Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, February 26, 1999.
Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty
democracy, in which the Liberal and Conservative parties have
long dominated politics. In May and June elections, citizens
chose Conservative Party candidate Andres Pastrana as President,
and he took office on August 7. The Liberal Party maintained
control of the national bicameral legislature following elections
on March 8. Despite attempts at intimidation and fraud by paramilitary
groups, guerrillas, and narcotics traffickers, all three elections
were generally free, fair, and transparent, with high voter turnout.
The civil judiciary is largely independent of government influence,
although the suborning or intimidation of judges, witnesses, and
prosecutors by those indicted is common.
The Government continued to face
a serious challenge to its control over the national territory,
as longstanding and widespread internal armed conflict and rampant
violence--both criminal and political--persisted. The principal
participants were government security forces, paramilitary groups,
guerrillas, and narcotics traffickers. In some areas government
forces were engaged in combat with guerrillas or narcotics traffickers,
while in others paramilitary groups fought guerrillas, and in
still others guerrillas battled demobilized members of rival guerrilla
factions. Paramilitary groups and--to a lesser extent-- guerrillas
attacked unarmed civilians suspected of loyalty to an opposing
party in the conflict. The two major guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army
(ELN), consist of an estimated 11,000 to 17,000 full-time combatants
organized into more than 100 semiautonomous groups. The FARC
and the ELN, along with other smaller groups, exercised a significant
degree of influence and initiated armed action in nearly 700 of
the country's 1,073 municipalities during the year, roughly comparable
to their level of activity in 1997. The major guerrilla organizations
received a significant part of their revenues (in the hundreds
of millions of dollars) from fees levied on narcotics production
and trafficking. Guerrillas supplanted absent state institutions
in many sparsely populated areas of the national territory. On
July 9, President-elect Pastrana undertook peace efforts in a
meeting with FARC leader "Manuel Marulanda Velez", which
followed a meeting between civil society groups and the ELN in
Mainz, Germany, on June 28. A second round of ELN-civil society
talks held in Colombia on October 12 yielded plans for a national
convention in 1999 to discuss political solutions to the conflict.
In a prenegotiation concession to the FARC, the Government committed
to withdraw its military forces from five southern municipalities
on November 7 for a 90-day period. At year's end, the Government
and the FARC had agreed to begin holding peace talks in January
The civilian-led Ministry of Defense
is responsible for internal security and oversees both the armed
forces and the National Police, although civilian management of
the armed forces is limited. The Administrative Department of
Security (DAS), with broad intelligence gathering, law enforcement,
and investigative authority, reports directly to the President,
but is directed by a law enforcement professional. The police
are charged formally with maintaining internal order and security,
but in practice law enforcement responsibilities often were shared
with the army, especially in rural areas. In some locations on
a few occasions the army attacked and captured members of illegal
paramilitary groups; in others members of the security forces
collaborated with such groups, and several general officers were
under investigation during the year for arming and sharing intelligence
with such groups. Although their record showed some improvement,
the armed forces and the police committed numerous, serious violations
of human rights throughout the year.
Despite years of drug- and politically
related violence, the economy is diverse and developed. Trade
and financial activity have been liberalized, and many public-sector
entities privatized, since 1991. Crude oil, coffee, coal, and
cut flowers are the principal legal exports. Narcotics traffickers
continued to control large tracts of land and other assets and
exerted influence throughout society and political life. Gross
domestic product (GDP) growth has slowed in recent years, and
the 1998 growth rate of 2 percent was one of the lowest ever.
To defend the peso, the Central Bank raised interest rates drastically
early in the year. The result was a recessionary climate and
record unemployment rates (nearly 16 percent) in the last half
of the year. Inflation ended the year below 17 percent, a 15-year
low. The balance of payments and fiscal deficits both rose to
critical levels. Income distribution is highly skewed; much of
the population lives in poverty. Per capita GDP was about $2,500.
Some academic observers estimated that the various armed conflicts
cost the country as much as 3 percent in GDP growth annually.
The Government's human rights record
remained poor; there was some improvement in several areas, but
serious problems remain. Government forces continued to commit
numerous, serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings, but
at a level below that of previous years. The authorities rarely
brought officers of the security forces and the police charged
with human rights offenses to justice. In May the army formally
disbanded the 20th Brigade (military intelligence), which had
an egregious human rights record, including targeted killings
of civilians, and prohibited its successor organization from directly
undertaking armed operations. Security forces were responsible
for one known instance of forced disappearance and several instances
of torture; police and soldiers continued to beat detainees.
At times the security forces collaborated with paramilitary groups
that committed abuses. Conditions in the overcrowded prisons
are generally harsh; however, some inmates use bribes or intimidation
to obtain more favorable treatment. Arbitrary arrest and detention,
as well as prolonged pretrial detention, are fundamental problems.
The civilian judiciary is inefficient, severely overburdened
by a large case backlog, and undermined by intimidation and the
prevailing climate of impunity. This situation remains at the
core of the country's human rights problems. Less than 3 percent
of all crimes committed nationwide are prosecuted successfully.
The use of "faceless" prosecutors, judges, and witnesses,
under cover of anonymity for security reasons, continued in cases
involving kidnaping, extortion, narcotics trafficking, terrorism,
and in several hundred high-profile cases involving human rights
violations. Human rights groups accuse these courts of violating
fundamental rights of due process, including the right to a public
trial. The authorities sometimes infringed on citizens' privacy
rights. Journalists practiced self-censorship. Elements of the
security forces harassed and threatened human rights groups.
Violence against women and children is a serious problem, as is
child prostitution. Extensive societal discrimination against
women, minorities, and the indigenous continued. Child labor
is a widespread problem. Vigilante and paramilitary groups that
engaged in "social cleansing"--the killing of street
children, prostitutes, homosexuals, and others deemed socially
undesirable--continued to be a serious problem.
Throughout the country, paramilitary
groups murdered, tortured, and threatened civilians suspected
of sympathizing with guerrillas in an orchestrated campaign to
terrorize them into fleeing their homes, thereby depriving guerrillas
of civilian support. A paramilitary umbrella organization, whose
membership totaled approximately 5,000 to 7,000 armed combatants,
exercised increasing influence during the year, extending its
presence into areas previously under guerrilla control. Although
some paramilitary groups reflect rural residents' desire to organize
solely for self-defense, others are vigilante organizations, and
still others are actually the paid private armies of narcotics
traffickers or large landowners. The army's record in dealing
with paramilitary groups remained mixed. In some locations the
army attacked and captured members of such groups; in others it
tolerated or even collaborated with paramilitary groups.
The FARC and the ELN regularly attacked
civilian populations, committed massacres, and held more than
1,000 kidnaped civilians, with ransom payments serving as an important
source of revenue. In some places, guerrillas collected "war
taxes," pressed the citizenry into their ranks, forced small
farmers to sow illicit crops, and regulated travel, commerce,
and other activities.
The cycle of violence involving government
forces, paramilitary groups, and guerrillas resulted in the deaths
of 2,000 to 3,000 persons; according to one nongovernmental organization,
during the first 9 months of the year in cases in which the perpetrator
was identified credibly, government forces committed at least
21 extrajudicial killings in the context of the internal conflict
and in other actions, paramilitary groups committed at least 573,
and guerrillas at least 160. Violence and instability in rural
areas displaced 300,000 civilians from their homes during the
year, more than any other similar period during the past decade.
The total number of internally displaced citizens during 1995-98
probably exceeded 750,000.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity
of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial
Political and extrajudicial killings
continued to be a serious problem. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000
citizens died in such acts, committed principally by nonstate
agents. Members of the security forces continued to commit extrajudicial
killings, but at a substantially reduced rate. The Center for
Investigations and Popular Research (CINEP), a nongovernmental
organization (NGO), reported that the security forces were responsible
for 21 extrajudicial killings in which the perpetrators could
be identified during the first 9 months of the year. This represented
a decrease from 1997, when the military and police were deemed
responsible for killing 86 persons, and from 1996, when the total
was 126. The police reportedly committed some social cleansing
killings, and CINEP reported two killings resulting from police
abuse of authority.
The human rights delegate of the
Attorney General's office processed 467 cases during 1998. It
concluded investigations for alleged infractions committed in
previous years by 173 members of the security forces, a majority
of whom were officers. The office exonerated the accused person
in 72 cases, and imposed administrative sanctions, (e.g., fines,
temporary suspensions, dismissals) in the other 99 cases. (The
remaining two subjects died during the course of the investigations.)
