Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Colombia received a downward trend arrow due to growth in paramilitary activity and the continued inability of the government to combat corruption effectively.
In 2001, President Andres Pastrana's gamble of handing over control of a vast area in south central Colombia as a gesture of goodwill upon embarking on peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) appeared close to failure, as the parleys with the guerrillas, suspended for three months, sputtered towards an inconclusive result. Meanwhile, the FARC--rather than being contained or defeated on the battlefield--grew in size and threat, although by the end of the year it appeared that a smaller guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN), might be suing for peace in earnest after a series of devastating military defeats at the hands of right-wing paramilitary forces. Pastrana's own sagging popularity received a boost in July, albeit short-lived, when Colombia hosted, then won, the Copa America soccer tournament, but the president was unable to transform the temporary relief into greater efficacy at the negotiating table. Hampering his effort was the fact that his term ends in 2002. In addition, Colombia's vicious right-wing paramilitary forces appeared to be growing in strength and audacity, still often aided and abetted by senior regional military commanders, who see the privately financed death squads as helping to fill a security vacuum their underfunded forces cannot. On September 10, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) would finally join the FARC and the ELN in their classification as international terrorist organizations. Throughout the year, the Marxist rebels kidnapped lawmakers in order to swap them for imprisoned guerrilla commanders, while the paramilitary forces killed other congressmen suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. A December decision by the European Union, handed down in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States, to stop issuing travel visas to the leftist guerrillas was hailed by government officials as proof that the insurgents were considered human rights pariahs overseas. Several of the candidates seen as having the most chance of succeeding Pastrana have taken a harder line against the FARC. Also in December, AUC warlord Carlos Castano admitted that he was responsible for the assassination of a charismatic presidential candidate in 1990.
Bitter debate also continued over Plan Colombia, which seeks to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, drug production in the area which produces the largest amount of cocaine in the world, and to create conditions in which peace can be achieved. The plan uses trained military troops to "secure" areas in which the police carry out the fumigation of coca and poppy crops, the latter of which are used to produce heroin. This ambitious effort puts the antidrug units in direct confrontation with both guerrilla and paramilitary forces who protect the crops and associated installations, such as laboratories and airstrips. Opponents, however, say it imposes a "military solution" to Colombia's two major problems--drug trafficking and internal conflict. In 2001, an offensive in the department of Putumayo, the source of about 60 percent of Colombia's coca, was hailed by the U.S. government as largely successful; important acreage of coca plantations was destroyed, and the FARC guerrillas were unable to offer much resistance on the ground. Most of the eradication, however, was achieved by aerial fumigation, a highly controversial tactic opposed by, among others, leading environmentalists. Critics say that aerial spraying harms people and the environment, punishes poor farmers, and has failed to stem drug trafficking. The criticisms were echoed by Colombia's top human rights official, its comptroller-general, and a leading senator from Pastrana's own party.
Following independence from Spain in 1819, and after a long period of federal government with what are now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, the Republic of Colombia was established in 1886. Politics have since been dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties, whose leadership has largely been drawn from the traditional elite. Under President Cesar Gaviria (1990--1994) of the Liberal Party, a new constitution was approved; it limits presidents to a single four-year term and provides for an elected bicameral congress, with a 102-member senate and a 161-member house of representatives.
Modern Colombia has been marked by the corrupt machine politics of the Liberals and Conservatives; left-wing guerrilla insurgencies; right-wing paramilitary violence, the emergence of vicious drug cartels; and gross human rights violations committed by all sides.
In the 1994 legislative elections, the Liberals retained a majority in both houses of congress. Ernesto Samper, a former economic development minister, won the Liberal presidential nomination. The Conservative candidate was Pastrana, a former mayor of Bogota and the son of a former Colombian president. Both candidates pledged to continue Gaviria's free-market reforms.
