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The effort to investigate and process demobilized right-wing paramilitaries continued in 2007, overshadowed by hard evidence of their political connections that resulted in the arrests of over a dozen congressmen. As discussion of a humanitarian prisoner exchange with leftist guerrillas continued sporadically, 11 prominent captives were killed in unclear circumstances. Local and regional elections were held in a relatively stable atmosphere in October.
Following independence from Spain in 1819, Gran Colombia broke into what became Venezuela, Ecuador, and modern Colombia. The 1903 secession of Panama, engineered by the United States, left Colombia with its present boundaries. A civil war between Liberals and Conserva tives, known as La Violencia, erupted in 1948 and resulted in some 200,000 deaths before subsiding after 1953. From 1958 to 1974, the two parties alternated in the presidency under the terms of a 1957 coalition pact (the National Front) aimed at ending civil strife. Colombia has since 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 abuses committed by all sides.
Conservative candidate Andres Pastrana won a June 1998 presidential election 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, or about 51,000 square kilometers. The effort to secure peace with the leftist guerrillas ultimately failed. In 2001, it became clear that the FARC was using its “demilitarized zone” to coordinate military and criminal operations, and the government began a new offensive.
In the May 2002 presidential election, Colombians chose Alvaro Uribe, a former provincial governor who ran independently of the country’s two dominant parties. 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 his 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. Uribe also dramatically increased the number of Colombian drug traffickers extradited to the United States. Operations by the right-wing paramilitary death squads known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) also continued to play a prominent role in combat against the guerrillas in both rural and urban areas.
In 2003, the country continued to be racked by massacres, drug trafficking, and the highest rate of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere. Uribe was praised for his strong leadership, work ethic, and communications skills, but critics 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 an amnesty to paramilitaries that would entail reduced prison sentences or the payment of reparations in lieu of jail time for leaders who were found guilty of atrocities.
Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court stripped Uribe of the emergency powers he had assumed in 2002, signaling its willingness to intervene if the president overstepped his legal authority. Voters also rejected referendum proposals that would have given Uribe increased fiscal powers. In November 2003, more than 850 members of the AUC disarmed and were allowed to return to civilian life, even as human rights groups charged that the move made a mockery of justice. By the end of 2004, nearly 3,000 combatants from five separate AUC paramilitary blocs had demobilized. The United States was wary, noting that more than a dozen chiefs of the AUC, which was blacklisted as a terrorist organization, were wanted in the United States for narcotics-related crimes.
Although leftist guerrillas had largely ceded control of major cities to the paramilitaries, the FARC appeared determined to hold out in remote areas, using the narcotics trade and extortion for financial support. Moreover, government military successes against the rebels were rarely followed up with extensive efforts to improve social conditions in recaptured areas. Many rural zones, in particular, experienced no human rights or social improvements—and sometimes deteriorated further—as paramilitary control replaced guerrilla presence.
Between 2005 and 2007, debate continued over the paramilitaries’ demobilization. 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 it failed to sufficiently mandate the permanent dismantling of the paramilitary organizations, and did not allow adequate time for their many crimes to be investigated. In addition, the law did not oblige fighters to make a full confession about their past or collaborate with government forces. The government denied that the law encouraged impunity—combatants are required to spend between five and eight years in prison—and noted that it did not apply to drug-related offenses. In May 2006, the Constitutional Court found that certain elements of the law were unconstitutional and ruled that full confessions were required, along with the seizure of illicitly gained assets and the provision of reparations to victims.
As the March 2006 legislative elections neared, the FARC carried out several serious attacks on civilians and local politicians. In several departments with heavy paramilitary influence, candidates not aligned with the militias were intimidated and killed. However, violence declined in the run-up to the May presidential election, in which Uribe’s prospects were bolstered by a growing economy and the perception of improved security. 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).
By late 2006, more than 30,000 paramilitaries had formally demobilized. However, in 2007, human rights groups reported problems with former paramilitaries’ civilian reintegration, a lack of resources for investigations, delays in reparation payments and physical protection for victims, and the increasing presence of other groups, including the FARC and neo-paramilitaries, in territory vacated by demobilized combatants. New armed groups, often composed of recalcitrant or rearmed AUC members, were estimated to comprise between 4,000 and 8,000 fighters, and were operating in at least half of Colombia’s 32 departments. These groups continued to undertake actions previously associated with the AUC, including drug trafficking, extortion, and assassinations, in some cases including collaboration with security forces.
