Colombia is one of the longest-standing democracies in Latin America, and its foundational institutions serve an effective role in checking executive power. However, a low-intensity internal conflict has afflicted the country since the 1960s and greatly affected both political rights and civil liberties. A peace process between the government and Colombia’s main left-wing guerilla group, launched in 2012, led to the ratification of a peace accord in 2016 and has contributed to a significant decline in violence.
Key Developments in 2016:
- The government and left-wing guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached a deal on a peace accord in August. Although it was narrowly rejected in an October referendum, renegotiations yielded a revised accord in November, which the legislature ratified without an additional plebiscite.
- In March, the government agreed to initiate formal negotiations with another left-wing guerrilla group, the Army of National Liberation (ELN).
- In February, the chief of Colombia’s National Police resigned amid a deepening scandal involving a prostitution ring within police ranks; in response to this and other revelations of malfeasance, his successor initiated an extensive purge of the force as part of a crackdown on corruption.
- A wave of lethal attacks against human rights defenders and other social activists occurred during the year—including dozens in the months after the signing of the first peace accord.
The peace process between the government and the FARC dominated the political environment in 2016. Although domestic opposition created a tense negotiating environment, the two sides announced in August that they had reached a final accord, including an agreement on ceasefire and disarmament as well as provisions for UN monitoring. The agreement was formally signed in September and put to a referendum in October. While most polling suggested an advantage for the “yes” vote, the accord was rejected by roughly 53,000 votes—a margin of less than 0.5 percent—amid a 37 percent turnout.
In the aftermath of the plebiscite, the two sides relaunched talks amid a fragile calm. Following six weeks of discussions, as well as a series of large pro-peace demonstrations throughout the country, the government and the FARC produced a new accord in November. The deal contained some changes requested by opponents of the initial document, including revisions to the transitional justice system and stricter terms regarding the confinement of guerrillas convicted of war crimes under the system. Colombia’s Congress subsequently ratified the agreement, and demobilization officially commenced on December 1. Later that month, the Constitutional Court confirmed Congress’s ability to fast-track many laws required for implementing the accord; absent such a mechanism, legislative delays could diminish confidence in the government’s ability to uphold its responsibilities.
Although UN monitors and other observers expressed concern about delays in the movement of guerrillas into demobilization and disarmament zones, implementation appeared stable at year’s end. Both supporters and skeptics of the accord expressed concern that some members of the FARC would migrate to the ELN or paramilitary successor groups, and members of several FARC fronts were reported to have broken with guerrilla leadership and rejected the accords during the year. ELN activity has indeed increased in recent years, but the group agreed in March to hold formal peace talks with the government.
The peace process contributed to a significant decline in the level of violence. The homicide rate dropped to its lowest point in 40 years, and the FARC maintained a ceasefire through the year, resulting in the lowest number of conflict-related victims in over five decades. However, significant rule of law challenges—including a compromised judiciary, corrupt military, and climate of impunity—persisted. Human rights defenders and other social activists were again the targets of violent attack during the year. According to the We Are Defenders coalition, 77 activists had been killed as of mid-December.
The president is directly elected to a four-year term. As part of a series of 2015 constitutional amendments known as the Balance of Power reform, immediate presidential reelection was eliminated. Congress is composed of the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, with all seats up for election every four years. The nation at large selects 100 Senate members using a closed-list system; indigenous communities choose two additional members. The Chamber of Representatives consists of 166 members elected by closed-list proportional representation in multimember districts. The final peace accord between the government and the FARC, ratified in November 2016, included a provision guaranteeing former guerrillas five seats in each chamber in the 2018 and 2022 elections.
The 2014 legislative and presidential elections were relatively peaceful, although the former was plagued by accusations of fraud, vote buying, and connections with criminals. President Juan Manuel Santos’s main allies, the Liberal Party, the Social National Unity Party (U Party), and Radical Change, won a substantial majority in the Chamber of Representatives, taking 92 seats. In the Senate, however, the coalition won only 47 seats. Former president Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center took 20 seats in the Senate and 19 in the Chamber of Representatives, becoming the primary opposition force.
