of the biggest steps the government has taken to stop a parapolitics-style scandal hitting 2011’s local elections is a set of legal reforms which make it the parties’ responsibility to weed out not only those candidates who have been convicted of crimes, but those who are under investigation. Under the new laws, the conviction of any politician, while in office, for crimes committed before the election will trigger sanctions for the party that backed them. This applies to convictions for drug trafficking, crimes against humanity, ties to armed groups, and electoral offenses. The idea is to give the parties an added incentive to keep candidates with illegal ties off their lists, even ones who have not been convicted of anything. Parties that fall foul of the law face fines, and may be banned from fielding candidates in the same municipality in the next election.

International Crisis Group had some praise for the Santos administration’s stance on the elections in its recent report, saying that “the national government appears more willing and better prepared than in the past to curb the influence of illegal actors on the elections,” although cautioning that “the challenges remain huge.”

In one notable break from the past, the Santos administration commissioned think tank Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris — a frequent government critic — to scrutinize the backgrounds of candidates in selected parts of the country. The organization investigated candidates in areas with a high chance of criminal infiltration, covering 75 of the country’s more than 1,119 municipalities, across 23 provinces.

Nuevo Arco Iris then published a report naming more than 100 candidates for mayor and governor who it judges to be “high risk,” on the grounds that they have apparent ties to illegal armed groups, or may have tried to put pressure on voters, misused public funds, or have illegal campaign financing. (See InSight Crime’s map of the findings, below) The evidence cited includes whether candidates have close relatives who are linked to members of criminal groups or are linked to drug trafficking, whether the candidates have ties to criminal politicians, and whether they have questionable business dealings, or are under investigation for a crime.

Looking at just two examples, both candidates for the governing Partido de la U, gives an idea of the scope of Nuevo Arco Iris’ findings. One candidate, standing for governor of Guaviare in the southeast of the country, allegedly has ties to two of the country’s biggest drug lords, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “El Cuchillo” (now deceased), and Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco.” Both men allegedly funded his campaign, according to the report. Meanwhile one mayoral candidate in Arauca, a province that borders Venezuela, allegedly has members of the FARC’s 10th Front pressuring voters to support him.

While the government’s commissioning of this report is praiseworthy, especially given that it digs up damaging information about the president’s own party, it should be noted that some have questioned the government’s handling of the information, and criticized the fact that it was not handed over directly to the political parties.

Another positive move was the Santos government’s decision to reach out to the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE). Vargas Lleras held a meeting with a representative of the organization to discuss the “risk map” that they had published for the coming elections, as they have done in each vote for some years. The MOE reported that the minister had not contested their findings, even when these clashed with the government’s own, and had committed to combining the two sets of data. This approach certainly seems to strike a different note to the previous government’s treatment of civil society groups, which often seemed to lean towards shouting down critics, rather than engaging with them.

The importance of this approach, and of Nuevo Arco Iris’ investigative work, is shown by the fact that so few candidates are actually found to have criminal records. The intelligence agency, DAS, carried out checks on potential candidates on behalf of certain parties, including the Partido de la U, the Liberal Party, and the Conservatives. Of some 24,000 candidates examined, DAS found that just over 400 had criminal records. As the agency’s director, Felipe Muñoz, pointed out, this means that only two percent of the examined candidates had been convicted of any crime. The real level of criminal infiltration in the elections is certainly much higher than this. In a country where impunity is such a serious problem, the approach of digging into candidates’ family ties and professional connections is very important, as many of those who represent criminal interests have never themselves been convicted of anything.

The major parties have responded to the new government emphasis on clean candidates by denying their endorsement to hundreds of questionable individuals. In July there were reports that the parties in the governing coalition — Partido de la U, the Conservatives, Liberals, and Cambio Radical — had between them withdrawn their backing from some 500 candidates in a purge of their lists. Within weeks the Conservatives claimed that they alone had·withdrawn some 480 candidates who had been accused of misdeeds, among them corruption, sex crimes, and drug trafficking. In mid-August Vargas Lleras announced that 2,223 candidates had been withdrawn, or had their candidacy denied by parties, following background checks.

Gasca, the aspiring Caqueta governor featured in the “Boss of Bosses” music video, is then only one of hundreds of potential candidates to be ejected from the lists of political parties in the run-up to October’s elections. Many are accused of corruption or links to drug trafficking, paramilitary groups, or leftist rebels, though generally not all at the same time, like Gasca.

The politician’s problems go beyond the video that triggered his downfall, which was made several years ago. His reputation has also been hit by reports that he faked a divorce with his wife, the mayor of Florencia, in order to be eligible to run for governor. She, meanwhile, was previously married to an alleged drug trafficker, who supposedly led a local cartel. Gasca was himself arrested on drug trafficking charges in 1999, alongside his brother Andres, who was convicted. According to some reports, Andres was also a member of right-wing paramilitary group the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Adding to the complications, a former guerrilla from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) told a local newspaper that he had protected Gasca in rebel-controlled territory while the case blew over.

Even if candidates lose their party’s endorsement they can still stand if they collect enough signatures, as Gasca, star of the “Boss of Bosses,” tried to do. He collected the required amount, with more than 60,000 names, according to reports, but remains excluded from the ballot after the National Electoral Council (CNE) questioned their authenticity. The council has been asked by the Inspector General’s Office to withdraw the candidacy of some 477 such independent candidates.

But even if Gasca stays off the ballot paper, with more than 130,000 standing for office in October, there are bound to be many more compromised candidates that slip through the cracks.

– See InSight Crime’s report on the role of the new-generation drug gangs
– See InSight Crime’s report on violence against candidates