Colombia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2009

2009 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 civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 due to a rise in internal displacement and extrajudicial executions as well as a series of violent acts against protesters and protest organizers.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group suffered a number of major setbacks in 2008, including the government’s dramatic liberation of high-profile hostages, a large-scale antirebel march, and the deaths of three FARC leaders, including founder Manuel Marulanda. Several scandals also roiled the country, including the collapse of a massive financial pyramid scheme and the sacking of the army’s top general following revelations on a series of extrajudicial executions. Rural violence increased the rate of internal displacement and also raised tensions with indigenous groups, who subsequently marched to Bogota despite violence that resulted in one death and scores of injuries.

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 Conserva­tives, 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 abusescommitted by all sides.

Conservative candidate Andres Pastrana won the 1998 presidential election, and as part of the peace process he arranged for the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group to occupy a so-called demilitarized zone in the south. However, in 2001, it became clear that the FARC was using its territory to coordinate military and criminal operations, and the government began a new offensive.

In the 2002 presidential election, Colombians chose Alvaro Uribe, a former provincial governor who ran as an independent and pledged to crush the rebels by military means. Soon after his inauguration, he decreed a state of emergency and created special combat zones in 27 municipalities in which the military was allowed to restrict civilian movement and conduct searches without a warrant. Right-wing paramilitary death squads known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) also continued to battle the guerrillas in both rural and urban areas. However, 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 diligent leadership and communications skills, but critics faulted him for his authoritarian bent and apparent lack of concern for human rights. The Constitutional Court in 2003stripped him of the emergency powers he had assumed in 2002, signaling that he had overstepped his legal authority. In addition, Uribe triggered protests by proposing an amnesty that would grant paramilitaries reduced prison sentences or allow them to pay reparations in lieu of jail time. 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.

Although by 2005 the leftist guerrillas had largely ceded control of major cities to the paramilitaries, the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) appeared determined to hold out in remote areas, using the narcotics trade and extortion for financial support. Moreover, the government failed to improve social or human rights conditions in newly recaptured areas. Rural zones sometimes deteriorated further as paramilitaries replaced the guerrillas. In subsequent years, the government attempted to better integrate its military presence with social development in former conflict zones.

Between 2005 and 2007, debate continued over the paramilitaries’ demobilization. Human rights groups claimed that the Justice and Peace Law, adopted in June 2005, failed to ensure the permanent dismantling of paramilitary organizations and did not allow adequate time for their many crimes to be investigated. The government denied that the law encouraged impunity—combatants were 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 struck down certain elements of the law and mandated full confessions, the seizure of illicitly acquired assets, and the provision of reparations to victims.

In the run-up to the March 2006 legislative elections, the FARC carried outseveral 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 prior to the May presidential election, in which Uribe’s prospects were bolstered by a growing economy and the perception of improved security. He was reelected with 62 percent of the vote, fully 40 points ahead of his closest rival.

By late 2006, more than 30,000 paramilitaries had formally demobilized. However, in 2007 and 2008, human rights groups reported problems with 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 neoparamilitaries, in territory vacated by demobilized combatants. New armed groups, often composed of recalcitrant or rearmed AUC members, were estimated to comprise 8,000 to 10,000 fighters and were operating in nearly a quarter of Colombia’s municipalities. These organizations often mimicked the AUC, reportedly engaging in extortion, assassinations, and in some cases collaboration with security forces or guerrillas. While drug trafficking was their primary focus, they also frequently directed aggression against social and human rights activists.

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 rehabilitation. Top AUC leaders continued in 2007 and 2008 to testify about their crimes. In certain instances, 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 on unsolved murders and paramilitary operations. In April 2008, 14 of the most notorious paramilitary chiefs were extradited to the United States, where they faced long sentences for drug trafficking. The Colombian government argued that this would break their ongoing control over drug distribution networks, but rights groups feared that the transfers would truncate the confessions process.

Observers also raised concerns that the AUC leaders’ extraditions effectively removed potential witnesses in the ongoing “parapolitics” scandal, which linked scores of politicians to paramilitaries. By the end of 2008, over 70 congressmen—including the president’s cousin, Mario Uribe—had been arrested, convicted, or were under investigation in the case. The government asserted that the revelations reflected the success of its security policies, which provided space for the country to confront its entrenched problems. Tension rose in 2008 between accused congressmen and President Uribe on the one side, and the Supreme Court, which is tasked with investigating sitting lawmakers, on the other. The court was accused of detaining suspects based on weak evidence; over a dozen congressmen resigned to remove their cases from the court’s jurisdiction. Pro-Uribe lawmakers also attempted to pass a bill that would have stripped the Supreme Court of its investigatory powers over congressmen, but the measure remained stalled at year’s end.