President Santos won the second round of the 2014 election with 51 percent of the vote against Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had won the first round with 29 percent to Santos’s 26 percent. The balloting was considered relatively free and fair; the most dramatic scandal involved allegations that Andrés Sepúlveda, arrested in 2014 and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment on charges of cyberespionage, had shared illegally intercepted intelligence with Uribe and members of the Zuluaga campaign.
Regional elections in 2015 fortified parties allied with the government, which won gubernatorial races in 23 of the 32 departments. In the most closely followed race, independent former mayor Enrique Peñalosa won the seat again in Bogotá, ending 12 years of rule by the left-wing Democratic Pole. The polls were characterized by accusations of improper influence by illegal groups, irregularities in voter registration, and insufficient candidate vetting by the major parties.
The nine members of the National Electoral Council—elected by Congress for four-year terms based on party nominations—oversee the conduct of the country’s elections, including the financing of political campaigns and the counting of votes.
The traditional Liberal-Conservative partisan duopoly in Congress has been supplanted in recent years by a newer party system that is still evolving. The system consists of the traditional parties—which are often characterized by factionalism—as well as regional movements, ideological groups from both the right and the left, and technocratic or issue-oriented parties. Santos’s centrist National Unity coalition, which enjoyed dominance in both chambers during his first term, maintained the loose support of a significant majority of legislators following the 2014 elections, despite the vocal and cohesive presence of the Uribe-led right.
In 2016, the ELN and criminal gangs subjected government officials to sporadic threats, harassment, and violence. Police forces and the National Protection Unit, a body under the Ministry of Interior, provided protection to hundreds of public officials during the year.
While general progress remains slow, the government has undertaken a series of steps to incorporate indigenous and Afro-Colombian voices into national political debates in recent years, including training programs to increase Afro-Colombian communities’ capacity for governance and awareness of their broader political rights. The peace accord ratified in November 2016 included provisions for improving consultation mechanisms for marginalized groups.
Corruption occurs at multiple levels of public administration. Graft scandals have emerged in recent years within an array of federal government agencies. The “parapolitics” scandal, which linked scores of politicians to illegal paramilitary groups, resulted in the investigation, arrest, or conviction of more than 90 legislators by the close of the 2006–10 Congress.
Part of the responsibility for combating corruption rests with the inspector general, who is charged with monitoring the actions of elected officials. Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez, who removed multiple mayors and bureaucratic officials from office or suspended their right to stand for election, was forced out in September 2016—just months before his term was scheduled to end—due to alleged ethics violations during his reelection bid in 2012. Numerous officials from the Uribe administration have been convicted of corruption, trading favors, and spying on political opponents. In February 2016, the national chief of police resigned following renewed revelations of a prostitution ring within police ranks that had been used by both officers and legislators between 2004 and 2008. His successor carried out a far-reaching crackdown on corruption within the force, with more than 1,400 officers dismissed by year’s close. Colombia was ranked 90 out of 176 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Public access to government information is generally available for a reasonable fee, though some lower-level officials have reportedly required bribes to expedite access. Congress maintains an online platform on which legislators can voluntarily publish financial disclosures.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and opposition views are commonly expressed in the media. However, journalists face intimidation, kidnapping, and violence both in the course of reporting and as retaliation for their work. Dozens of journalists have been murdered since the mid-1990s, many of them targeted for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption. Although no journalists were killed in 2016, a local media watchdog recorded at least 216 threats and other abuses against the press, a sharp rise from 2015. Among other cases during the year, members of the ELN kidnapped six reporters in May, holding them for nearly a week before releasing them unharmed. The government has prosecuted several notorious cases of murdered journalists in recent years, but convictions have been made in fewer than 15 percent of killings since 1977. In December 2015, evidence emerged that police had spied on journalists investigating the prostitution ring within its own ranks.
Self-censorship is common, and slander and defamation remain criminal offenses. The government does not restrict access to the internet, nor does it censor websites. Twitter and other social-media platforms have become important arenas for political discourse.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The authorities also uphold academic freedom. University debates are often vigorous, though armed groups maintain a presence on some campuses to generate political support and intimidate opponents.
Human rights groups have criticized the government’s use of civilian informants to gather information about suspected criminal and terrorist activities, warning that the practice threatens civil liberties, including the right to privacy.
Although provided for in the constitution, freedoms of assembly and association are restricted in practice by violence. From May to June 2016, indigenous and peasant farmer groups across the country held a coordinated strike to demand government action on agrarian and mining policies, human rights concerns, and other issues, and to request inclusion in deliberations on such questions. The strikes, which included road blockades, led to a heavy police response. At least three participants died and more than 100 people were injured in the ensuing clashes.
The government provides protection to hundreds of threatened human rights workers, but trust in the service varies widely. Scores of activists have been murdered in recent years, mostly by the criminal organizations that succeeded paramilitary groups following a government-backed demobilization process in 2005. Although the Santos administration has reiterated its respect for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), violations against activists have continued. In 2016, despite an overall decline in the level of violence through the country, fatal attacks against human rights defenders and other activists increased. According to We Are Defenders, a coalition of local and international organizations, 77 activists had been murdered as of mid-December, a dramatic increase compared with the previous two years. Land rights and victims’ rights campaigners in particular are threatened by former paramilitaries and other local actors seeking to silence criticism of assets acquired during the conflict and halt the implementation of rural development programs. Observers noted that a significant number of the 2016 killings occurred after the signing of the first peace accord with the FARC, and that many victims were affiliated with the Patriotic March, a rural political movement expected to absorb former FARC members.
Workers may form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike, and antiunion discrimination is prohibited. Over the past two decades, Colombia’s illegal armed groups have killed more than 2,600 labor union activists and leaders. Killings have declined substantially from their peak in the early 2000s but still occur regularly. Although a special prosecutorial unit has substantially increased prosecutions for such assassinations since 2007, few investigations have targeted those who ordered the killings.
The justice system remains compromised by corruption and extortion, although the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court have demonstrated independence from the executive in recent years. In 2015, however, the Constitutional Court’s reputation was severely damaged by allegations that its president had solicited a $200,000 bribe to rule in favor of an oil company; in August 2016, he was formally suspended from the court.
Many soldiers operate with limited civilian oversight, though the government has in recent years increased human rights training and investigated a greater number of violations by military as well as police personnel. In 2016, these efforts included an investigation of corruption within the National Police following revelations about a prostitution ring within its ranks. Collaboration between security forces and illegal armed groups has declined since the 2005 demobilization, but rights groups report official toleration of paramilitary successor groups in some regions. Primary responsibility for combating these groups rests with the police, who lack the resources of the military, are frequently accused of colluding with criminals, and are largely absent from many rural areas where the groups are active. In late March and early April, the Úsuga Clan, a paramilitary group involved in drug trafficking, announced an “armed strike” in the northeast of the country. The group forced residents of some towns to cease work and public activities, and engaged security forces in armed combat. The clashes resulted in six deaths and temporarily paralyzed economic activity in some areas.
The systematic killing of civilians to fraudulently inflate guerrilla death tolls has declined substantially since a 2008 scandal over the practice led to the firing of dozens of senior army officers. More than 3,000 people may have been killed for such reasons. As of early 2016, more than 900 soldiers had been convicted of these crimes, and thousands of security personnel remained under investigation during the year. However, rights groups have claimed that high-ranking officers largely escape punishment. The military continued to lobby for the maximal inclusion of these crimes under the transitional justice umbrella.
Civil-military relations have been a source of significant tension in recent years. A multiyear project to expand the jurisdiction of the military justice system has prompted sustained domestic and international outcry during much of Santos’s time in office. Legislation passed in 2015 omitted many of the most controversial provisions regarding jurisdiction for human rights violations. In 2016, a portion of the armed forces opposed the peace process, and there was public uncertainty regarding the ability of accused human rights violators within the military to receive benefits under the transitional justice system.
