Colombia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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Legislative elections on March 12 resulted in allies of President Alvaro Uribe gaining control of both houses of Congress. Uribe subsequently was reelected by a large margin to an unprecedented second term on May 28. His success was mostly credited to general improvements in urban security, but was also seen as the result of solid economic management. The process of demobilization of the country’s far-right paramilitaries neared completion, even as significant questions about the fairness and feasibility of the demobilization remained. A serious scandal materialized after concrete evidence showing links between paramilitaries and politicians surfaced late in the year.

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 Conserva tives known as “La Violencia,” resulted in some 200,000 deaths. From 1958 to 1974, the two parties alternated the presidency under the terms of a pact (the National Front) into which they had 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and peacefully occupy a so-called demilitarized zone consisting of five southern districts, from which the military was withdrawn.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 an area of 51,000 square kilometers.

Although Pastrana achieved 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 insurgents, and as a base for criminal activities such as drug trafficking and the hiding of hostages.

In the May 2002 presidential elections, war-weary Colombians gave Alvaro 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 multiple assassination attempts by leftist guerrillas, Uribe had run on a platform of no concessions to the insurgents and the implacable use of the military to eliminate them.

Soon after inauguration Uribe decreed a state of emergency, stepped up antiguerrilla efforts in urban areas, and created special combat zones in 27 municipalities in which the military was allowed to restrict civilian movement and conduct searches without a warrant. He also established a so-called war tax to finance thousands of additional troops and tightened restrictions on the foreign press. In addition, Uribe dramatically increased the number of Colombian drug traffickers extradited to the United States.

In 2003, the country continued to be wracked by massacres, drug trafficking, and 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 his authoritarian bent and apparent lack of 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. The decision by the Constitutional Court, which signaled its willingness to intervene if Uribe tried to overstep his powers, annulled the militarized zones Uribe had created and took away his ability to issue special decrees. The government also suffered the defeat of 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. Finally, in November more than 850 members of the AUC laid down their arms and were allowed to return to civilian life. Human rights groups charged that the move made a mockery of justice as paramilitaries had been implicated in many of the country’s worst massacres.

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 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, leftist guerrillas appeared to be on the run in several areas of the country, largely ceding control of major cities to the paramilitaries. However, the FARC appeared determined to hold out on the battlefield in remote areas, using the narcotics trade and extortion for financial support. Meanwhile, although better equipped and trained than previously, the country’s military continued to rely on mostly peasant conscripts and lacked the manpower and equipment needed to carry out its mission. Furthermore, military success was rarely complemented by extensive efforts to improve social conditions in areas previously out of the state’s reach.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, debate continued over the demobilization of the paramilitaries. Human rights groups claimed that the Justice and Peace Law adopted in June 2005 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. The government 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. In May 2006, the Constitutional Court, agreeing in part with critics, judged that certain elements of the law were unconstitutional. The government consequently adjusted the program, though it is still not fully aligned with the Court’s judgment.

By late 2006, more than 30,000 paramilitaries had participated in the demobilization process and been removed from the conflict. However, much concern remained about weighty issues, including the reinsertion of former paramilitaries into civilian life, the resources available for investigations, the amount of reparations to be paid to victims, and the potential for other groups, including the FARC and neo-paramilitaries, to occupy territory vacated by demobilized combatants. The large number of demobilized paramilitaries also led observers to suspect that many drug traffickers had taken advantage of the process in order to receive lenient treatment. AUC leaders warned that the paramilitaries would rearm if the government did not uphold its promises concerning extradition and other issues. Meanwhile, advocates for Colombia’s internally displaced population of 3.6 million insisted that land taken over by paramilitaries be returned to its former owners, often poor and marginalized Afro-Colombians.

The government and the FARC continued to engage in widespread fighting in early 2006. As the March 12 legislative election neared, the FARC carried out several serious attacks on civilians and local-level politicians. In addition, in several departments of heavy paramilitary influence, candidates not aligned with the militias were intimidated and killed. Attention was also focused on the political influence of the now-demobilized paramilitaries, which have long boasted of their clout. Several pro-Uribe parties purged from their lists candidates who were suspected of being mouthpieces for the paramilitaries, though some of these candidates were elected on the lists of smaller parties that were allowed into Uribe’s coalition.

In the run-up to the May 28 presidential election, Uribe’s reelection prospects were bolstered by a growing economy, falling unemployment, and, most importantly, the greater presence of more professional security forces around the country. After a campaign marked by lackluster debate, Uribe was reelected with 62 percent of the vote, fully 40 points ahead of his closest rival, Carlos Gaviria of the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA). However, Uribe’s coalition quickly began to fall victim to factional infighting, and progress on various priority economic reforms was stymied.

Despite a decline in massacres as well as overall deaths, a number of scandals hit the military and shook morale. Army soldiers were charged in the killing of 10 elite antidrug police in May, which caused the United States to consider withholding a small portion of Colombian military aid. Soldiers were also accused of killing civilians and dressing them as guerrillas in order to inflate battle statistics, while an investigation was opened into several incidents in Bogota that were allegedly staged so that soldiers could collect reward money. The Uribe government was blamed in part for applying pressure on the military to show results. Several rounds of peace talks were held with the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), but little concrete progress was made.