Following a dispiriting 2007, when it emerged that 11 state legislators held captive by the FARC had been shot to death, the government made major gains against the rebels in 2008. On February 4, hundreds of thousands of Colombians joined a march to demand the release of the group’s hostages. On March 1, a Colombian raid across the Ecuadorean border killed a top FARC commander, Raul Reyes, along with over 20 others. Both Ecuador and Venezuela cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia over the incident, and the OAS issued a statement that “rejected” the attack. Although tension with Venezuela later eased slightly, ties with Ecuador remained cut off through the end of 2008. Days after the attack, another FARC leader, Ivan Rios, was murdered by one of his own guards, and in May, the FARC announced that its leader and founder, Manuel Marulanda, had died of natural causes in late March.

Finally, on July 2, military personnel posing as nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers clinched the dramatic liberation of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt along with three American contractors and 11 other hostages, many of whom had been held by the FARC for five years or more. Though the ruse was tarnished by the revelation that the military had used the Red Cross logo, an illicit act under international law, the mission’s success pushed Uribe’s approval ratings above 85 percent and further diminished the FARC’s image.

In the second half of 2008, details emerged on a major scandal involving extrajudicial executions, leading to the October dismissal of army chief Mario Montoya and over two dozen others. Separately, a massive Ponzi scheme collapsed in November, wiping out the savings of thousands of Colombia’s poorest residents. The government was accused of doing little to investigate suspicious practices by the companies involved. Also during the year, the government made major new narcotics arrests even as U.S. and UN data showed increasing coca cultivation and no significant dent in the amount of cocaine flowing out of the country. Meanwhile, national homicide and kidnapping rates continued to decline.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Colombia is an electoral democracy. The 2006 legislative elections, while an improvement over the 2002 contest, were marred by vote buying, district switching, opaque financing, paramilitary intimidation, and violence. That year’s presidential election was, by comparison, fairly peaceful. The 2007 regional and local elections repeated some of the flaws of the congressional polls but also marked an improvement over the last such elections in 2003.

The Congress is comprised of the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, with all seats up for election every four years. Of the Senate’s 102 members, two are chosen by indigenous communities and 100 by the nation at large, using a party-list system that features a 2 percent national threshold. The Chamber of Deputies consists of 166 members elected by party-list proportional represen­ta­tion in multimember districts. President Alvaro Uribe’s 2006 reelection came after a drawn-out constitutional amendment campaign to allow a second four-year presidential term. During 2008, Uribe would not say whether he would attempt to stand for a third term, causing increased institutional uncertainty. Supporters collected enough petition signatures to launch a constitutional amendment referendum on the issue, but the effort stalled amid serious doubts about its financing, the wording of the question, and the procedures used to move the referendum through Congress.

The traditional Liberal-Conservative duopoly in Congress has in recent years been supplanted by a rough division 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. Further proposed changes proved controversial in 2008, especially the opposition’s argument that seats vacated by lawmakers implicated in the parapolitics scandal should be left empty rather than filled by the next candidate on their party list. A bill that gained Senate approval in December included provisions to encourage internal party democracy and discourage clientelism, but it was denounced by critics both for laxity regarding parapolitics-linked parties and for the disordered legislative atmosphere in which it was passed.

Corruption affects virtually all aspects of public life. In the most prominent corruption scandal of 2008, the chief prosecutor in Medellin—the brother of the interior minister—was placed under investigation for suspected cooperation with drug traffickers. Also during the year, the demobilization and confession process produced details on the paramilitaries’ plundering of local treasuries in concert with local authorities. Colombia was ranked 70 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and opposition viewpoints are commonly expressed. 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 none were killed in connection with their work in 2008, aggression and threats against reporters continued, and self-censorship remained common. The Uribe administration has repeatedly questioned the patriotism of journalists and accused them of antigovernment bias or links to guerrillas. Slander and defamation remain criminalized, and the incidence of these charges rose in 2008. 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 university debates are often vigorous, although armed groups maintain a presence on many campuses to generate political support and intimidate opponents.

