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Colombia received a downward trend arrow due to new revelations of widespread paramilitary infiltration of government institutions in the country, including the attorney general's office.
In 2004, Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe Velez retreated from his earlier promises to maintain a hard-line approach with right-wing paramilitaries, a move that appeared to falter as the demobilization of these groups began haltingly. Meanwhile, left-wing guerilla groups were in retreat in several parts of the country. New revelations of paramilitary infiltration of state institutions, including the office of the attorney general, surfaced during the year. Also in 2004, Uribe was named in a U.S. State Department report alleging his connection with a major drug cartel a decade earlier.
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. 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, as well as by 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 June 21, 1998 election, Conservative candidate Andres 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occupy a so-called demilitarized zone consisting of five southern districts, from which a dispirited military was withdrawn.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, failed, however, although Pastrana did achieve some success in severing ties between the armed forces and right-wing death squads known as the United Self-Defenses of Colombia (AUC). Colombia's most notorious death squad leader admitted what had long been an open secret - not only do the paramilitary groups earn large revenues 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, as a rest area for battle-weary insurgents, and as a base for criminal activities such as drug trafficking and the warehousing of hostages.
In the March 2002 parliamentary elections, the Liberal Party secured the largest number of seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives, followed by the Conservative Party; both parties have long dominated politics in Colombia. In May 2002, war-weary Colombians gave Uribe, a hard-line former provincial governor who ran independently of the country's two dominant parties, an unprecedented first-round victory that was a referendum on how best to end Colombia's decades-long civil strife. He had run on a platform of no concessions to leftist guerrillas and the implacable use of the military to eliminate them. 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 searches without a warrant. He also established a "war tax" to finance thousands of additional troops and tightened restrictions on the foreign press.
At the end of its first year in office, the Uribe government 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 right-wing paramilitary death squads - and 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 that would entail reduced prison sentences, or the payment of reparations in lieu of jail time, for leaders found guilty of such crimes; this was seen as a controversial move even in Washington, where several death squad leaders have been indicted as terrorists and narcotics traffickers.
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 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 tried to overstep his powers.
In November, 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.
In 2004, Uribe found himself forced to seek to bring the AUC into the political arena and to bargain with them. Uribe's move, however, generated protests from human rights groups and the United States, which receives 90 percent of its cocaine from Colombia. Washington pointed out that several chiefs of the AUC, blacklisted as a terrorist organization, were also wanted in the United States for narcotics-related crimes. Uribe's initiative appeared to falter as the demobilization of the paramilitaries began fitfully, with right-wing squads active in 26 of Colombia's 32 departments and more than a third of its municipalities during the year. At the same time, the once seemingly-unstoppable leftist guerrillas appear to be on the run in several areas of the country, and the largest leftist group, itself rent by internal divisions and ever more steeped in narcotics and common crime, appeared determined to hold out on the battlefield, even as it appeared in retreat. In August, Uribe made a dramatic turnabout by offering to release about 50 leftists accused of lesser crimes in exchange for an equal number of hostages in insurgent hands. Meanwhile, the country's military, which, although better equipped and trained and increasingly possessing more useful intelligence, retained much of its inefficient and almost feudal structure, continued to rely on mostly peasant conscripts, and lacked the manpower and equipment needed to carry out its mission. In a positive development, nearly 3,000 combatants from five separate AUC paramilitary blocs were demobilized after negotiations with government representatives.
During the year, there were new revelations of widespread paramilitary infiltration of government institutions around the country, including the attorney general's office. On July 28, three chiefs of the death squads were allowed to speak before a special session of Congress, demanding that they should not be imprisoned for their crimes. These appearances were justified by the government as being part of on-going negotiations to demobilize the paramilitary factions.
Considered to be one of the United States' closest allies in Latin America, particularly in the "war on drugs." Uribe was embarrassed in 2004 by a 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report, declassified in July, that suggested he collaborated with Pablo Escobar's Medellin drug cartel in the early 1990s and described him as a "close personal friend" of Escobar's. Uribe, whose government claimed to have extradited a record of more than 170 suspected drug traffickers, denied the report, which was also disavowed by a U.S. State Department spokesman.
Despite these developments, Uribe enjoyed 70 percent popularity ratings during most of the year. Uribe, who has survived more than a dozen assassination attempts, including two since taking office as president, also pushed for a change in the constitution that would allow him to run for reelection in 2006.
Citizens of Colombia can change their government democratically. Although in 2002 Colombians were largely able to express their preferences by voting, electoral participation was inhibited by 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. More than 200,000 soldiers, police, and security agents were deployed during the voting in a largely successful attempt to keep the peace. The October 2003 municipal elections were generally free of violence on election day. Although dozens of political parties are registered, politics is dominated by the Liberal Party and Conservative Party.