Samper won in a June 1994 runoff election and, with strong U.S. encouragement, presided over the dismantling of the Cali drug cartel, most of whose leaders were captured in 1995. The arrests, however, netted persuasive evidence that the cartel had given $6 million to the president's campaign, with Samper's approval. In February 1996 the country's prosecutor-general formally charged Samper with illegal enrichment, fraud, falsifying documents, and covering up his campaign financing. In June the house, dominated by Samper's Liberals, voted 111 to 43 to clear Samper on grounds of insufficient evidence.
In the June 21, 1998, election, Pastrana won the presidency of Latin America's third most populous country in an impressive victory over the Liberal Party candidate, Interior Minister Horacio Serpa. In an effort to consolidate the peace process, in November Pastrana oversaw the regrouping by FARC guerrillas in, and the withdrawal by a dispirited military from, a so-called demilitarized zone of five southern districts. The move, strongly resisted by the military, gave the guerrillas de facto control over a territory the size of Switzerland.
In 1999, talks with the FARC sputtered along, burdened by the sweeping political, social, and economic reforms being demanded by the rebels, and by the government's inability to rein in the paramilitary forces. Talks were also hampered by military reluctance to grant the FARC concessions beyond the de facto partitioning of the country. The governments of neighboring Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil also expressed concern about the deadly violence spilling over into their countries. Colombia resumed extradition of its nationals after a nine-year hiatus, handing over two top drug suspects to U.S. authorities.
Government control continued to erode through much of Colombia in 2000, as the FARC went through the motions of seeking settlement of a civil war whose main casualty continued to be a conflict-weary public. Pastrana achieved some success in severing ties between the armed forces and the AUC, whose members several times were reported to have danced and drank as they executed their victims, but the efforts fell far short of what was needed to satisfy either the guerrillas or human rights groups. They pointed out that most of the victims of the AUC were not insurgents, but civilian noncombatants. Colombia's most notorious death squad leader admitted what has long been an open secret--that not only do the paramilitary groups make big money from the drug trade (as do the guerrillas), but also that they are financed by local and foreign private enterprise. In a two-year period, 1998 to 2000, the paramilitary forces nearly doubled their numbers. Meanwhile, Colombia's neighbors continued to be alarmed at the spillover effects--assassinations, armed incursions and a flood of refugees--of the worsening civil war.
In 2000, the FARC guerrillas appeared to be trying to consolidate their control of as much as 40 percent of the country, issuing laws and setting up judicial institutions, in a clear bid to negotiate with the government from a position of strength. In July police seized more than 3,270 pounds of pure cocaine with a street value of $53 million that was meant to bankroll the activities of top paramilitary chieftain Carlos Castano, who in 2001 was assigned a strictly "political" role within the organization. In the run-up to the October municipal elections, critical to the government's antidrug and antiviolence strategies, both guerrillas and paramilitary forces prevented citizens from registering to vote. Election day turnout, however, was strong, with Independents winning in mayoral races in four of Colombia's five largest cities--including in Bogota, the capital--in what was seen as a challenge to the dominance of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. Government spokesmen pointed out that in 2000, the number of military operations against paramilitary groups increased 123 percent, and that a total of 10 percent of their forces were jailed--a much greater number than the percentage of guerrillas who were imprisoned.
In 2001, it became clear that the FARC's "demilitarized zone" was actually a "state within a state" that the guerrillas used as a sanctuary for coordinating military operations, a rest area for battle-weary insurgents, and a base for criminal activities such as drug trafficking and hostage warehousing. The guerrillas' access to funds through narcotics, mass kidnappings, and extortion have taken the once ragtag insurgents and converted them into a formidable foe of the poorly equipped military. As polls show that the insurgents enjoy support from only five percent of the people, the country's ruling elite have preferred to participate as mere spectators in their repression, leaving the fighting--and the dirty work--to military and paramilitary forces whose ranks are swelled with poor youths who, like the guerrilla fighters, mostly take up arms as an alternative to joblessness. Talks with the ELN, suspended by Pastrana in August after he accused the rebels of not talking the negotiations seriously, were scheduled to resume in early 2002, after the guerrillas declared a truce for the holidays at the end of 2001. Meanwhile, the paramilitary forces took a leaf from the playbook of their leftist foes and began to carry out mass kidnappings for propaganda purposes.