Of the 173 security force members investigated in criminal activity,
77 were members of the army and 71 were members of the national
police. Cases were found to be either without merit or "archived"
for lack of sufficient evidence in 294 instances. The most commonly
cited offense was torture, followed by massacres, homicides, forced
disappearances, and arbitrary detentions. It remains unclear
how many of the 99 persons who received administrative sanctions
were subsequently referred to the Prosecutor General for criminal
prosecution, or how many of these administrative sanctions were
the result of previous criminal investigations.
During the year, the human rights
unit of the Prosecutor General's office pursued 65 criminal processes
against members of the security forces and civilian officials,
77 processes against paramilitaries, 25 processes against guerrillas,
and 33 processes against private civilians. In total, it issued
276 arrest warrants during the year, on the basis of which the
authorities arrested 60 persons. Among the 74 military personnel
against whom it took action for alleged serious human rights abuses
were 1 brigadier general, 7 colonels, 8 majors, 5 captains, and
The National Institute for Forensic
Medicine stated in a preliminary report that at least 19,665 murders
occurred during the year. In 1997 the Institute reported a final
homicide rate of 60 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. The police
and the Prosecutor General's office have insufficient resources
to investigate most killings adequately. In 1996 the Superior
Council of the Judiciary reported that 74 percent of all crimes
go unreported, and between 97 and 98 percent of all crimes go
unpunished. The 1996 Government Commission on Public Spending
placed the impunity rate for all crimes at 99.5 percent.
According to CINEP, on July 24, soldiers
of the Boca battalion of the army's Third Brigade executed 5 civilians
whom they suspected of being members of the FARC's 58th front
at a road block at San Pablo municipality, Narino department.
The bodies of Mario Burgos Arcos, Carlos Betancur Garcia, Martin
Estacio Ceballo, Carlos Obando Cabrera, and Jose Calderon Riascos
reportedly showed signs of torture. According to the Ministry
of Defense, the military judiciary was investigating the incident
at year's end.
In May the army formally disbanded
the 20th Brigade (military intelligence), which had an egregious
human rights record including the targeted killing of civilians.
In an effort to ensure that the brigade's successor organization,
the Army Military Intelligence Center (CIME), would not commit
human rights abuses, the army prohibited it from directly undertaking
armed operations. On October 16, the Prosecutor General's office
ordered the arrest of retired Colonel Bernardo Ruiz Silva, the
commander of the 20th Brigade in 1995, in connection with the
November 1995 Bogota assassination of conservative opposition
leader Alvaro Gomez Hurtado and his assistant. However, at year's
end, Col. Ruiz remained a fugitive.
In August a civilian court sentenced
seven of the Departmental Investigative Police at Palmira, Valle
del Cauca to a collective total of 250 years' imprisonment for
the February 1996 torture and murders of soldiers Edison Echeverri
Vergar and Jorge Eliecer Lopez, and mechanic Gustavo Diaz, whom
they had suspected of being guerrillas. (One policeman was exonerated
and another was freed conditionally.) Four policemen in custody
received 27 years' imprisonment; three who were fugitives from
justice at year's end received 54 years' each. In 1997 a military
court had convicted all seven of charges of deprivation of liberty
(kidnaping), abandoning the service, and attempted robbery. The
National Police had removed all seven policemen from duty prior
to their sentencing.
In September a military tribunal
exonerated five policemen of the September 1995 death of Italian
tourist Giacomo Turra in a Cartagena police station. Although
the policemen claimed that Turra had died of a drug and alcohol
overdose, an autopsy by the National Institute of Forensic Medicine
determined that he was beaten to death. The Supreme Military
Tribunal was considering an appeal of the case at year's end.
The military judiciary convicted
76 security force members, including 3 police officers and 1 army
officer, during the year, including some for human rights violations.
Those courts convicted 29 of homicide, 41 of assault, 4 of deprivation
of liberty, 1 of abuse of authority, and 1 of rape. However,
the Ministry of Defense reported neither the nature of sentences
in the 76 cases nor the circumstances of the crimes. The civilian
Prosecutor General's office pursued cases against 74 security
force members for human rights crimes during the year, including
22 army officers and 2 marine officers. The Penal Code authorizes
restriction to base as an acceptable substitute for imprisonment
when military jails or prisons are unavailable.
In an October 13 ruling, the Attorney General's office "severely reprimanded" four officers and one noncommissioned officer (marine Lieutenant Colonel Rodrigo Alfonso Quinonez, marine Major Jairo Osorio Morales, army Majors Walter Hurtado Morales and Jose Fernando Lee Uribe, and marine Third Sergeant Carlos Lopez Maquillon) for their roles in establishing, promoting, financing, and fomenting paramilitary groups, and for assisting members of these groups in entering the city of Barrancabermeja for the purpose of committing murder during 1993-94. The activities of these groups caused the deaths of at least 50 persons. Nonetheless, all five remained in uniform and on active duty at year's end. The Superior Military Tribunal earlier had exonerated a lieutenant colonel of similar charges involving the 1993-94 Barrancabermeja massacres.
In May the Attorney General's office
ordered the army to separate Lieutenant Colonel Luis Felipe Becerra
Bohorquez from service because of his role in the October 1993
"Rio Frio" massacre; however, the Attorney General's
office reduced the punishment in October to issuance of a severe
reprimand, because complicity in a massacre had not yet been codified
as a crime at the time of the massacre. (A light punishment,
the severe reprimand is noted in the security force member's personnel
file and can affect his chances for promotion.) On October 14,
Third Brigade commander Jaime Canal concluded military tribunal
proceedings against Becerra and two other army members, and found
the three guilty of a coverup of the Rio Frio massacre. Becerra
was tried and convicted in absentia. The tribunal sentenced Becerra
to 12 months' imprisonment, although he remained in hiding at
year's end. The court also sentenced Major Eduardo Delgado Carrillo
and Second Sergeant Leopoldo Moreno Rincon to 9 and 7 months'
imprisonment, respectively. They were restricted to their bases
at year's end.
In July just before leaving office,
President Samper publicly and formally recognized state responsibility
for the deaths of some 50 citizens in 3 massacres and 2 extrajudicial
killings that occurred during 1991-93 (and under a previous president).
Despite the President's statement, military courts had already
absolved those army and police personnel investigated of any responsibility
for the killings; however, civilian courts had convicted several
low-ranking soldiers and a few civilians for these crimes. Samper's
statement was part of an amicable settlement under the auspices
of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR); the
Government also fired three police officers implicated in one
case and initiated payment of compensation to the families of
some of the victims. In July an anonymous regional court sentenced
3 civilians to 30-year prison terms and fined an army corporal
and 2 civilian informants for their roles in the April 1991 massacre
by the army of 15 bus passengers and 2 passersby at Los Uvos.
The military judicial system still is processing the cases of
two army majors implicated in the investigation.
The other 4 cases for which President
Samper accepted state responsibility are the December 1991 massacre
of 20 Paez Indians by the police at Caloto, Cauca; the November
1992 killing of 10 persons in Medellin's Villatina neighborhood
by police officers; the April 1992 murders Faride Herrera and
Oscar Ivan Andrade by members of the army and the police; and
the June 1993 killing of a youth, Roison Mora Rubiano, by members
of the army.
On March 31, an anonymous civil court
judge sentenced five police and army officers (including army
Lieutenant Colonel Alejandro Londono Tomayo, then in command of
the Bombona battalion of the 14th brigade, and Lieutenant Colonel
Marco Baez Garzon), to 18 years' imprisonment. The officers had
been charged with terrorism and complicity in the November 1988
paramilitary massacre of a group of 49 people and the injury of
56 others at Segovia, Antioquia department. On December 22, in
a separate military trial, the Superior Military Tribunal exonerated
the 5 officers, a well as 3 others, of related charges also stemming
from the Segovia massacre. Despite his civilian court conviction,
Londono was never detained and remained on active duty at the
end of the year with the army's logistical support brigade in
Bogota. While it was asserted that Londono was entitled to continue
on active duty status because the civilian judiciary had yet to
rule on his appeal, Londono should have been in preventive detention,
stripped of his uniform and removed from active military service,
according to both the Prosecutor General's office and the Defense
Ministry's own human rights office. After his conviction and
sentencing, Baez Garzon also remained on active duty with the
army's Third Brigade in Cali. However, in September he was relieved
of his responsibilities as deputy brigade commander, placed on
half pay, and restricted to the Third Brigade's base. He remained
in uniform while appealing his conviction, even while a warrant
for his arrest by civilian authorities remained outstanding.
