How Colombia's Criminals are Bullying and Buying Their Way into Office

Letter From Buenaventura

Courtesy Reuters

City Councilman Rolando Caicedo Arroyo would like to be mayor of Buenaventura, Colombia, someday. He is young, bright, and amiable; he says all the right things when you ask him about his priorities for this impoverished coastal town. In other words, he has all the characteristics that should allow him to get elected. But he seems skeptical of his chances. "Mayors, here in Buenaventura and many places in Colombia, usually receive patronage from drug trafficking," he told me. "Whoever has the most money wins. ...They buy the political support."

When Colombians go to the polls this month, some 24,000 politicians like Caicedo will be gaming for seats as town councilmen, mayors, and governors. They will not be the only ones trying to win, however. Narcotics-trafficking criminal gangs, known here as bacrim (bandas criminales, or "criminal gangs"), will also be contesting for influence through the local politicians they back. In order to win or maintain control over drug-trafficking routes, the armed bands are buying, intimidating, and assassinating their way into power.

Already, hundreds of hopeful candidates have been disqualified for having criminal records or links to armed groups. First, the country's intelligence service announced in July that some 400 candidates had criminal records. Days later, an Interior Ministry-funded investigation bumped that number up to more than 500. On August 1, the Conservative Party -- one of the three largest parties in the country -- said that it was expelling 480 of its own potential candidates from its electoral list for past criminal offenses or dubious links to illicit groups. And just this week, the mayor of Colombia's second city, Medellin, accused a candidate of criminal ties. He released photos of the man in poor company to prove his point.

Political violence has also been alarming. According to the Mission for Electoral Observation (MOE), a Colombian NGO, by mid September, 46 candidates or political leaders had been assassinated by an assortment of armed groups. And although the specific motives are often a mystery, the cases largely comes down to

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