Corruption 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. Colombia was ranked 60 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of 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. Media dependency on government advertising may account for a recent reduction in criticism of official actions and policies. 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. More than 120 journalists have been 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. According to the Columbia Foundation for Press Freedom, in the first 10 months of 2004 three journalists were murdered, one tortured, at least two kidnapped, and 37 the recipients of death threats. 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. The government does not limit or block access to the Internet or censor Web sites.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. It also does not restrict academic freedom, although threats and harassment have 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 restricted in practice by politically motivated and drug-related violence and by the government's inability to guarantee the security of its citizens. Human rights workers in Colombia are frequently murdered by the military and by rightist paramilitary forces. Uribe has called rights workers "terrorist sympathizers" and cowards and claimed that many Colombian non-official human rights organizations are "spokespeople" for terrorism.
The murder of trade union activists has made Colombia the most dangerous country in the world for organized labor. 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, although the killings reported went down by 25 percent in 2004. Labor leaders are frequently targeted for attack by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, narcotics traffickers, and other union rivals. In August, three labor leaders were killed in the Arauca region in what an army commander claimed was a gun battle. Initially, Vice President Francisco Santos suggested that the three were involved in guerrilla activity, but he was later forced to reverse his position.
The justice system remains slow and compromised by corruption and extortion. In 2002, a new chief of the national police was named after a corruption scandal involving 71 officers - including the head of anti-narcotics operations - who 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. In August, the Supreme Court overturned Uribe-sponsored antiterrorism legislation from June 2003 that gave the military and police sweeping powers to search homes, tap phones, and detain suspected terrorists without warrant for up to 36 hours.
The civilian-led Ministry of Defense is responsible for internal security and oversees both the armed forces and the national police. Since Uribe took office, defense expenditures have increased 46 percent. Civilian management of the armed forces, however, is limited; cadres of army "informants" and "collaborators" have been organized and a separate army of peasant soldiers, led by professional soldiers, was recruited and trained, all without civilian authorization.
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 was designed to relieve the strain on prisons and allowed 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 - although the government claimed that in the 12 months ending in May 2004, that number fell 44 percent, to 1,737. 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. Government figures comparing 2002 and 2003 that show marked decreases in most types of violence and rights abuse were challenged by the country's most prestigious human rights organizations. In a positive development, the government said that more than 3,000 paramilitary fighters were captured in 2003, even as it entered into peace talks with the AUC leadership.
Left-wing guerrillas, some of whom also protect narcotics-production facilities and drug traffickers, also systematically violate human rights. The FARC guerrillas also regularly extort payments from hundreds of businessmen throughout the country. In 2004, the FARC increasingly used dozens of hostages - politicians, police, soldiers, and others - as "human shields" as they sought to escape from pursuit by the security forces. Another problem concerns "social cleansing," or 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 more than 800,000 indigenous inhabitants, who live on more than 50 million acres granted to them by the government, often located in resource-rich, strategic regions fought over by the warring armed groups. Despite their seeking to remain neutral in the armed conflict, these Native Americans are frequently the targets of forced recruitment by the guerrillas and selective assassination by the paramilitary forces. Human rights groups charge that more than 1,500 Indians were forced into service with the guerrillas in a three-year period. The Colombian National Indigenous Organization reported that in the first six months of 2004, Native American groups suffered 313 armed attacks - 49.7 percent by the paramilitaries, 34.5 percent by the military and police, and 15.9 percent by the leftist guerrillas. In August, Indian leaders rejected Uribe's demands that they name tribal members as "contact officials" with the army. That same month, the spokesman and human rights coordinator for the Kankuamo tribe, Fredy Arias, was murdered by suspected paramilitaries. Indian claims to land and resources are under challenge from government ministries and multinational corporations. In 2004 there were four indigenous senators - two of whom occupied seats reserved for indigenous people - and two Afro-Colombian members of the upper house; there was also one Native American and three Afro-Colombians members of the House of Representatives. Neither group, however, was represented in Uribe's cabinet nor on any of the nation's high courts.
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 were reported to be subject to sexual abuse. Child-soldiers attempting to leave without permission are executed by firing squad.
Sexual harassment, violence against women, and the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation remain serious problems. In 2004, Amnesty International reported that soldiers, leftist rebels, and rightist paramilitaries treat women as "trophies of war," and that the crimes committed by the paramilitaries - the main offenders - include rape, mutilation, and murder. Women are active in politics and community organizations.