Some areas, particularly resource-rich zones and drug-trafficking corridors, remain highly insecure. Guerrillas and paramilitary successor groups regularly extort payments from business owners and engage in forced recruitment, including of minors. The use of landmines in the internal conflict has added to casualties among both civilians and the military. Impunity for crime in general is rampant, with convictions achieved in only 10 percent of murders. Most massacres during the conflict have gone unpunished. In October 2016, prosecutors indicted Santiago Uribe, the former president’s brother, for allegedly leading a paramilitary group responsible for dozens of deaths in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, violence has significantly subsided since the early 2000s. In 2016, the homicide rate declined to its lowest point in four decades. The peace process specifically has contributed to a significant reduction in violence. The FARC maintained a ceasefire through much of 2015 and all of 2016, resulting in the lowest number of conflict-related victims in over 50 years.
Colombians’ experience of the conflict played a role in voting patterns during the October referendum. In many regions most directly afflicted by the conflict, the “yes” vote garnered a significant majority, but the “no” campaign triumphed in areas characterized by lower violence and a greater state presence. The local media and public attributed the referendum result to several factors, including the depth of negativity toward the FARC among many Colombians, Santos’s low approval ratings, low mobilization of “yes” supporters, and a vigorous “no” campaign led by former president Uribe. Pro-accord observers accused the “no” campaign of distorting perceptions of the agreement by suggesting that it would grant FARC members large payouts and by creating controversy around its provisions on women’s and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights.
Afro-Colombians, who account for approximately 25 percent of the population, make up the largest segment of Colombia’s more than five million displaced people, and 80 percent of Afro-Colombians fall below the poverty line. Areas with concentrated Afro-Colombian populations continue to suffer from abuses by the FARC, security forces, and paramilitary successors. In 2016, territorial clashes among militant groups in Chocó department displaced more than 6,000 people–largely Afro-Colombian and indigenous residents of the area—between March and May alone.
Most of Colombia’s more than 1.7 million indigenous inhabitants live on approximately 34 million hectares granted to them by the government, often in resource-rich, strategic regions that are increasingly contested by various armed groups. Indigenous people have been targeted by all sides in the country’s various conflicts. In October 2015, the Constitutional Court upheld the validity of a decree issued by the government in 2014 that satisfies a commitment to increased autonomy for indigenous territories.
LGBT people suffer societal discrimination and abuse, as well as high levels of impunity for crimes committed against them. According to the local NGO Colombia Diversa, more than 110 LGBT individuals were murdered in 2015. Members of the transgender community have experienced difficulties changing their gender designations on national identity documents and have been denied medical care when health care providers have refused to accept their government identification cards. In August 2016, tens of thousands of Colombians marched to protest Education Minister Gina Parody’s proposals to de-emphasize gender in school policies and create a student manual about sexual orientation, which the protesters claimed would lead to pro-LGBT indoctrination. The controversy prompted Parody—who is openly lesbian and managed the “yes” campaign before the October referendum—to resign.
Freedom of movement, choice of residence, and property rights are restricted by violence, particularly for vulnerable minority groups. Travel in rural areas is further limited by illegal checkpoints operated by criminal and guerrilla groups. Progress remains uneven on the implementation of the landmark 2011 Victims and Land Law, which recognized the legitimacy of claims by victims of conflict-related abuses, including those committed by government forces. While affected citizens continue receiving compensation, the legal process for land restitution is heavily backlogged, and the resettlement of those who were displaced during the conflict continues to move slowly.
Sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation remain major concerns. Thousands of rapes have occurred as part of the conflict, generally with impunity. The country has restrictive abortion laws, though a 2006 Constitutional Court ruling allowed abortion in cases of rape or incest or to protect the life of the mother. In 2015, Congress adopted legislation specifically criminalizing femicide, the killing of a woman because of her gender or gender identity or as part of a campaign of violence. In October 2016, a unit within the prosecutor general’s office reported a sharp rise in reports of gender violence in the first nine months of 2016.
In April 2016, after several years of contradictory judicial and administrative decisions regarding same-sex unions, the Constitutional Court voted to legalize them. The court legalized adoptions by same-sex couples in 2015.
Child labor, the recruitment of children by illegal armed groups, and related sexual abuse are serious problems in Colombia. A 2011 free trade agreement with the United States and a subsequent Labor Action Plan called for enhanced investigation of abusive labor practices and rights violations, but progress remains deficient in several areas.
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