Colombia’s state of internal conflict, the most prolonged of any country in the Western Hemisphere, has dramatically affected nearly all aspects of politics and civil society. In addition, its status as the world’s top producer of cocaine has resulted in massive financial flows to both left-wing rebels, particularly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and their right-wing paramilitary nemeses, formerly known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The government, for its part, attempts to battle the insurgency and–with varying degrees of urgency–contain the paramilitaries and drug traffickers, all while maintaining a democracy that is relatively well-institutionalized for a country with an internal conflict. Given the sharpness of the ideological differences that characterize the conflict, civil society groups with any political leanings, often including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and trade unions, have inevitably been drawn into the line of fire. With the FARC now weakened and the paramilitaries largely demobilized, hopes are high that Colombia is moving toward a less violent equilibrium. The government’s success in halting violence directed at NGO workers and trade unionists, and in punishing the perpetrators, will serve as a fundamental test of the country’s progress.
Freedom of Association
Colombia’s highly active NGO sector has played an indispensable role during the nation’s long years of conflict. The groups have monitored the violence, assisted internally displaced people and other victims, investigated illegal links between various powerful figures, and publicized Colombia’s trauma internationally. For this they have paid a very high price. While the government does not impose notably onerous registration requirements, place harsh restrictions on NGO financing, or apply pressure to donors and funders, Colombian NGOs suffer from a number of other grave threats. The most serious problems are intimidation and violence. Scores of NGO workers have been killed after falling under the suspicion of the guerrillas or, more commonly, paramilitaries for working with victims of the conflict or expressing the “wrong” ideological sympathies. Other NGO workers have received threats, had their offices burglarized, or been displaced from their homes. The government has taken some important steps in recent years to minimize these problems, establishing a large-scale protection program for threatened civil society activists. In addition, there are fewer threats to NGOs overall than during the worst years of fighting, and some NGO workers forced into exile have since returned. However, violence and threats continue, particularly against investigators of corruption and the drug trade, and the level of impunity remains extremely high.
The government has at times subjected NGO workers to questionable arrests for terrorism-related offenses, which marks them as enemies in the eyes of paramilitaries or local mafias. In recent years the rhetoric of President Alvaro Uribe and his advisers has often exacerbated the stigmatization of NGO workers. For example, in February 2007 the president accused unnamed individuals of exchanging guerrilla camouflage for civilian clothing. In the following days, dozens of NGOs received death threats from “next generation” paramilitary factions (those that regrouped after the AUC’s demobilization).
Unions in Colombia are legal but operate under severe constraints. Less than 5 percent of the workforce is unionized, and 60 percent of the labor pool works in the informal sector. The technical process of establishing a union is relatively straightforward under Colombian law. However, unions claim that there has been a substantial rise in applications denied for arbitrary or capricious reasons under the Uribe administration. Collective bargaining is permitted but has slowed in recent years for two main reasons. The first is that public-sector workers, who represent an ever-increasing share of the unionized sector, are barred from negotiating collective bargaining agreements. The second is the proliferation of subcontractors, cooperatives, and other business structures that provide greater labor flexibility to employers. The right to strike is available, but the efficacy of striking is limited by the government’s ability to refer disputes to arbitration after 60 days. Vocal labor activists, especially organizers and strike leaders, commonly face retaliation, including dismissal.
The most fundamental limitation on union rights is violence. With more trade unionists murdered than in any other country, the level of bloodshed in Colombia’s union sector has long been notorious. Since 1986, over 2,500 union members have been killed, although the count of 39 (or 26 according to government figures) in 2007 represented the lowest annual total in decades and a number significantly lower than during the peak in the 1990s. Impunity remains the norm for these killings, with 95 percent of documented cases left unsolved.
The rise in killings of trade unionists corresponded to the rise of the paramilitaries in the 1980s and 1990s, and these groups are considered responsible for over 60 percent of the murders. Another 30 percent are blamed on the guerrillas, who assassinate union members in struggles for ideological and economic control. The remaining killings are perpetrated by a variety of actors, including members of the security forces. The government has at times described many of the murders as the result of either common crime or guerrilla infiltration of unions. However, the unions claim that a substantial majority of murders and threats occur in the context of labor strife and note that many of those killed are union leaders. Unions and human rights groups also assert that spurious legal charges and rhetorical stigmatization of unionists by state officials have served to heighten the threat.
The problem of violence has brought intense international scrutiny upon the Colombian labor sector. In 2006, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Colombian government reached an agreement to establish a permanent ILO office in the country, which opened in early 2007. Also in 2006, the government formed a special unit within the prosecutor’s office to focus on union slayings. Thirteen prosecutors and 78 investigators were assigned to the unit, which had achieved convictions in 82 cases by the end of 2007. Nonetheless, unions and human rights groups state that not enough masterminds are being prosecuted and that far greater resources will be required if the state is ever to make serious inroads on the backlog of union murder cases.
Freedom of Assembly
Peaceful protests are permitted in Colombia, but the sensitive nature of political expression in many parts of the country sometimes limits citizens’ ability to protest without fear of violence. Urban protests have increased in recent years as the level of danger in cities has declined. In particular, the ability and willingness of Colombians to march in protest against violence and the actions of the irregular armed groups has increased significantly. However, in smaller provincial towns and zones that are still under the sway of guerrillas and paramilitaries, residents have little or no ability to protest. Demonstrations that threaten to turn violent are at times broken up by the security forces.