In June authorities arrested marine
Colonel Jose Ancizar Molano Padilla, then-commander of the 2nd
marine Infantry Battalion, and marine Sergeants Javier Fernando
Guerra, Eduardo Aristides Alvarez, and Jorge Milton Caicedo for
the May 1995 social cleansing murders of two alleged thieves,
Sifredy and Freddy Arboleda. Prosecutor General's office investigators
found the two bodies and those of other victims in the garbage
dump of that battalion at Tumaco, Narino. Molano and the three
sergeants were in detention and undergoing civilian judicial processing
at year's end.
In June the appellate court of the
military judicial system confirmed the June 1997 decision by then-commanding
general of the army General Manuel Jose Bonett to exonerate retired
General Yanine Diaz of all charges related to formation and activities
of paramilitary groups. Yanine Diaz, the highest-ranking military
officer ever detained on human rights charges, was first ordered
to be arrested in 1996 by the Prosecutor General on various charges,
including several related to the 1987 massacre of 19 local merchants
in the Magdalena Medio region. Long suspected of being a patron
of paramilitary groups, Yanine Diaz was accused of implementing
a strategy to have paramilitary groups carry out counterguerrilla
activities that the army was prohibited from doing in the Magdalena
Medio region in the 1980's. Despite the Government's attempts
to bring him to justice in the civilian court system, the military
prevailed, continuing the tradition of impunity for all but the
lowest-ranking members of the security forces. A complaint against
Yanine Diaz remained before the IACHR at year's end.
Credible allegations of cooperation
with paramilitary groups, including instances of both silent support
and direct collaboration by members of the armed forces, in particular
the army, continued. There were tacit arrangements between local
military commanders and paramilitary groups in some regions, and
paramilitary groups operated freely in some areas that were under
military control. The authorities assigned two senior officers
with links to paramilitary groups to top leadership positions:
Brigadier General Rito Alejo del Rio Rojas and Brigadier General
Fernando Millan Perez. However, the new military high command,
appointed by President Pastrana and under the leadership of General
Fernando Tapias, stated repeatedly that it would not tolerate
collaboration between military personnel and paramilitary groups.
The authorities arrested five persons,
including two army sergeants, for their roles in the July 15-20,
1997 massacre in the town of Mapiripan, Meta department. During
the attack, paramilitary members had singled out at least seven
persons in the town and executed them, reportedly for supporting
the guerrillas. An estimated 2,000 persons subsequently fled
from the town, claiming that the paramilitary forces had killed
as many as two dozen others and thrown their bodies into the Guaviare
River. In a September 1997 interview in El Tiempo newspaper,
paramilitary leader Carlos Castano, head of the Self-Defense Forces
of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), admitted responsibility for the Mapiripan
massacre. In June the National Police arrested suspected Meta
department paramilitary leader Rene Cardenas Galeano for his part
in organizing the attack. On July 10, the police arrested army
sergeants Juan Carlos Gamarra and Jose Miller Uruena, of the Seventh
Brigade's Joaquin Paris Battalion and placed them in military
detention on suspicion of having facilitated the attack. In September
the police arrested two private pilots for transporting the perpetrators
of the attack to a nearby airfield. Prosecution of all five was
underway at year's end.
The Attorney General's office was
investigating then-commander of the army's Seventh Brigade, Brigadier
General Jaime Humberto Uscategui, army Major Hernan Orozco Castro,
army Captain Juan Carlos Lopez, and five local Mapiripan civilian
officials for complicity in the Mapiripan massacre. The Attorney
General's office was forced to close its investigation of Brigadier
General Agustin Ardila Uribe, then commander of the Fourth Division,
when Ardila retired in 1997. The office may investigate only
active duty personnel. The army reportedly had opened its own
investigation into the Mapiripan attack, but no developments had
been announced by year's end. No arrests were made for a similar
paramilitary incursion into Miraflores, Guaviare, on October 18-20,
1997, which left at least five persons dead.
In August the Prosecutor General
for human rights opened a formal investigation of the army's Fifth
Brigade commander, Brigadier General Fernando Millan Perez, to
look into allegations that Millan armed and equipped a paramilitary
group in Lebrija, Santander department in 1997. The group was
believed responsible for at least 11 murders. However, on October
1 the Superior Judicial Council determined that Millan's alleged
actions constituted an "act of service," and turned
the case over to the military judiciary for prosecution, effectively
cutting off the prosecutor's investigation. Millan had denied
the charges. Thirteenth Brigade commander Brigadier General Rito
Alejo del Rio Rojas voluntarily made a formal statement to the
Prosecutor General's office in August to respond to allegations
that he had encouraged the formation of, and active collaboration
with, paramilitary groups in the Uraba region. Brigadier General
del Rio denied the charges, and in December the Prosecutor General's
office dropped all charges against him for lack of evidence.
There was no progress in the case
against army Captain Rodrigo Flores, who was arrested in May 1997
for a 1996 massacre in Segovia, Antioquia department, or in the
case against former army Captain Ciro Alfonso Vargas Lancheros
for his possible role in the April 1996 murder of three men in
Ciudad Bolivar, Medellin. In October 1997 the Prosecuting Attorney's
Human Rights Unit formally charged two army Sergeants, Hernando
Medina Camacho and Gusto Gil Zuniga Labrador, and paramilitary
leader Carlos Castano with the 1994 killing of the leader of Patriotic
Union (UP) Senator Manuel Vargas Cepeda. The two sergeants remained
in preventive detention, while Castano was tried in absentia.
The case was awaiting a judge's decision at year's end.
In 1997 the national human rights
Ombudsman received 192 complaints against members of paramilitary
groups involving killings. It also received 82 complaints against
paramilitary groups of massacres. CINEP reported that paramilitary
groups were responsible for 573 extrajudicial killings.
On May 4, more than 200 paramilitary
members entered the town of Puerto Alvira, Meta department, and
murdered between 12 and 22 local residents whom they suspected
of being guerrilla sympathizers or collaborators. A definitive
death toll was not available, as the bodies were disposed of in
a nearby river. The attackers also destroyed much of the town's
infrastructure. At the insistence of the attackers, hundreds
of persons subsequently fled from the town. Some of the attackers
allegedly identified themselves to town residents as the perpetrators
of the 1997 massacre at Mapiripan. ACCU leader Carlos Castano
publicly had declared Puerto Alvira a military objective in September
1997. The human rights Ombudsman criticized the Government for
not heeding his January call for protection of the town. The
Defense Minister subsequently responded that not enough troops
had been available for permanent deployment to protect all threatened
towns. A preliminary investigation by the Prosecutor General's
office was underway at year's end, but no developments were reported.
On May 16, 40 to 50 heavily armed
members of the AUSAC paramilitary organization entered the town
of Barrancabermeja, Santander department, and rounded up young
adults whom they suspected of sympathizing with the ELN. They
killed 11 persons and dumped their bodies in the streets, and
kidnaped another 25 persons. On June 3, a court convicted two
detained Santander department former mayors, who had been arrested
in 1992, of complicity in paramilitary violence. Possibly in
retaliation for these convictions, the paramilitary group announced
on June 4 that the 25 hostages had been "tried" as guerrilla
supporters, "convicted," executed, and their bodies
burned. The Samper Government established an ad hoc Truth Commission
to investigate the massacre; it presented a basic report on July
31, which noted that both the Attorney General and the Prosecutor
General's office were investigating the massacre. Those investigations
were still under way at year's end. The Prosecutor General's
office was investigating 10 army and police members for complicity
in the attack at year's end, and 1 of the ten, army Corporal Rodrigo
Perez Perez, had been detained on suspicion of having participated
directly in the attack. Politically motivated killings and related
unrest continued in Barrancabermeja at a very high rate throughout
the year. AUSAC paramilitary leader Guillermo Cristancho Acosta,
who publicly admitted having ordered the killings, had not been
detained at year's end.
Paramilitary groups continued to
target and kill judicial and criminal investigative employees
for their efforts to enforce the rule of law. On June 10, Sergio
Parra Ossa, Medellin chief of the Prosecutor General's corps of
technical investigators, was shot to death; members of paramilitary
groups were the principal suspects. The bodies of technical investigators
Edilbrando Roa Lopez and John Morales Patino were found at Mesopotania,
Antioquia department on September 3. The two had been investigating
a massacre of nine persons at the nearby town of Sonson; the unidentified
perpetrators of the Sonson massacre likely killed Roa and Morales.
