Colombia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Colombia's political rights and civil liberties ratings improved from 4 to 3 due to improvements in citizen security and perceptions of official corruption and to decreases in physical violence against journalists.


President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who was preparing to launch his campaign for reelection in May 2006, retained his popularity in 2005 as the result of improvements in citizen security and the economy and newly implemented judicial reforms. The year saw incidents of violence against journalists decrease, although Colombia remained a dangerous country for journalists, particularly for those reporting on issues such as drug trafficking and corruption. Meanwhile, debate continued throughout the year over the demobilization of the country's far-right paramilitaries.
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 secession of Panama, engineered by the United States, left Colombia with its present boundaries. From 1948 to 1953, a civil war between Liberals and Conservatives known as "La Violencia," resulted in some 200,000 deaths. From 1958 to 1970, the two parties alternated the presidency under the terms of a pact (the "National Front") into which they entered in 1957 to end the civil war. Colombia subsequently has been marked by the corrupt politics of the Liberal and Conservative parties, as well as by left-wing guerrilla insurgencies, right-wing paramilitary violence, the emergence of vicious drug cartels, and human rights violations committed by all sides.

In the June 21, 1998, election, Conservative candidate Andres Pastrana won the presidency and, in an effort to consolidate the peace process, 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and peacefully occupy a so-called demilitarized zone consisting of five southern districts, from which the military was withdrawn.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.

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), the peace bid ultimately failed. In 2001, it became clear that the FARC's "demilitarized zone" was actually used by the guerrillas 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 hiding of hostages.

In the March 2002 congressional elections, the Liberal Party secured the largest number of seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, followed by the Conservative Party. In May presidential elections, 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. The target of more than a dozen assassination attempts by leftist guerrillas, including one just a month before the election, Uribe had run on a platform of no concessions to the insurgents and the implacable use of the military to eliminate them.

Inaugurated in August amid guerrilla attacks that left 19 people dead, Uribe decreed a state of emergency, stepped up antiguerrilla 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. 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.

In 2003, the country continued to be wracked by massacres-the work of both guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary death squads-drug trafficking, and by the highest rate of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere. Uribe won high marks for his hands-on, take-charge style, tireless work ethic, communications skills, and personal courage in traveling to the country's most violent regions. Critics, however, faulted him for having an "authoritarian" bent and little apparent concern for human rights issues. In addition, Uribe created a firestorm of protest when he proposed granting paramilitaries an amnesty that would entail reduced prison sentences, or the payment of reparations in lieu of jail time, for leaders found guilty of atrocities. Meanwhile, Colombia's highest tribunal dealt Uribe a surprise political setback, stripping him of emergency powers he had assumed in 2002 to fight leftist rebels. The decision by the Constitutional Court, which signaled its willingness to intervene if Uribe tried to overstep his powers, annulled the special militarized zones Uribe had created and took away his ability to issue special decrees,

In October, Colombians voted down key referendum proposals supported by Uribe 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 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, Colombian troops defeated an unprecedented effort by 14 FARC combat units to encircle Bogota and cut off major roads leading to the capital.

In 2004, Uribe announced the $7 billion Colombia Phase II plan to combat terrorism and international crime, strengthen public institutions, and promote social and economic reactivation. He also retreated from his earlier promises to maintain a hard-line approach with right-wing paramilitaries, as their demobilization began haltingly and new revelations of paramilitary infiltration of state institutions, including the office of the attorney general, surfaced. Uribe's attempt to bring the AUC into the political arena and to bargain with them generated protests from human rights groups and the United States, which receives 90 percent of its cocaine from Colombia. Washington noted that more than a dozen chiefs of the AUC, blacklisted as a terrorist organization, were also wanted in the United States for narcotics-related crimes. However, by the end of 2004, nearly 3,000 combatants from five separate AUC paramilitary blocs were demobilized.

At the same time, the once seemingly unstoppable leftist guerrillas appeared to be on the run in several areas of the country, even as the largest leftist group, itself rent by internal divisions and increasingly involved in narcotics and common crime, appeared determined to hold out on the battlefield. Meanwhile, although better equipped and trained than previously and increasingly possessing more useful intelligence, the country's military continued to rely on mostly peasant conscripts and lacked the manpower and equipment needed to carry out its mission. By 2005, however, the military's improved human rights performance resulted in its receiving the highest public approval rating in the country.

Throughout 2005, the debate over the demobilization of the paramilitaries continued. Human rights groups claimed that the Justice and Peace Law adopted in June would not lead to genuine demobilization or lasting peace. They maintained that the law's provisions neither sufficiently mandated the permanent dismantling of the paramilitary organizations, nor allowed for a sufficient time frame-60 days was the maximum allowed-for their many crimes to be investigated by Colombia's overtaxed judiciary. In addition, fighters were under no obligation to make a full confession about their past or to collaborate with government forces. Defenders of the law countered that the law does not encourage impunity-combatants are required to spend between five and eight years in prison-nor does it apply to drug-related offenses. By mid-2005, nearly 8,000 paramilitaries had turned in their weapons and been removed from the conflict. However, in October, AUC leaders warned that the demobilization process would come to an end if the government did not uphold its promises concerning extradition and other issues. Colombia, with a displaced population of nearly 3 million, including 800,000 children, and a death toll of at least 35,000 since the start of the 1990s, was ranked the world's six-worst "forgotten" emergency in a March 2005 poll of humanitarian experts conducted by AlertNet, a humanitarian news network created by the Reuters Foundation.