Demobilized and imprisoned AUC leaders, meanwhile, warned that they would rearm if the government did not uphold promises to prosecute them as political criminals, which would allow for eventual political rehabilitation. In August 2007, Carlos Maria Jimenez (alias “Macaco”) became the first prominent AUC leader to lose the benefits of the Justice and Peace Law after he was found to be controlling a drug-trafficking network from prison. Top AUC leaders continued in 2007 to testify about their crimes. In some cases, the process deteriorated into a travesty, with leaders refusing to admit culpability or even busing in supporters to cheer outside the courtroom. However, other cases yielded valuable information regarding unsolved murders and paramilitary operations.
Scandal abounded in 2007, starting with the ongoing “parapolitics” scandal linking scores of politicians with paramilitaries. By year’s end, more than a dozen congressmen—including the president’s cousin, Mario Uribe—had been arrested, with several dozen others under investigation. In addition, the top ranks of the national police were purged in May following the exposure of an illegal wiretapping operation targeting journalists, politicians, and other officials. The government asserted that the torrent of revelations reflected the success of its security policies, which provided space for the country to finally confront its entrenched problems.
The urgent need for a humanitarian prisoner exchange with the FARC was highlighted in June, when it emerged that 11 state legislators who had been held captive by the FARC for over five years had been shot to death under unclear circumstances. Uribe attempted to take the initiative by unilaterally releasing scores of FARC prisoners, but the guerrillas refused to commit to an exchange without the establishment of a sizable demilitarized zone. In September and October, government forces killed two important FARC commanders. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez acted as an eager intermediary between the FARC and the government in the second half of the year. Despite some signs of progress, Uribe called a halt to his participation on November 21 due to perceived violations of protocol; he also alleged that the FARC was using the negotiations to garner international publicity. A bitter dispute between Chavez and Uribe ensued, with name-calling and threats to freeze economic and diplomatic relations. By late December, however, the government had accepted the rebels’ plan to release three prisoners to Venezuelan and international mediators. Yet further setbacks followed at year’s end as a result of complications, which the rebels blamed on Colombian military activity and the government attributed to the FARC’s not actually holding one of the captives scheduled for release.
Also in 2007, several rounds of peace talks were held with a smaller leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), but little progress was made. Tension with Ecuador remained high over border security issues and the use of glyphosate spray to eradicate coca. In recognition of this and other problems with aerial spraying, the government in July announced that it would shift toward manual eradication as the primary method of combating coca cultivation. Several powerful drug traffickers, including Diego Montoya, head of the Norte del Valle cartel, were arrested during the year.
Colombia is an electoral democracy. Though there was violence prior to the 2006 legislative elections, that year’s presidential contest was relatively peaceful. The 2007 regional and local elections marked an improvement over the 2003 contest.
The Congress is comprised of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, with all seats in both houses up for election every four years. The Senate consists of 102 members, with 2 chosen by indigenous communities and 100 by the nation at large. Senators are elected through a party-list system with a national 2 percent threshold. The Chamber of Deputies consists of 166 members elected by party-list proportional represen ta tion in multimember districts. President Alvaro Uribe’s reelection came after a drawn-out campaign to change the constitution to allow a second four-year presidential term; by October 2007, his congressional allies had already pledged to work toward a third term.
A major shift in party politics continued in 2006, replacing the traditional Liberal-Conservative duopoly with a Congress roughly divided between anti-Uribe forces on the left and pro-Uribe forces on the right. The shift was partly the result of 2003 reforms designed to open the system and contain the problem of party fragmentation, while also leveling the playing field with regard to campaign financing and media access. The October 2007 regional and local elections were, as with past subnational elections, marred by vote buying, district switching, opaque financing, and violence—mainly carried out by the FARC—that left nearly two dozen candidates dead. Nonetheless, more candidates participated, overall violence declined, and election day was more peaceful than in previous polls. Despite continued paramilitary intimidation, independent candidates were able to win mayoral and gubernatorial races in some areas that had been dominated by paramilitaries.