The murders of Roa and Morales brought the number of killings
of Prosecutor General's office employees during the last 2 years
to 30; in the Medellin office alone 7 were killed between January
On February 24, police and prosecutors
arrested billionaire emerald magnate Victor Carranza in Bogota
on charges of sponsoring the Eastern Plains paramilitary self-defense
group. Despite his efforts to subvert the workings of the judiciary
through bribery and political influence, Carranza remained in
jail at year's end. While an estimated 400 paramilitary members
were believed to be in jail at year's end, known paramilitary
leaders largely remained beyond the reach of the law. On May
21, 19 paramilitary followers of Victor Carranza escaped from
Bogota's maximum security prison. The reported finance chief
for the ACCU paramilitary group, Jacinto Alberto Soto Toro, escaped
from jail several months after his capture in Antioquia.
There continued to be incidents of
social cleansing--including attacks and killings--directed against
individuals deemed socially undesirable, such as drug addicts,
prostitutes, transvestites, beggars, and street children. According
to the National Institute for Forensic Medicine, such killings
occurred with greatest frequency in Bogota, and the departments
of Magdalena and Antioquia. Most of these incidents were attributed
to police or paramilitary groups. CINEP attributed 2 social cleansing
murders and one injury to police; other cases were not reported.
Paramilitary groups also killed members
of indigenous groups (see Section 5) and labor leaders (see Section
On November 7, the authorities found
the skeletons of 25 children in a common grave near Pereira, Risaralda
department. Forensics experts concluded that the children had
been murdered. Some observers speculated that the killings may
have been the result of a social cleansing campaign; others suspected
satanic cult members were responsible. The Bogota press reported
that the Prosecutor General's office had developed a list of 15
people it believed may have been involved. In December the Prosecutor
General's office arrested Pedro Pablo Ramirez Garcia in relation
to the crimes.
On February 27, three unidentified
assailants murdered Jesus Maria Valle, president of the Antioquia
Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, in his Medellin
office. Valle had been an outspoken critic of what he termed
the complicity of regional politicians and elements of government
security forces in paramilitary and narcotics-related killings.
In July the police arrested five persons in conjunction with
Valle's murder; all but one of the five were detained and undergoing
prosecution at year's end. In September the authorities indicted
paramilitary leader Carlos Castano for alleged intellectual authorship
of Valle's murder.
On June 3, a court sentenced two
former mayors of El Carmen de Chucuri, Santander department, to
11 years in prison for their involvement in paramilitary death
squads in the early 1990's. The authorities arrested both men
in 1992 when they turned themselves in; both are believed to remain
in prison. The ex-mayors and their followers have been linked
to a paramilitary vigilante group known as Death to Kidnapers
(MAS), believed to be responsible for several massacres and the
1987 murder of the mayor of Sabana de Torres. The arrest and
prosecution of the two men came after an investigation in 1992
into paramilitary groups conducted by the human rights nongovernmental
organization (NGO) Justice and Peace.
On April 18, three persons posing
as journalists killed Eduardo Umana Mendoza, perhaps the country's
best-known and most controversial human rights lawyer, in his
office in Bogota. In November the Prosecutor General's office
detained Fabio Mosquera Uribe, Victor Manuel Campuzano, Hernando
Alberto Araque Marmol, and Regner Antonio Mosquera Velasco on
suspicion of involvement in the killing. The authorities suspected
Mosquera of intellectual authorship of the crime. In December
the office also arrested Jose Bernardo Hernandez Ossa and Teresa
de Jesus Leal Medina. The latter reportedly served as the link
between the crime's intellectual authors and Umana's killers.
The case was pending at year's end.
On July 26, Betty Camacho was murdered just 6 days after relinquishing her congressional seat. The police arrested several persons in August and charged them in connection with the
In September the Government indicted
five persons (detaining three of them) for the May 1997 murders
of two CINEP workers, Mario Calderon and Elsa Alvarado. The suspects
allegedly were linked to paramilitary groups. Elsa's father,
Carlos Alvarado, also was killed. The three detained suspects
are Walter Jose Alvarez Rivera, Gabriel Jaime Alvarez Paniagua,
and Pablo Vanderly Vargas Garcia. The Prosecutor General's office
also ordered the arrest of ACCU leader paramilitary leaders Carlos
and Fidel Castano in relation to these crimes, but neither had
been detained at year's end. Carlos Castano denied the charges.
On December 26, the Prosecutor General's office also arrested
brothers Juan Carlos and Fernando Gonzalez Jaramillo for allegedly
having participated in the murders. Medellin narcotics trafficker
Gustavo Adolfo Utegui Lopez, suspected by many of having been
the intellectual author of the crime, was arrested in November
on unrelated murder charges.
Narcotics traffickers also were responsible
for other killings. On September 14, unknown persons shot and
killed congressman and Liberal Party member Jorge Humberto Gonzalez
in Medellin traffic. According to the press, his murder may have
been related to narcotics trafficking. He was the fourth member
of Congress to be murdered since May 1997. No suspects were identified
in the case.
Catholic priest Alcides Jimenez Chicangana
was shot 18 times as he gave a sermon in a Catholic church in
Popayan, Putumayo department on September 11, hours after he led
a public rally for peace. On September 22, investigators detained
alleged narcotics trafficker Luis Angel Canas for the crime; the
case was pending at year's end.
The guerrillas of the FARC, the ELN,
and the People's Liberation Army (EPL) continued to commit extrajudicial
killings, often targeting noncombatants in a manner similar to
that of paramilitary groups. According to CINEP, guerrillas committed
160 homicides outside of combat during the first 9 months of the
year. Local elected officials or candidates for public office,
teachers, civic leaders, business owners, and peasants opposed
to their political or military activities were common targets.
The Colombian Federation of Municipalities reported that eight
mayors were murdered between January and August, and positively
identified guerrillas as responsible for four of the killings.
Guerrillas were also the principal suspects in the other four
cases. Police and military personnel were targeted for killings
(see Section 1.g.). Guerrilla groups also killed members of indigenous
groups (see Section 5) and labor leaders (see Section 6.). Communities
controlled by guerrillas also experienced killings described as
cleansing of criminal antisocial elements.
On May 12, former Defense Minister
General Fernando Landazabal Reyes was murdered near his Bogota
home. Although guerrillas were widely suspected of having murdered
Landazabal, police had announced no leads in the case at year's
In 1997 the national human rights
Ombudsman received 71 complaints against guerrillas of killings
and 29 complaints against guerrillas of massacres.
There was no progress regarding the
leftist coalition Popular Unity (UP) party's 1996 complaint to
the IACHR that charged the Government with "action or omission"
in what the UP termed "political genocide" against the
UP and the Communist Party. In its October 1997 submission to
the IACHR, the Reinsertion Foundation human rights organization
charged that 13 regional UP political leaders had been killed
and 3 tortured during the first 9 months of that year. The Government
and the UP continued without success in their efforts to reach
an amicable solution under the auspices of the IACHR.
There were no new developments in
the investigation of Gerardo Antonio Palacio for his role in the
August 1995 massacre in Chigorodo, Antioquia.
while explicitly prohibited by the 1991 Constitution, remained
an act not explicitly outlawed under the Penal Code, although
the law codifies kidnaping for extortion and "simple kidnaping"
as crimes, and continued to be a problem. An estimated 3,000
cases of forced disappearance have been formally reported to the
authorities since 1977; very few have ever been resolved.
CINEP reported that the army was
responsible for one case of forced disappearance during the first
9 months of 1998, and that paramilitary groups were responsible
for 126 cases during the same period. According to the Permanent
Commission for the Defense of Human Rights (CPDH), 117 persons
were the victims of forced disappearances from January to June.
It reported that nearly half of those cases occurred in Antioquia
department. In May members of a paramilitary organization kidnaped
25 persons in Barrancabermeja (see Section 1.a.). The CPDH identified
paramilitary groups as being responsible for 86 of the 117 disappearances.
The great majority of victims of forced disappearance were never
seen or heard from again.
The military judicial system took
no action in the case against General Alvaro Velandia Hurtado,
the former commander of the Twentieth Brigade, who was accused
of the 1987 forced disappearance, torture, and murder of M-19
member Nydia Erika Bautista.