In the run-up to the May 2006 presidential election, Uribe's reelection prospects were bolstered by a growing economy, falling unemployment, the greater presence of more professional security forces around the country, decreasing drug crop cultivation, and newly implemented reforms of the justice system. However, Amnesty International has warned that the demobilization process for the paramilitaries "opens the way for their recycling & as security guards, civilian police and informants." In July 2005, a group of 22 U.S. senators asked that aid to Colombia be withheld because of lack of progress on leading human rights prosecutions of military and intelligence officials. Meanwhile, attempts to engage the FARC in negotiations similar to those carried on with the AUC have proved fruitless.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Colombia can change their government demo-cratically. However, in 2002, electoral participation was inhibited by threats of death squads operating with impunity as well as by 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.

The Congress is composed of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies, with members chosen in a simultaneous election for all seats in both houses. Both Senators and Deputies serve four-year terms. The Senate consists of 83 members, 2 chosen by indigenous communities and 81 by the rest of the nation at large, by a system of proportional representation with a 2 percent threshold; of these 81 seats, 3 are reserved for "political minorities." The Chamber of Deputies consists of 161 members, elected by proportional representation by district. Each of the 32 Departments, plus the Capital District (Bogotá), is a district; the number of seats assigned to each district depends on population.

The dominant parties remain the Liberal Party (54 deputies in the current Congress) and the Conservative Party (21 deputies). Over 20 other parties, many with just one or two deputies, are also represented in the lower house of Congress. President Uribe was elected in 2002 as a member of the small Colombia First Party.

In October 2005, members of the Constitutional Court publicly accused one another of taking money to approve legislation allowing presidents to serve more than one four-year term. The Court gave its final approval to the law in November.

Corruption affects virtually all aspects of public life. In recent years, anticorruption activists have claimed 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 the internal war is. Colombia was ranked 55 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. Transparency International noted that perceptions of corruption in Colombia improved slightly during the year.

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. However, media ownership is concentrated in the hands of wealthy families, large national conglomerates, or groups associated with the two dominant political parties. Media dependency on government advertising may account for a recent reduction in criticism of official actions and policies. More than 120 journalists have been murdered since the mid1990s, many for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption; most of the cases remain unsolved. However, in October 2005, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) reported "a notable drop in killings and violence against journalists" in the previous 18 months. At the same time, IAPA reported a "new threat" to freedom of the press-lawsuits against journalists were increasingly being used as a form of intimidation. It reported that more than 100 public interest, criminal, and civil actions had been brought against 12 media outlets, 9 reporters, and 2 columnists by retired military officers, government ministers, public servants, and private parties. The government does not limit or block access to the internet or censor websites.

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 maintain 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 freedom of association 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 nonofficial 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 number of killings reported declined by 25 percent in 2004 and decreased again in 2005. Labor leaders are frequently targeted for attack by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, narcotics traffickers, and union rivals.

The justice system remains compromised by corruption and extortion. On a positive note, a new criminal code enacted in 2003 took effect in Bogota and cities in the coffee-growing region on January 1, 2005, and is scheduled to be implemented throughout the country by 2008. The reforms include the abandonment of the traditional modalities of the Continental (and Latin American) civil law system-investi-gation by judges, written testimony given in camara, judicially rendered verdicts. These will be replaced by certain procedures traditionally associated with the Anglo-American adversarial common law system-with investigation and charging assigned to a prosecutorial corps independent of the judiciary, oral testimony in open court, and verdicts rendered by lay juries. As a result of the reforms, cases in Bogota that normally took up to four years to come to trial were processed in less than two months. Colombia's prisons are crowded, and they are the frequent sites of murders and riots; in 2005, however, the completion of 15 new penal institutions increased the system's ability to handle 25,000 more prisoners.

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 oversight.

Colombia remains one of the most violent countries in the world, although in 2004 and 2005 the number of people kidnapped was more than halved, down from a previous rate of more than 3,000 people annually. The vast majority of violent crimes are unsolved.

Left-wing guerrillas, some of whom protect narcotics-production facilities and drug traffickers, systematically violate human rights. The FARC guerrillas also regularly extort payments from hundreds of businessmen and use hostages as "human shields" as they seek 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 the police.

There are approximately 80 distinct ethnic groups among Colombia's more than 800,000 indigenous inhabitants; these people 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. 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; one Native American and three Afro-Colombians were members of the House of Representatives. Neither group, however, was represented in Uribe's cabinet nor on any of the nation's high courts. In November 2005, Indians who seized control of 18 large farms vowed to stage countrywide protests after land reform talks with Uribe ended without an agreement.

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 subjected 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. Police estimate that as many as 50,000 Colombians, including many underage boys and girls, have been forced into prostitution, mainly in Holland, Japan, and Spain. The 1980 Penal Code makes abortion illegal except if necessary to save the mother's life. However, Colombia has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, both of which list access to abortion as a right. There is an active abortion rights movement that has challenged the restrictive content of national law on the basis of these treaties.