Corruption affects virtually all aspects of public life. In 2007, several high-ranking military officials were fired after their complicity with drug traffickers was revealed. Details of how paramilitaries plundered local treasuries also emerged during the demobilization process. Colombia was ranked 68 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. However, crime and conflict make it difficult for journalists to conduct their work. Dozens of journalists have been murdered since the mid-1990s, many for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption; most of the cases remain unsolved. Although just two journalists were killed for reasons potentially associated with their work in 2007, aggression and threats against reporters continued, at least 16 reporters were forced to flee their homes, and self-censorship remained common. The Uribe administration has repeatedly questioned the patriotism of journalists and accused them of antigovernment bias. In 2007, Uribe accused several journalists of defamation or links to guerrillas; one of these reporters, Gonzalo Guillen of Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, was forced to flee the country after receiving death threats. 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. The authorities also uphold academic freedom, and campus debates are often vigorous, although paramilitary groups and guerrillas maintain a presence on many university campuses to generate political support and intimidate opponents.
Constitutional rights regarding freedoms 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. Numerous human rights workers in Colombia have been murdered by the military or by rightist paramilitary forces. Uribe has called rights workers “terrorist sympathizers” and cowards, and claimed that many members of nonofficial domestic human rights organizations are “spokespeople for terrorism.” These remarks are sometimes interpreted as a green light for violence against such individuals. In 2007, at least four victims’ rights and land activists were killed, while during June and July the offices of several nongovernmental organizations were burglarized.
The murder of trade union activists has made Colombia the most dangerous country in the world for organized labor; over 60 percent of all trade unionist killings occur in Colombia. More than 2,500 trade union activists and leaders have been killed in the last two decades, with an impunity rate of over 95 percent. However, in 2007 the number of killings dropped to 39 from 72 in 2006. Labor leaders are frequently targeted for attack by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, and narcotics traffickers. In 2007, the issue proved to be a major roadblock in the effort to get a free-trade agreement passed in the U.S. Congress. In response, the government worked with the International Labor Organization and formed a specialized staff within the prosecutor-general’s office that began to prosecute effectively assassinations of union members.
The justice system remains compromised by corruption and extortion. Colombia’s civil law system is being phased out in favor of procedures traditionally associated with the adversarial common law system. The Constitutional Court and Supreme Court have, on several occasions, demonstrated independence from the executive, which has frequently led to tensions with President Uribe. In July 2007, Uribe criticized the Constitutional Court for “ideological bias” after it ruled that demobilized paramilitaries should be treated as common criminals rather than political ones. In October, Uribe accused a Supreme Court judge of attempting to implicate him in the murder of a paramilitary leader, leading the Supreme Court to strongly denounce the president’s interference.
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 police force have increased substantially. Civilian management of the armed forces, however, is limited; many soldiers operating in Colombia’s complex security environment carry out operations under limited civilian oversight. Colombian and international human rights groups in 2007 reported that, over the past several years, there had been a marked rise in extrajudicial killings conducted by state agents. In many cases, soldiers killed civilians, dressed them as guerrillas, and tampered with crime scenes to inflate battle statistics and cover up evidence of their actions. The Uribe government was blamed in part for applying pressure on the military to show body-count-based results.
Right-wing paramilitaries 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 businesspeople and use hostages as human shields while evading pursuit by the security forces. Impunity is rampant, and most violent crimes are never solved. Victims of the conflict remain frustrated, often perceiving that the government places a low priority on both economic reparations and judicial processes against perpetrators of grave crimes.
There are over 80 distinct ethnic groups among Colombia’s more than 1.7 million indigenous inhabitants; they live on more than 34 million hectares granted to them by the government, often located in resource-rich, strategic regions that are contested by the various armed groups. Despite their attempts to remain neutral in the conflict, indigenous people are frequently the targets of all sides, including the security forces. Afro-Colombians, who account for 25 percent of the population, comprise the largest sector of Colombia’s 3.8 million displaced people, and 80 percent of Afro-Colombians fall below the poverty line. The displaced population as a whole suffers from social stigma, arbitrary arrest, and exploitation, as well as generalized poverty.
Homosexuals are actively discriminated against, but in October 2007, after a prolonged congressional debate, the Constitutional Court ruled that homosexual couples must be made 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 guerrillas and their opponents, and female child-soldiers are reportedly subjected to sexual abuse.
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.” Almost 60 percent of the displaced population is female. The country’s active abortion-rights movement has used international treaties to challenge restrictive national laws, and in 2006, a Constitutional Court ruling allowed abortion in cases of rape or incest or where the mother’s life would be endangered by childbirth.