The authorities suspended from duty
Police Major Manuel de Jesus Lozada Plazas, the former deputy
commander of the Government's elite antikidnaping squads, and
placed him on half-pay subsequent to his arrest in March 1997.
His trial in a civilian court continued at year's end. There
have been no results reported in the investigation into cooperation
between these squads, known as GAULA, and illegal paramilitary
Kidnaping was an unambiguous, standing
policy and major source of revenue for both the FARC and ELN.
The NGO Pais Libre reported that there were 2,216 kidnapings
during the year--fully one-third more cases than in 1997. It
said that 1,799 of these were financially motivated, and 417 cases
were politically motivated. Pais Libre attributed 667 cases to
the FARC, 566 to the ELN, 109 to the EPL, 43 to other guerrilla
groups, 231 to common criminals, 20 to paramilitary groups, and
580 to "unknown organizations." According to Pais Libre,
politicians, cattlemen, children, and businessmen were guerrillas'
preferred victims. Among the 2,216 kidnap victims were 131 children.
GAULA officers and other units of the security forces freed 341
kidnap victims during the year. 721 kidnap victims remained in
captivity at the end of the year, and 82 were murdered. A total
of 1,039 kidnap victims were freed during the year through negotiation,
payment of ransoms, or unilateral action by kidnapers, and 21
escaped their captors. Arrests or prosecutions in any of these
cases were rare.
Guerrillas continued to kidnap political
leaders. The Federation of Colombian Municipalities reported
that guerrillas kidnaped and later released 33 mayors between
January and September, including 8 Antioquia department mayors
released in September in exchange for continuing the ELN-civil
society talks begun in Germany (see Section 1.g.). As part of
the same quid-pro-quo, the ELN also released Senator Carlos Espinosa
Facciolince on September 20, after 51 days in captivity. On September
22, the EPL freed Congressman Gerardo Tamayo, after 57 days in
Despite increased pressure by the
Government on the FARC to account for 3 American missionaries
kidnaped by FARC guerrillas in January 1993, their whereabouts
and condition remained unknown. The FARC, the ELN, and other
guerrilla groups regularly kidnaped foreign citizens throughout
the year; some were released after weeks or months of captivity,
while others still were held at year's end.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman,
or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The Constitution and criminal law
explicitly prohibit torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, or degrading
treatment or punishment; however, reports of incidents of police
and military torture or mistreatment of detainees continued.
Of the 140 investigations of security force members completed
by members of the human rights unit of the Attorney General's
office between January and July, 108 investigations involved allegations
of torture committed in previous years. However, the Attorney
General's office only can sanction administratively or refer to
the Prosecutor General's office those it finds guilty. Reports
of torture by Government forces declined. Torture and abuse often
occurred in connection with illegal detentions in the context
of counterinsurgency operations.
The Office of the Attorney General
received 119 complaints of torture during the year; they reported
investigating 462 cases of torture committed by the police, DAS,
army, prison officials, and other agents of the State between
June 1995 to October 1996. CINEP deemed the army responsible
for eight reported torture cases during the first 9 months of
the year and the police for none. The National Institute of Forensic
Medicine reported that the bodies of 325 of the 24,306 persons
murdered during 1997 showed signs of torture.
CINEP attributed 41 of the remaining
42 cases it had documented to paramilitary groups. Paramilitary
groups increasingly made use of threats both to intimidate opponents
and to raise money. Letters demanding payment of a "war
tax" and a threat to mark the victim as a "military
target" if he failed to pay were typical. The CPDH reported
that 5,429 persons were threatened with murder between January
and June. The NGO reported that nearly half were public school
teachers, and that approximately half of all threat recipients
were residents of Antioquia department.
Guerrilla groups also tortured and
abused persons. The bodies of many persons detained and subsequently
killed by guerrillas showed signs of torture and disfigurement.
For example, on September 24 the FARC's 13th front abducted soldier
Juan Paul Becerra Evanjuanoy and his brother, reservist Damacio
Becerra Evanjuanoy, from their parents' home. Guerrillas tortured
the brothers, decapitated them, and sent the heads to their parents.
CINEP reported that guerrillas also made use of threats, both
to intimidate opponents and to raise money, and, like the paramilitary
groups, sent letters demanding payments of a war tax, along with
threats to make persons military targets.
Prison conditions are generally harsh,
especially for those prisoners without significant outside support.
Severe overcrowding, and dangerous sanitary and health conditions
remained serious problems. In December 1997, a visiting IACHR
mission declared that the living conditions in Bogota's La Picota
prison constituted "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment
of the inmates." According to the Committee for Solidarity
with Political Prisoners, a majority of prisoners' food was provided
by outside, private sources. The nation's 168 prisons and jails
held nearly 45,000 inmates at year's end, 59 percent more than
their planned capacity. In a number of the nation's largest prisons,
the overcrowding was severe. Medellin's Bellavista prison, the
nation's largest, was built to house 1,700 inmates; in December
1997 it housed more than 5,100 inmates. Bogota's La Modelo prison
and the Palmira prison outside Cali both held more than 250 percent
of their designed capacity. Only 8,000 prisoner accommodations
met international standards, and no new construction was undertaken
during the year. The National Police reported in December that
La Modelo prison had the highest incidence of homicide of any
"neighborhood" in Bogota. The National Prison Institute
(INPEC) reported 150 murders in the country's 168 prisons during
Forty-seven percent of all prison
inmates are pretrial detainees. The remaining 53 percent are
split roughly between those appealing their convictions and those
who have exhausted their appeals and are serving out their terms.
Prison conditions prompted a nationwide
civil disobedience campaign from August 1997 through May 1998
by prisoners who physically prevented the entry of more prisoners
into their cells. In response, the Government began talks with
prisoners and NGO's to address inmates' concerns, which ended
the campaign but produced no other significant results. Prison
violence was common; in one 45-day period, prisoners murdered
23 fellow inmates of Bogota's La Modelo prison. Instances of
abuse by and corruption among prison staff, as well as ongoing
criminal activities by inmates, were so serious that in 1997 judicial
authorities announced the transfer of control of the maximum security
wings of several prisons (La Picota, La Modelo, Palmira, and Itagui
in Medellin) from the civilian National Prisons Institute (INPEC)
to the National Police. By year's end, control of La Modelo and
Palmira prisons had been returned to INPEC. On May 21, 19 paramilitary
supporters of Victor Carranza escaped from Bogota's maximum security
prison. On May 23, guerrillas of the FARC's 6th Front attacked
the San Isidro Prison in Popayan. One guard and 2 prisoners died
in the attack, which freed 324 prisoners, including several dozen
FARC guerrillas, and was the biggest single prison escape to date.
There are no separate facilities
for pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners. However, key
narcotics traffickers and some guerrilla leaders get special cells
with many comforts, some of which--such as access to two-way radios,
cellular telephones, and computers--allowed them to continue their
illegal activities from inside jail. Local or regional military
and jail commanders did not always prepare mandatory detention
registers or follow notification procedures; as a result, precise
accounting for every detainee was not always possible.
The International Committee of the
Red Cross (ICRC) continued to have routine access to most prisons
and police and military detention centers.
The ICRC obtained more frequent access,
although still on an ad hoc basis, to prisoners held by paramilitary
groups or guerrilla forces.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention,
The Constitution includes several
provisions designed to prevent illegal detention; however, there
continued to be instances in which the authorities arrested or
detained citizens arbitrarily.
The law prohibits incommunicado detention.
Anyone held in preventive detention must be brought before a
prosecutor within 36 hours to determine the legality of the detention.
The prosecutor must then act upon that petition within 36 hours
of its submission. Despite these legal protections, instances
of arbitrary detention continued. CINEP received 24 reports of
arbitrary detention during the first 9 months of 1998.
Conditional pretrial release is available
under certain circumstances; for example, in connection with minor
offenses or after unduly lengthy amounts of time in preventive
detention. It is not available in cases of serious crimes, such
as homicide or terrorism.