Constitutional rights regarding freedoms of assembly and association are restricted in practice by violence. In 2008, soldiers were captured on video firing at indigenous protesters who eventually marched from southern Colombia to Bogota to voice their grievances. Although the government provides extensive protection to hundreds of threatened human rights workers, numerous activists have been murdered by the military or rightist paramilitary forces. Uribe has called rights workers “spokespeople for terrorism” and cowards. These remarks and the sometimes baseless legal cases brought against human rights defenders are sometimes interpreted as a green light to physically attack them. From 2006 to 2008, at least 20 victims’ rights and land activists were killed; advocates for the displaced face special risk as former paramilitaries seek to smother criticism of their ill-gotten assets.

Over 60 percent of all trade unionist killings occur in Colombia, making it the world’s most dangerous country for organized labor. More than 2,600 union activists and leaders have been killed over the last two decades, with an impunity rate of over 95 percent. In 2008, the number of killings rose to 49, from 38 in 2007, but this still represented a notable decline from the numbers earlier in the decade. Labor leaders are frequently targeted by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, and narcotics traffickers. In 2008, the issue continued to hold up ratification of a bilateral free-trade agreement by the U.S. Congress. In response, the government has worked with the International Labor Organization and formed a special unit of prosecutors that, starting in 2007, substantially increased prosecutions for assassinations of union members. A number of strikes occurred in 2008, including one by judicial employees that was settled only after Uribe declared a “state of internal commotion” that allowed greater leeway to deal with the strikers.

The justice system remains compromised by corruption and extortion. The traditional civil law system has been phased out in favor of an oral, adversarial system. The Constitutional Court and Supreme Court have, on several occasions, demonstrated independence from the executive, which has led to tensions with Uribe. In 2008, the local press reported on a series of meetings between representatives of former paramilitaries and executive branch functionaries, and suggested that they discussed a campaign to discredit the Supreme Court.

The civilian-led Ministry of Defense oversees both the military and the national police. However, many soldiers operating in Colombia’s complex security environment work under limited civilian oversight. The government has in recent years convicted an increased number of military personnel for grave human rights abuses.

Human rights groups in 2007 reported a marked rise in extrajudicial killings by state agents over the past several years. In many cases, soldiers killed civilians, dressed them as guerrillas, and tampered with crime scenes to inflate battle statistics and cover up their actions. In 2008, the problem was shown to be more extensive and systematic than previously understood, with impoverished urban youths in some cases being lured by offers of work, only to show up as dead “guerrillas” within days or weeks. Army chief Mario Montoya and several dozen other officers were fired over the scandal, and hundreds of soldiers remained under investigation at year’s end. The Uribe government was blamed in part for pressuring the military to show results based on body counts.

Right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas, some of whom are involved in drug trafficking, systematically abuse human rights. FARC guerrillas regularly extort payments from businesspeople, use hostages as human shields, and lay landmines that maim and kill civilians. Impunity is rampant, and victims often express frustration with the government’s level of commitment to obtaining economic reparations and prosecuting perpetrators. In April 2008, the Senate passed a victims’ rights bill that was considered a major step forward, but the lower house subsequently watered it down, making it more difficult for victims of state forces to receive reparations. Victims also expressed concern during the year that demobilized paramilitaries had returned just a fraction of the millions of acres of land they seized while ostensibly fighting the guerrillas.

Colombia’s more than 1.7 million indigenous inhabitants live on more than 34 million hectares granted to them by the government, often in resource-rich, strategic regions that are contested by the various armed groups. Indigenous people are frequently targeted by all sides, including the security forces. Colombia was the only Latin American country to abstain in the 2007 vote to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the UN General Assembly.

Afro-Colombians, who account for as much as 25 percent of the population, make up 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. The fierce combat in the first half of 2008 resulted in nearly 270,000 newly displaced people, reportedly the largest such increase in over 20 years.

Homosexuals face active discrimination, but in 2007, the Constitutional Court ruled that homosexual couples must be made eligible for various benefits, which were expanded in April 2008.

Child labor is a serious problem in Colombia, as are child recruitment into the armed groups and related sexual abuse. Sexual harassment, violence against women, and the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation remain major concerns. Amnesty International has reported that combatants on all sides treat women as “trophies of war.” Almost 60 percent of the displaced population is female. The country’s active abortion-rights movement has challenged restrictive laws, and in 2006, a Constitutional Court ruling allowed abortion in cases of rape or incest or to protect the mother’s life.