On a positive note, in July 2001, Colombian authorities arrested a retired army general allegedly linked to the organization of paramilitary death squads between 1995 and 1997. The case was seen as a test of whether Colombia can break a tradition of impunity for military members accused of rights abuses. However, in August Pastrana signed into law a bill that gave the military broad new powers to wage war with less oversight from government investigators, allowing the generals to supercede civilian rule in areas declared by the president to be "theaters of operation," and cutting the time allowed rights investigators to conclude preliminary investigations of military officials from one year to two months. In October, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch alleged that three army brigades and the AUC collaborated in a policy of killing suspected rebel sympathizers.
Also in 2001, Transparency International ranked Colombia as the seventh most corrupt country in the world, and the second most corrupt in Latin America, following Paraguay. Anticorruption activists say that the annual cost of systemic problems exceeds $2.2 billion and that corruption, rather than the internal war, may be a greater threat to the country's institutional survival. In August, the arrest in Colombia of three Irish Republican Army veterans who had been sent to teach members of the FARC urban-bombing techniques served to highlight, even before September 11, the increasing sophistication of ties between international terrorist groups. Surging heroin production resulted in a sharp increase in domestic drug abuse, with the number of users up more than an estimated 260 percent over just five years earlier. A strong critic of U.S. antidrug assistance to Colombia, former Interior Minister Serpa, of the opposition Liberal Party, was a front-running candidate to replace Pastrana in the 2002 elections.
Citizens can change their government through elections. The 1991 constitution provides for broader participation in the system, including two reserved seats in the congress for the country's small Indian minority. Political violence, and a generalized belief that corruption renders elections meaningless, have limited voter participation, although an impressive 60 percent voted in the 1998 presidential contest. In 1998, Pastrana proposed a broad reform of the political system designed to combat corruption and promote greater public participation in decision making. He also offered the guerrillas a presidential pardon and guarantees for their postpeace participation in legal political activities. In 2000, hundreds of candidates for municipal office, a keystone to carrying out Colombia's antidrug program, were pressured for allegiance by contending armed groups, with 21 mayoral candidates murdered in the run-up to the vote. On the day of the vote, however, voter turnout was heavy amid peaceful conditions. In the period 1997-2000, 34 mayors were assassinated and 100 others--10 percent of the total--were kidnapped. In 2001, three members of congress were also murdered, including a leader of the Colombian congressional peace commission.
Public corruption remains one of the most serious problems facing Colombia. A March 2000 congressional graft scandal, which included $49,119 for a new toilet and $50,000 for toilet paper and soap, dealt a body blow to Pastrana's claim that his ruling coalition would clean up a hotbed of corruption that Colombians see as reflective of their country's moral decay. In October 2001, a former culture minister who was the wife of Colombia's inspector-general, the person responsible for government investigations, was murdered days after being kidnapped by leftist rebels.
The justice system remains slow and compromised by corruption and extortion. The civilian-led ministry of defense is responsible for internal security and oversees both the armed forces and the national police; civilian management of the armed forces, however, is limited. The country's national police force, once a focal point of official corruption, has been reorganized and is now Colombia's most respected security institution. In 2000 the FARC began to routinely execute policemen it captured after attacking police outposts; human rights monitors point out that many officers are not involved in the government's anti-guerrilla operations. In mid-July 2000, General Rosso Jose Serrano, the highly respected director of the national police who oversaw the sacking of 8,000 corrupt cops, stepped down from his post, saying that he could not face going to more policemen's funerals. Colombia's 165 prisons, which were built for 32,000 people but hold more than 47,000, are frequent sites of murders and riots. A new penal code, approved by congress in June 2001, was designed to relieve the strain on Colombia's prisons and allows convicts to be released after serving 60 percent of their sentences, rather than the 80 percent previously required. Up to 20 percent of those incarcerated, including some of the country's most notorious criminals, were eligible for release within the first year.