Guerrilla groups captured and held
prisoner members of the army and police. In September the FARC
proposed a prisoner exchange and confirmed the identity of 278
army and police personnel it held. In addition, the ELN reportedly
held more than 20 such prisoners. At year's end, the FARC and
the ELN were believed to hold almost 400 police and army personnel
The Constitution prohibits exile,
and forced exile is not formally practiced. However, there were
repeated instances of individuals pressured into self-exile for
their personal safety. Such cases included persons from all walks
of life, including politicians, human rights workers, slum-dwellers,
business executives, and farmers. The threats came from various
quarters: elements of the military, paramilitary groups, guerrilla
groups, narcotics traffickers, and other criminal elements.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The civilian judicial system, reorganized
under the 1991 Constitution, is independent of the executive and
legislative branches, both in theory and in practice, although
the suborning or intimidation of judges, witnesses, and prosecutors
by those indicted or involved is common. The human rights Ombudsman's
office reported receipt of 1,533 complaints of denial of the right
to due legal process during 1997.
The judiciary includes the Constitutional
Court, Supreme Court of Justice, the Council of State, the Superior
Judicial Council, and lower courts. The Prosecutor General's
office is an independent prosecutorial body that brings criminal
cases before the courts. The National Tribunal serves as the
first court of appeal for cases tried before the regional (anonymous)
courts. The Supreme Court of Justice serves as the appellate
court for decisions by the national tribunal and lower appellate
courts, and is also the court in which elected officials, generals,
admirals, diplomats, and judges are tried. The Council of State
is the appellate court for civil cases. The Constitutional Court
is to adjudicate cases of constitutionality. The Superior Judicial
Council is the administrative arm of the judicial branch, and
also has the responsibility to determine whether individual cases
are to be tried in civilian or military courts. Jurisdictional
clashes among the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court of Justice,
the Council of State, and the Superior Judicial Council were common,
due to the lack of a single supreme judicial authority capable
of deciding issues of competence or constitutional interpretation.
As part of the Ministry of Defense,
the military judiciary falls under the executive branch, rather
than under the judicial branch. The armed forces commander is
also the president of the military judiciary, which has no dedicated
corps of military lawyers. The Uniform Code of Military Justice
predates the 1991 Constitution and does not contemplate some contemporary
crimes. The workings of the military judiciary lack transparency
and accountability, contributing to a generalized lack of confidence
in the system's ability to bring human rights abusers to justice.
In response to this situation, in
1997 the Constitutional Court directed the military judicial system
to relinquish to the civilian judiciary the investigation and
prosecution of grave human rights violations and other alleged
crimes not directly related to acts of service--the 1991 constitutional
standard for determining whether a case should be tried by the
military or civilian judiciary. According to the Colombian Jurists'
Commission, the court's decision defined only three crimes--torture,
genocide, and forced disappearance--as grave human rights violations
(homicide was not included). However, two of these--genocide
and forced disappearance--were not codified as crimes in the civilian
Penal Code and thus could not be prosecuted as such in civilian
courts. Similar crimes, such as kidnaping, murder, and mass murder,
are codified in the civilian code.
The Superior Judicial Council assigned
most cases involving high-level military personnel to the military
courts, where convictions in human rights-related cases were the
rare exception. According to the 1991 Constitution, general-rank
officers are to be tried by the Supreme Court, but that provision
was ignored in practice, and no definitive court ruling has resolved
varying judicial interpretations of the provision. In determining
which alleged crimes were to be tried by military tribunals, the
Superior Judicial Council also regularly employed an extremely
broad definition of relation to acts of service, thus ensuring
that most uniformed defendants of any rank were tried in military
On October 1, the Superior Judicial
Council determined that Brigadier General Fernando Millan Perez's
alleged organization of a paramilitary group constituted an act
of service and therefore turned General Millan's case over to
the military judiciary for prosecution (see Section 1.a.). In
reaching its decision, the Superior Judicial Council determined
that it was not bound by the Constitutional Court's narrow 1997
interpretation of the 1991 constitutional standard of relation
to acts of service. The Superior Judicial Council's decision
effectively ended the Prosecutor General's investigation into
whether General Millan had provided weapons and intelligence to
paramilitary groups in Santander department.
In cases where military officers
were tried, convicted, and sentenced for human rights violations,
they generally did not serve out prison terms and in some cases
remained on active military duty. The Attorney General's office
investigates misconduct by public officials, including members
of the military and police. Its constitutional mandate only provides
for the imposition of administrative sanctions; it has no authority
to bring criminal prosecutions. Although the Attorney General's
office may refer cases to the Prosecutor General's office for
investigation and prosecution, it often fails to do so. The Attorney
General's office can draw upon a nationwide network of hundreds
of government human rights investigators covering the country's
1,073 municipalities. However, since it cannot impose criminal
sanctions, it is incapable of adequately punishing human rights
Judges have long been subject to threats and intimidation, particularly when dealing with cases involving members of the armed forces or of paramilitary, narcotics, and guerrilla organizations. Although the number of instances of violent attacks against prosecutors and judges declined in recent years, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys continued to be subjected to threats and acts of violence. Moreover, prosecutors reported that potential witnesses in major cases often lacked faith in the Government's ability to protect their anonymity and were thus unwilling to testify, ruining chances for successful prosecutions. These concerns led in 1984 to the creation of regional or public order jurisdictions to prosecute cases involving the crimes of narcotics trafficking, terrorism, kidnaping, subversion, extortion, and some cases of human rights violations. In these courts, prosecutors, judges, witnesses, and attorneys act under cover of anonymity for security reasons. Given security concerns, and since testimony and evidence typically is provided to the judge in written form, regional court trials are not public. While a 1993 reform of the Criminal Procedures Code addressed certain procedural shortcomings within the system, significant problems remained. It still was difficult for defense attorneys to impeach or cross-examine anonymous witnesses, and often the defense attorneys did not have unimpeded access to the State's evidence. As a result of such concerns, judges may no longer base a conviction solely on the testimony of an anonymous witness. Nonetheless, national and international human rights groups continue to accuse these courts of violating fundamental rights to due process, including the right to a public trial. Some of the most vocal congressional critics of these courts continued to be implicated in investigations. The faceless regional courts are expected to be abolished in 1999.
The Supreme Court elects the Prosecutor
General for a 4-year term, which does not coincide with that of
the President, from a list of three candidates chosen by the President.
The Prosecutor General is tasked with investigating criminal
offenses and presenting evidence against the accused before the
various judges and tribunals. However, this office retains significant
judicial functions and, like other elements of the civilian judiciary,
it is struggling to make the transition from a Napoleonic legal
system to a mixed one that incorporates an adversarial aspect.
In an attempt to deal with impunity,
the Prosecutor General in October 1995 created a special Human
Rights Unit as part of the regional courts system. The unit achieved
significant results; its group of 25 anonymous prosecutors addressed
several hundred cases involving massacres, extrajudicial killings,
kidnapings, and terrorism. These prosecutors issued arrest warrants
against members of the public security forces, paramilitary, drug
trafficking, and guerrilla organizations and successfully arrested
60 suspects by year's end.
The Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor
General's office attempted to combat prevailing impunity by investigating,
indicting, or prosecuting 74 security force members during the
year, including 12 officers, on a variety of charges including
kidnaping, sponsorship of paramilitary groups, torture, and homicide.
However, the Attorney General's office and the security forces
did not always follow up with instructions that those ordered
arrested be removed from their duties, denied the right to wear
the uniform, or turned over to civilian judicial authorities.
For example, despite convictions on terrorism charges in a civilian
court and subsequent sentences to prison, Lt. Cols. Baez Garzon
and Londono Tamayo remained on active duty with the army's Third
Brigade and the logistical supply brigade in Bogota, respectively
(see Section 1.a.).
The Constitution specifically provides
for the right to due process. Judges determine the outcome of
all trials; there are no jury trials. The accused is presumed
innocent until proven guilty and has the right to representation
by counsel, although representation for the indigenous and the
indigent historically has been inadequate. On October 3, Superior
Judicial Council president Gustavo Cuello Iriare stated that the
civilian judiciary suffered from a backlog of 3.5 million cases.
The number of outstanding arrest warrants stood at 150,000 in
Trials conducted by the regular courts
are public. Defendants have the right to be present and the right
to timely consultation with an attorney. Regular court defendants
and their attorneys have the right to question, contradict, and
confront witnesses against them, to present witnesses on their
own behalf, and to have access to government evidence relevant
to the case. Direct confrontations are not possible in regional
courts, where everything is processed on paper without a face-to-face
courtroom trial. Defendants also have the right to appeal a conviction
to a higher court.