Tentative discussions between the government and the FARC over a possible exchange of prisoners and hostages came to an end in October 2006, when the guerrillas launched another offensive, including a series of bomb attacks and an assault that killed 17 police in Cauca department. In late December, Uribe authorized three European negotiators to renew their efforts to arrange such an exchange, but the FARC refused to talk unless the government withdrew its troops from two areas in the south.

A series of revelations concerning links between politicians and paramilitaries rocked the country in November and December. The most incriminating piece of evidence to emerge was a document from 2001, signed by over 40 (then) legislators, in which they pledged to work with the paramilitaries to achieve shared goals. By year’s end, more than a dozen congressmen and functionaries, as well as several high-level local officials, were arrested or formally under investigation, with more developments expected as demobilized paramilitary leaders began to give testimony regarding their crimes.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Colombia is an electoral democracy. Though there was violence prior to the 2006 legislative elections, the 2006 presidential contest was relatively peaceful, partly as the result of the deployment of 220,000 soldiers and police, and partly because the FARC and ELN refrained from large-scale attempts at disruption.

The Congress is comprised of a Senate and 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, through a system of proportional representation with a 2 percent threshold; of these 81 seats, 3 are reserved for “political minori ties.” The Chamber of Deputies consists of 166 members, elected by proportional represen ta tion by district. Each of the 32 departments, plus the Capital District (Bogota), is a dis trict; the number of seats assigned to each district depends on population. President Uribe’s reelection came after a drawn-out campaign to change the constitution to allow a president a second four-year term.

The year 2006 witnessed a historic shift in party politics as the traditional Liberal-Conservative duopoly broke down and Congress realigned along left-right lines that roughly coincided with anti- and pro-Uribe forces. The shift was partly the result of 2003 reforms that were designed to open the system and contain the problem of party fragmentation, while also evening the playing field with regard to campaign financing and media access. Political party cohesion remains a problematic area in Colombian politics, as patronage dominates allegiances. Corruption affects virtually all aspects of public life. In 2006, corruption allegations centered on the military, leaving grave questions about the depth of drug trafficker influence. In October, the contents of a computer belonging to paramilitary leader “Jorge 40” revealed a web of financial connections with politicians, as well as records of murder and money laundering. Colombia was ranked 59 out of 169 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. However, crime and conflict make it difficult for journalists to freely conduct their work. More than 120 journalists have been murdered since the mid-1990s, many for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption; most of the cases remain unsolved. Attacks on journalist have declined in recent years, but three were killed in 2006, and increases in aggression and threats against journalists were registered. Self-censorship is common. The Uribe administration has on multiple occasions questioned the patriotism of journalists and accused them of bias against his government. The government does not limit or block access to the internet or censor websites. Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of wealthy families and large national conglomerates.

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 assembly and 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 or by rightist paramilitary forces. Uribe has called rights workers “terrorist sympathizers” and cowards and claimed that many members of Colombian nonofficial human rights organizations are “spokespeople for terrorism.” In 2006, there was an increase in threats directed against workers and human rights defenders from nongovernmental organizations, causing a number to flee the country out of fear for their lives.

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 reported killings has declined under Uribe, reported deaths jumped from 43 in 2005 to 58 in 2006. Labor leaders are frequently targeted for attack by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, narcotics traffickers, and other rival unions.

The justice system remains compromised by corruption and extortion. Colombia’s civil law system (investigation by judges, written testimony given in camara, judicially rendered verdicts) is being phased out in favor of procedures traditionally associated with the Anglo-American adversarial common law system: investigation and charging assigned to a prosecutorial corps independent of the judiciary, oral testimony in open court, and verdicts rendered by lay juries. The Constitutional Court has, on several occasions, demonstrated independence from the executive. Colombia’s prisons are crowded, and prison murders and riots are frequent.

The civilian-led Ministry of Defense is responsible for internal security and oversees both the armed forces and the national police, between which there is a fierce rivalry. Since Uribe took office, defense expenditures and the size of the army and the police have increased substantially. 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.

Right-wing paramilitaries (current and former) and left-wing guerrillas, some of whom protect narcotics-production facilities and drug traffickers, systematically violate human rights. FARC guerrillas also regularly extort payments from hundreds of businesspeople and use hostages as human shields as they seek to escape from pursuit by the security forces. Another problem concerns “social cleansing,” or the liquidation of drug addicts, street children, and other marginal citizens by vigilante groups often linked to the police. Torture is carried out by rebels, paramilitaries, and, to a lesser extent, state forces. Impunity is rampant, and most violent crimes are never solved.

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, indigenous peoples are frequently the targets of forced recruitment by the guerrillas and selective assassination by the paramilitary forces. In May 2006, on World Indigenous Day, five members of the displaced A’wa tribe were gunned down by suspected right-wing forces.

Homosexuals are actively discriminated against, but in a controversial decision, the Senate voted in October 2006 to make homosexual couples eligible for various benefits.

Child labor is a serious problem in Colombia, as is the problem of child recruitment into the armed groups. An estimated 14,000 minors act as combatants for the FARC and paramilitaries, 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. Amnesty International has 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 the Netherlands, Japan, and Spain.

Colombia has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There is an active abortion rights movement that has challenged the restrictive content of national law on the basis of these treaties, and in 2006, the Constitutional Court voted to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest or where the mother’s life would be endangered by childbirth.