Constitutional rights regarding free expression and the freedom to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions are severely restricted by political and drug-related violence and the government's inability to guarantee the security of its citizens. Colombia is one of the most violent countries in the world. More than 3,000 people are kidnapped each year in Colombia, and there is a greater risk of being kidnapped there than in any other country in the world. On a more positive note, in the first six months of 2001, although 12,300 people were murdered, an average of 68 per day, 620 fewer murders occured than during the same period in 2000.
Political violence in Colombia continues to take more lives than in any other country in the western hemisphere, and civilians are prime victims. In the past decade an estimated 40,000 have died and more than 1.5 million have been displaced from their homes. More than 90 percent of violent crimes go unsolved. Human rights violations have soared to unprecedented highs, with atrocities being committed by all sides in the conflict. Human rights workers in Colombia are frequently murdered by a military often lacking in personal and tactical discipline, and by rightist paramilitary forces. In September 2001, a government prosecutor was assassinated as he was investigating a January massacre of 27 peasants by paramilitary forces, in which the role of army officers was also being probed.
Left-wing guerrillas, some of whom also protect narcotics-production facilities and drug traffickers, also systematically violate human rights, with victims including Sunday churchgoers and airline passengers. The FARC guerrillas also regularly extort payments from hundreds of businessmen throughout the country. In 2001, Human Rights Watch reported that in 2000 the FARC had been responsible for the murder of 500 civilians, compared with 100 the year earlier.
Journalists are frequently the victims of political and revenge violence, and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists ranks Colombia as the second most dangerous country in the world for the media, after Algeria. In 2001, ten reporters were killed. More than 120 journalists have been murdered in the past decade, and many were killed for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption. Another category of killings is known as "social cleansing"--the elimination of drug addicts, street children, and other marginal citizens by vigilante groups often linked to police.
There are approximately 80 distinct ethnic groups among Colombia's 800,000-plus indigenous inhabitants, who live on more than 50 million acres of land granted to them by the government, often located in resource-rich, strategic regions fought over by warring outside armed groups. These Native Americans are frequently the targets of forced recruitment by the guerrillas and selective assassination by the paramilitary forces, despite their seeking to remain neutral in the armed conflict. In a three-year period, human rights groups say, more than 1,500 Indians have been press-ganged into service with the guerrillas. In 1999, FARC guerrillas kidnapped three U.S. Native American-rights activists and killed them. Indian claims to land and resources are under challenge from government ministries and multinational corporations. In 2000, members of the U'wa tribe were violently repressed by the police as they protested a U.S. oil company's plans to drill on lands the tribe considered sacred. In September 2000, heavily armed gunmen--believed to be paramilitary fighters--murdered four members of the Embera-Katio indigenous communities. The attack came after an April 2000 agreement that the government would grant the Embera lands to replace those flooded by a dam project, as well as protect them from paramilitary violence. In 2001, paramilitary forces kidnapped and killed several Indian community leaders and activists. In July 2001, indigenous leaders accused Pastrana's government of reneging on a five-year-old commitment to hold periodic meetings to resolve problems faced by Indians.
The murder of trade union activists increased significantly, and Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for organized labor, a significant reason why only about six percent of the country's workforce is unionized, one of the lowest unionization percentages in Latin America. More than 2,500 trade union activists and leaders have been killed in little more than a decade. Labor leaders are targets of attacks by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, narcotics traffickers, and other union rivals. In July 2001, the United Steel Workers of America and an international human rights group sued the Coca-Cola Compnay, alleging trade unions at the company's Colombia bottling plants were systematically intimidated, kidnapped, and killed. Spokespeople for the company denied any wrongdoing.
According to the United Nations, some 948,000 Colombian children under the age of 14 work in "unacceptable" conditions. An estimated 60 percent of FARC fighters are believed to be under the age of 15, and female child-soldiers are reported to be subject to sexual abuse. Child-soldiers attempting to leave without permission are executed by firing squad. Domestic violence is a problem in Colombia.