The Chamber of Deputies elects the
Public Ministry's National Ombudsman for Human Rights for a 4-year
term, which does not coincide with that of the President. The
office has the constitutional duty to ensure the promotion and
exercise of human rights. In addition to providing public defense
attorneys in criminal cases, the Ombudsman's 32 departmental offices
throughout the country provide a legal channel for thousands of
complaints and allegations of human rights violations. In practice,
however, the Ombudsman's operations are underfunded and understaffed,
slowing its development of a credible public defender system.
The Government states that it does
not hold political prisoners. The ICRC reported that it monitored
approximately 3,700 cases of imprisoned citizens accused of terrorism,
rebellion, or aiding and abetting the insurgency, which are crimes
punishable under law.
f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy,
Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law provides for the protection
of these rights; however, at times the authorities infringed upon
them. The law generally requires a judicial order signed by a
prosecutor for the authorities to enter a private home, except
in cases of hot pursuit. The Ministry of Defense continued training
public security forces in legal search procedures that comply
with constitutional and human rights. Due to intimidation, corruption,
or the absence of evidentiary proof collected directly by prosecutors,
guerrilla suspects captured by the security forces in or out of
combat and turned over to the judicial authorities were routinely
A judicial order or the approval
of a prosecuting attorney is required to authorize the interception
of mail or the monitoring of either landline or cellular telephones.
This protection extends to prisoners held in jails. However,
various state authorities sometimes monitored telephones without
obtaining prior authorization. No officials have ever been disciplined
for illegal wiretapping. The security forces subjected human
rights groups to surveillance, harassment, and threats (see Section
Guerrillas forcibly recruited children
to serve as soldiers (see Section 1.g.).
g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations
of Humanitarian Law In Internal Conflicts
The internal armed conflict and narcotics
trafficking are the central causes of violations of human rights
and humanitarian law. Government security forces violated international
humanitarian law, and paramilitary groups and guerrillas, in particular,
committed numerous abuses.
The ICRC reported that the Government,
including military authorities, followed an open-door policy toward
the ICRC and readily incorporated Red Cross curriculums on international
humanitarian law in standard military training. The military
has reduced its emphasis on body counts as a means of assessing
field performance. According to military sources, local commanders
typically preferred to transfer or discharge soldiers accused
of serious human rights violations, rather than initiate court
The CPDH reported 112 massacres between
January and November, which resulted in the deaths of at least
667 people. For example, soldiers of the Boca battalion of the
army's Third Brigade executed five civilians whom they suspected
of being members of the FARC's 58th front at a road block at San
Pablo municipality, Narino department (see Section 1.a.). Twenty-four
massacres occurred in Antioquia department.
Human rights monitors charged that
on December 13, military aircraft attacked the jungle village
of Santo Domingo, Arauca, killing 18 civilians and wounding 25
other civilians, while engaging the FARC. The military strongly
denied these accounts, stating that a battle took place 6 kilometers
outside the town, and that deaths in Santo Domingo were the result
of a FARC truck bomb that exploded prematurely. The Prosecutor
General established a commission to conduct a full investigation
of the incident, which continued at year's end.
According to the independent Advisory
Committee for Human Rights and Displacements (CODHES), some 308,000
persons were forcibly displaced from their homes by violence during
the year, the highest number during any year during the past decade.
CODHES estimated that the government forces were responsible
for approximately 6 percent of displacements during the year.
Internally displaced citizens during 1995-98 probably exceeded
750,000, but the total number--and the number of those who were
permanently displaced--was difficult to discern. CODHES states
that some persons have been displaced for as long as 10 years,
but is unable to identify a typical timeframe for displacement.
Some persons return to their homes within days or weeks, others
within months, and some never return. Some displaced persons
move several times after fleeing their original home, making tracking
difficult. The Government does not consider persons to be displaced
after 2 years. CODHES estimated that perhaps 65 percent of displacements
became permanent. Many displaced persons lost access to health
care and employment, and displaced children often were unable
to attend school.
The Samper Government's response
to the needs of the displaced population was inadequate, and by
its own estimate reached only 10 percent of the displaced population.
Most displaced citizens receiving government assistance received
it for only 90 days. Conditions at the Government's two camps
for displaced persons, at Pavarando and Turbo, were poor and unhygienic;
health care is poor and there are few educational or employment
opportunities. In March the Bogota office of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the Government for
sometimes encouraging civilian populations to move back to their
homes before the security situation had normalized.
Thousands of displaced persons also
fled to Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela, where they usually were
denied refugee status, treated as illegal immigrants, and denied
protection or assistance. The United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) opened an office in Bogota in July in order
to address the problem.
According to army estimates, there
were between 50,000 and 70,000 antipersonnel landmines located
in 13 departments. The armed forces deployed approximately 20,000
landmines during the year, most of which were used to defend static
positions. Due to the ongoing conflict, no generalized mine clearance
program was underway at year's end. Thousands of displaced persons
were unable to return to their homes due to the presence of antipersonnel
mines. There were no known civilian mine awareness campaigns
or assistance programs for civilian victims of landmines.
The human rights Ombudsman's office
reported an increase in violence against women during 1997, especially
in war zones. It noted that most female victims in zones of conflict
chose not to report the abuses they had suffered, in part due
to a lack of confidence in the efficacy of governmental institutions
to address their problems. The Ombudsman noted that female leaders
of political and peasant organizations in the Uraba-Antioquia
region were increasingly the targets of persecution, threats,
torture, and executions. According to the Ombudsman's 1997 report,
there was a substantial increase in sexual assault and murder
of women that year, particularly in Meta, Arauca, Cesar, and Sucre
The many paramilitary groups are
diverse in their motivations, structure, leadership, and ideology.
The 1997 establishment of the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia
(AUC) as a national umbrella organization was designed both to
provide a national structure and to develop a more coherent political
culture for the nation's local and regional paramilitary groups.
The AUC paramilitary umbrella group comprises between 5,000 and
7,000 combatants, who are members of 7 major organizations. Although
illegal, some paramilitary groups reflected rural citizens' legitimate
desire to defend themselves from the guerrilla threat. Other
groups were actually the paid, private armies of drug traffickers
or large landowners.
The victims of paramilitary killings
were often unarmed civilians that the paramilitary groups believed
to be guerrillas or guerrilla collaborators. Paramilitary groups
sought the death or displacement of civilians as punishment for
perceived ties to the guerrillas. The paramilitary groups centered
their actions in selective killings, intimidation, and the forced
displacement of persons not directly involved in the hostilities.
They targeted teachers, labor leaders, community activists, mayors,
town council members, and peasants whom they accused of supporting
the leftist guerrillas. A number of these victims included members
of indigenous communities (see Section 5). A paramilitary group
publicly claimed responsibility for the May 16 massacre of 36
civilians at Barrancabermeja (see Section 1.a.). Paramilitary
groups redoubled their efforts to deprive guerrillas of civilian
support by displacing civilian populations believed to be sympathetic
to the guerrillas. CODHES estimated that paramilitary groups
were responsible for approximately 54 percent of displacements.
On October 25, about 100 members
of the AUC paramilitary group attacked the town of San Carlos,
Antioquia. They killed 10 persons whom they accused of being
guerrilla collaborators. The group also destroyed a police station
and a bank. The Prosecutor General's office was investigating
the attack at year's end.
On July 26, AUC leader Castano and
a dozen other paramilitary commanders signed an agreement with
the national human rights Ombudsman, other members of the National
Peace Council, and representatives of civil society committing
the paramilitary groups to a search for national peace. Coming
a few weeks after the ELN agreement with civil society groups,
the "Nudo de Paramillo" agreement represented an attempt
by the paramilitary leaders to obtain political status and to
be considered for participation in future peace talks.
In November Castano held a radiotelephone
conversation with "Antonio Garcia," the military leader
of the ELN guerrillas, which was later printed in the newspaper
El Tiempo. Castano argued that the paramilitary groups are independent
of the Government, but Garcia argued that the guerrillas had seen
AUC members exchange their armbands for army armbands, and that
the guerrillas did not believe the paramilitaries were entirely
autonomous. Castano admitted that some elements of the armed
forces tolerate the paramilitary groups, but asserted that the
military had increased pressure on his forces.
On December 28 and 29, the FARC's
18th front launched a major attack against Castano's personal
headquarters in southern Cordoba department. The guerrillas tortured
and decapitated noncombatant civilians Norbey Guarneli Ruiz, Nicolas
Caballero Leyva, and Reinoldo Gutierrez Pastrana; dismembered
and castrated Adolfo Adisal Cordero; and shot to death Maria Elena
Vargas, Johnny Maria Sanchez, and Milady Isabel Montalvo, as well
as a 3 year-old and an infant. The FARC publicly admitted to
the killings and decapitations, which it attempted to justify
with allegations that the civilians were paramilitary supporters.
