Colombia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2004

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At the end of its first year in office, the government of President Alvaro Uribe Velez continued to be popular as it made limited gains in delivering on promises of peace and prosperity for Latin America's most violent nation. Some improvements were made in 2003 in the fight to dismantle the world's biggest cocaine industry, and civilian casualties in Colombia's four-decades-long civil war were reduced. However, the country continued to be wracked by massacres--the work of both the guerrillas and rightwing paramilitary death squads--drug trafficking, and by the highest rate of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere. Uribe created a firestorm when he proposed to grant amnesty to the paramilitaries, a controversial move even in Washington, where several death squad leaders have been indicted as terrorists and narcotics traffickers.

Following independence from Spain in 1819, the former "Gran Colombia" broke up into the present-day states of Venezuela, Ecuador, and the Republic of Colombia (established in 1886). The 1904 succession of Panama, engineered by the United States, left Colombia with its present boundaries. Modern Colombia, Latin America's third most populous country, has been marked by the corrupt machine politics of the Liberals and the 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 the free market reforms begun by outgoing president Cesar Gaviria.

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 in an impressive victory over the Liberal Party candidate, Interior Minister Horacio Serpa. In an effort to consolidate the peace process, in November, Pastrana arranged for the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas to regroup and peacefully occupy a so-called demilitarized zone consisting of five southern districts, from which a dispirited military was withdrawn. The move, which had been strongly resisted by the military, gave the guerrillas de facto control over a territory the size of Switzerland.

The gamble, however, failed, although Pastrana did achieve some success in severing ties between the armed forces and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a collection of 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 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 the warehousing of hostages. On September 10, 2001, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the AUC would finally be labeled an international terrorist organization, a designation that the U.S. government had applied considerably earlier to the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-wing revolutionary organization.

In May 2002, war-weary Colombians gave Uribe, 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. Uribe, the victim of an assassination attempt by leftist guerrillas just a month before the election, emerged from a six-candidate field with 52 percent of the vote. Serpa, running again as the Liberal candidate, received 32 percent.

Uribe's inauguration in August was marred by guerrilla attacks that left 19 people dead. In response, he 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. 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.

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, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, the former head of the notorious Cali drug cartel that was once responsible for trafficking 80 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States, was released from prison by a court over Uribe's strong objections.

In 2003, Uribe won high marks for his hands-on, take-charge style and his personal courage in traveling to the country's most violent regions. In his first 10 months in office, Uribe allowed the extradition of 64 accused drug traffickers to the United States, more than his predecessor, Andres Pastrana, had allowed during his entire four-year term. Meanwhile, Colombia's highest tribunal dealt Uribe a surprise political setback, stripping him of the emergency powers he had assumed in 2002 to fight leftist rebels. The decision by the Constitutional Court, which annulled the special militarized zones he had created and took away his ability to issue special decrees, signaled the court's willingness to intervene if Uribe, elected in a landslide due to popular clamor for law and order, tried to overstep his powers.

Despite his store of political capital, Uribe, lacking support in congress for his legislative agenda, did little to press ahead with reforms. The country's military, which, although better equipped and trained and increasingly possessing more useful intelligence, retains much of its inefficient and almost feudal structure, continues to rely on mostly peasant conscripts, and even lacks a clear understanding of its missions and of the manpower and equipment needed to carry them out.

Human rights groups charged that an antiterrorism law approved in June 2003 by the Senate, which allows the army to detain suspected terrorists without a warrant for up to 36 hours, would facilitate human rights abuses by government forces. In November 2003, more than 850 members of a right-wing paramilitary group, part of an illegal army responsible for some of the country's bloodiest massacres, laid down their arms and were allowed to return to civilian life. Many had past careers as common criminals, and human rights groups said the move made a mockery of justice. That same month, the commander of the Colombian National Police and his four closest deputies were cashiered in a corruption scandal just days after Uribe replaced three cabinet ministers, including the defense minister, who had taken a hard line on corruption within the military. On a positive note, Uribe publicly denounced what he called the "collusion" between the police and the paramilitaries in various regions of the country.

Also in November, Colombian troops defeated an unprecedented effort by 14 FARC combat units to encircle Bogota and to cut off major roads leading to the capital city of 7 million people. The previous month, Colombians voted down key referendum proposals supported by Uribe that had been intended to freeze government spending in order to provide more funds to wage war against the guerrillas, fight corruption, and streamline a top-heavy political structure.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government through elections. In October 2003, municipal elections were held in which 50 governors and 914 mayors were elected. Although they took place in a climate of fear created by the murder of at least 26 candidates, the polls were generally free of violence on election day. Although more than 200,000 police officers were deployed during the elections to watch over the polls, turnout was low. In a major development, a leftist former labor leader won the Bogota mayoralty, considered the country's second most important post. The climate of intimidation that pervades Colombia has caused more than 150 mayors around the country to attempt to govern their municipalities from the safety of provincial capitals.

Public corruption remains one of the most serious problems facing Colombia. It affects virtually all aspects of public life and extends far beyond the narcotics trade. For example, foreign business executives with military procurement contracts complain that the armed forces sometimes do not honor their contracts and that the executives are subjected to intimidation if they protest. Anticorruption activists claim that the annual cost of systemic problems exceeds $2.2 billion and that corruption may be a greater threat to the country's institutional survival than is the internal war.

The constitution guarantees free expression. However, media ownership is concentrated in the hands of wealthy families, large national conglomerates, or groups associated with one or the other of the two dominant political parties. In 2003, the Spanish media conglomerate Prisa acquired majority ownership of the country's largest radio network, thus becoming the first foreign media owner in the country. Journalists are frequently the victims of political and revenge violence, and the Committee to Protect 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, many of whom were killed for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption; most of the cases remain unresolved by the legal authorities. In a positive development, two former soldiers were convicted in 2002 of the assassination of two TV cameramen; each defendant was sentenced to 19 years in prison. In the province of Arauca, threats by paramilitaries and guerrilla forces induced all 16 journalists stationed there to leave. As a result of their mass exodus, the province became a "silent zone" for several months. The government did not limit or block access to the Internet or censor Web sites.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice. It also did not restrict academic freedom, although threats and harassment caused many professors and students to adopt lower profiles and avoid discussing controversial topics, with some academics opting for voluntary exile. Paramilitary groups and guerrillas maintained a presence on many university campuses in order to generate political support and to undermine their adversaries through both violent and nonviolent means.

Constitutional rights regarding the freedom to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions are severely restricted in practice by politically motivated and drug-related violence and by the government's inability to guarantee the security of its citizens. The murder of trade union activists increased significantly in recent years, and Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for organized labor, which goes far toward explaining why only about 6 percent of the country's workforce 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 frequently targeted for attack by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, narcotics traffickers, and other union rivals.

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 2002, the Colombian national police got a new chief after a corruption scandal involving 71 officers--including the head of antinarcotics operations--were accused of stealing more than $2 million in U.S. aid. Previously, the 85,000-strong force had been considered to be 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 prisons and allows convicts to be released after serving 60 percent of their sentences, rather than the 80 percent previously required.

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. 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. 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 forced into service with the guerrillas. In 1999, FARC guerrillas kidnapped and killed three U.S. Native American rights activists. Indian claims to land and resources are under challenge from government ministries and multinational corporations. In 2003, paramilitary groups killed several Indian leaders.

According to the United Nations, some 948,000 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.

Women are active in politics and community organizations. Sexual harassment and domestic violence are still severe problems. The law prohibits rape and other forms of sexual violence, including by a spouse. However, it remains a serious problem, as does the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation.