Colombia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In May 2002, war-weary Colombians gave Alvaro Uribe Velez, a hard-line former provincial governor who ran independently of the country's two dominant political parties, an unprecedented first-round victory that was a referendum on how best to end Colombia's decades-long civil strife. The victim of an assassination attempt by leftist guerrillas just a month before the vote, Uribe quickly moved to redeem his promise of a stepped-up military campaign against leftist guerrillas who still control a large swath of national territory. With some analysts predicting that the election would usher in a much closer relationship with the United States, Uribe moved to double defense spending, to give the generals a freer hand in the spiraling, drug-financed warfare, and to create a million-member defense force. At the same time, critics charged that Uribe's support from paramilitary death squads and his own hard-line stance promised to stoke the violence and made a ceasefire less likely.

Following independence from Spain in 1819, and after a long period of federal government which oversaw what are now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, the Republic of Colombia was established in 1886. Modern Colombia has been marked by the corrupt machine politics of the Liberals and Conservatives, whose leadership has largely been drawn from the traditional elite; 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 Andres 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 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 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas within, 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.

The bold gamble, however, sputtered and then failed, although Pastrana did at the same time achieve some success in severing ties between the armed forces and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), right-wing paramilitary death squads. Colombia's most notorious death squad leader admitted what has long been an open secret--not only do the paramilitary groups make big money from the drug trade (as do the guerrillas), but they are also 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 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. Rather than being contained or defeated on the battlefield, the FARC grew in size and threat, although a smaller guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN), suffered a series of devastating military defeats at the hands of right-wing paramilitary forces. On September 10, 2001, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell announced that the AUC would finally join the FARC and the ELN in their classification as international terrorist organizations.

Uribe emerged from a six-candidate field with 52 percent of the vote, compared with his nearest competitor, Serpa, running again as the Liberal candidate, who received 32 percent. Uribe's inauguration in August was marred by guerrilla attacks that left 19 people dead. In response Uribe decreed a state of emergency, stepped up anti-guerrilla efforts in urban areas, and created "special combat zones" in 27 municipalities in which the U.S.-backed military was allowed to restrict civilian movement and conduct warrantless searches. He also established a "war tax" to finance thousands of additional troops and tightened restrictions on the foreign press. By late 2002, three months of intensive aerial spraying in the coca-rich province of Putumayo, part of a $1.3 billion U.S. antidrug aid effort, resulted in the almost complete destruction of the cocaine-producing crop. However, in November, the former head of the notorious Cali drug cartel, once responsible for trafficking 80 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, was released from prison by a court, over Uribe's strong objections.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government through elections. Although in 2002 Colombians were largely able to express their preferences by voting, electoral participation was inhibited because of threats of death squads operating with impunity as well as guerrilla violence, particularly in rural areas where the latter engaged in an explicit campaign of intimidation. The abstention rate was 54 percent, higher than during the previous presidential contest, and more than 200,000 soldiers, police, and security agents were deployed during the voting in a largely successful attempt to keep the peace.

Public corruption remains one of the most serious problems facing Colombia, affects virtually all aspects of public life, and extends far beyond the narcotics trade. For example, foreign businessmen with contracts with the military complain that the armed forces sometimes do not honor their contracts and that they are subject to intimidation if they protest. 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.

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. 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 2002, the Colombian national police got a new chief after a corruption scandal involving 71 cops--including the head of antinarcotics operations--were accused of stealing more than $2 million in U.S. aid. Previously the 85,000-strong force was seen as a bulwark against corruption.

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 penal code approved by congress in June 2001 is 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.

Constitutional rights regarding free expression and the freedom to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions are severely restricted by politically motivated 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.

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 November 2002, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report in which it accused Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio of interfering with military and paramilitary human rights abuses. It charged that Osorio had failed to support, and had even fired, prosecutors investigating the cases.

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.

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. More than 120 journalists were murdered in the past decade, and many were killed for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption. Nevertheless, in 2002, two former soldiers were convicted of the assassination of two TV cameramen and each sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Another problem concerns "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 the 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 2002, paramilitary groups kidnapped and killed several prominent Indian leaders.

The murder of trade union activists increased significantly, and Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for organized labor, a significant reason for the fact that only about 6 percent of the country's work force is unionized, one of the lowest 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.

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 subjected to sexual abuse. Child-soldiers attempting to leave without permission are executed by firing squad.

Although women are active in politics and community organizations, domestic violence is a problem in Colombia.