In July the Government discontinued
its practice (begun in December 1994) of organizing and registering
civilian rural defense cooperatives, known collectively as "Convivir,"
which were to provide counterinsurgency intelligence to local
police and military commanders. The human rights Ombudsman had
voiced opposition to these groups, and in November 1997 the Constitutional
Court ruled that while the groups were a constitutional means
to combat guerrillas, they must relinquish rifles, machine guns,
and other restricted weaponry in their possession. (Although
the authorities originally intended these groups to be unarmed,
they subsequently authorized an undetermined number to carry small
arms in self-defense.) Other Convivir groups clearly were operating
outside the terms of the law, as they were armed with rifles,
shotguns, machine guns, and other weaponry, much of it authorized,
sold, or otherwise provided to them by the military.
On July 25, Convivir president Carlos
Alberto Diaz announced the disbanding of 289 of the program's
414 officially recognized rural security cooperatives. However,
credible outside observers place the total number of such groups
at over 700; many Convivir groups were organized but never licensed
by the Government. There were credible charges that some cooperative
members committed serious abuses while fighting alongside, or
as members of, paramilitary units. In August more than 200 members
of 39 disbanded cooperatives in northwestern Colombia announced
that their communities would join the illegal AUC network of paramilitary
units, citing a need to defend themselves from guerrillas.
Some local army and police commanders
tacitly tolerated--and sometimes aided and abetted--the activities
of paramilitary groups, despite the public pronouncements of the
Government and the new armed forces high command that they intended
to combat paramilitary violence. At times, individual commanders
and troops at local levels armed, coordinated actions with, or
shared intelligence with paramilitary groups, although such behavior
was less pervasive than in previous years. Some military commanders
effectively afforded paramilitary groups protection by allowing
them to establish their base camps in areas generally under military
control. Paramilitary groups that received such shelter often
were able to attack guerrillas with minimal fear of reprisals.
On October 18, Vice President Gustavo Bell admitted that despite
official policy, "some members of the armed forces have maintained
some degree of links to paramilitary groups." He stated
that there was no evidence of an "institutional decision"
by the armed forces to cooperate with paramilitary groups.
Despite the continuing significant
rise in paramilitary activity since 1992, the military often has
failed to give priority to confronting these illegal groups.
On occasion, the military did engage paramilitary groups. On
February 8, 23 paramilitary members in the Uraba region ran out
of ammunition during a clash with the FARC and surrendered to
elements of the army's 17th Brigade, which turned them over to
civilian authorities for prosecution. On February 18, police
and marines killed 4 members of a paramilitary group and captured
10 others in the same area. In September elements of the 24th
Brigade captured eight paramilitary members in Putumayo department
and turned them over to the civilian judiciary. They were jailed
and the Prosecutor's office was taking action against them at
The Prosecutor General's office and,
to a lesser extent, the Attorney General's office, in some instances
took action in response to security force members' collaboration
with paramilitary groups. On July 23, the Prosecutor General's
human rights unit arrested four members of the army's 17th Brigade
and charged them with sponsorship and formation of illegal paramilitary
groups. The four men were arrested on the basis of testimony
from several of the paramilitary members who had surrendered to
that brigade in February.
The Ministry of Defense reported
that during the year the police captured 93 paramilitary members,
the military 95, the DAS 4, and the Prosecutor General's technical
investigative corps 30. Additionally, it stated that the army
killed 23 paramilitary members, the navy 3, the DAS 3, and the
police 5. Due to differences in record-keeping and definitions,
the Ministry of Defense's statistics fell short of those issued
by the Prosecutor General's office, which reported that the police
captured 212 paramilitary members during the year, the army 81,
and the Prosecutor General's technical investigative corps 125.
Both sets of figures represented a substantial increase in army
efforts against paramilitary groups over 1997, when the army reported
killing 25 paramilitary members and capturing 31.
Paramilitary groups on occasion used
landmines, and sometimes accepted underage combatants in their
ranks. Paramilitary groups attacked hospitals and ambulances
and were responsible for multiple violations of the protected
status of religious and medical personnel, of the wounded, and
of the emblem of the Red Cross. For example, on August 18, members
of a paramilitary group pursued a man that they had wounded into
a local hospital in Yolombo, Antioquia, and killed him there.
Guerrilla organizations continued
to pursue strategies that routinely violated citizens' rights.
Their tactics consistently included extrajudicial killings, kidnaping,
torture, targeting of civilian populations and installations,
and the forced recruitment of children under the age of 15.
Two main guerrilla armies, the FARC
and the ELN, as well as the much smaller EPL, ERP, ERG, and Jaime
Bateman groups, commanded an estimated total of between 11,000
and 17,000 full-time guerrillas operating in more than 100 semiautonomous
groups in 30 of the nation's 32 departments. These groups undertook
armed actions in nearly 700 of the 1,073 municipalities. Both
the FARC and the ELN systematically attacked noncombatants and
violated citizens' rights through the use of tactics such as extrajudicial
killings, forced disappearances, the mutilation of bodies, FARC
attacks on ambulances, and ELN executions of patients in hospitals.
Guerrillas killed members of indigenous
communities (see Section 5). According to CODHES, guerrillas
were responsible for approximately 29 percent of forced displacements.
Guerrillas used landmines both to defend static positions (such
as base camps, cocaine laboratories, and sites at which kidnap
victims were held) and as indiscriminate weapons of terror. Landmines
planted by guerrillas or disguised as everyday items such as soccer
balls or paint cans often resulted in the killing or maiming of
civilian noncombatants; thousands of displaced persons were unable
to return to their homes due to the presence of antipersonnel
mines. Although the ELN agreed to halt recruitment of children
under the terms of the June 28 Mainz "Heaven's Gate"
agreement, both it and the larger FARC regularly pressed children
into their ranks (see Section 5). Once recruited, child guerrillas
are virtual prisoners of their commanders and subject to various
forms of abuse. Sexual abuse of young girls is a particular problem.
On August 3-5, guerrillas attacked
army and police posts in 18 different departments. The most serious
defeat of government forces occurred at Miraflores, Guaviare department,
where a counternarcotics base shared by the army and the National
Police was overrun and destroyed. The guerrillas captured 73
army and 56 police personnel and kidnaped several humanitarian
workers, including 1 priest, 1 medical doctor, and 3 nurses, as
well as several other civilians. FARC national military commander
Jorge Briceno directed the attack from the Miraflores public hospital.
Car bombs in Cucuta and Medellin destroyed private homes. In
some areas, guerrillas shut down basic utility services, such
as electricity and water, and attacked infrastructure facilities
such as hydroelectric plants and power lines.
On November 1, hundreds of FARC guerrillas
overran the Vaupes departmental capital of Mitu razing several
city blocks, including private homes, a church, and a school.
The FARC directed its attack from the hospital and used medical
personnel as human shields. After killing at least 16 security
force personnel, the FARC took 67 policemen and an undetermined
number of soldiers prisoner. The FARC also carried out a selective
campaign of killings while it occupied the town, resulting in
several civilian deaths.
On October 18, the ELN blew up a
gas and oil pipeline at Machuca, Antioquia department. The explosion
started a fire that killed 74 persons, including 38 children,
and injured more than 50 persons. In November the ELN retracted
its public accusation that the army had been responsible for the
explosion and admitted its own responsibility. ELN guerrillas
killed more than 70 other civilians that month, despite an October
12 ELN-civil society meeting to discuss reducing civilian casualties
during hostilities. Additionally, ELN and FARC attacks on the
Cano Limon-Covenas and other pipelines caused oil spills that
resulted in massive environmental damage.
On June 15, the ELN kidnaped 15 women,
among them 5 children, while they were performing civic action
work for the army's 14th Brigade, according to Human Rights Watch.
The women were members of the army's "Steel Girls"
program, and were wearing army-issued uniforms. The ELN claimed
that, by giving the 15 women uniforms, the army had put them at
risk of being misidentified as combatants. The ELN released them
on July 4.
Guerrilla groups also were responsible
for multiple violations of the protected status of religious and
medical personnel, of the wounded, and of the emblem of the Red
Cross. On July 17, members of the FARC fired on a helicopter-ambulance
in Amalfi, Antioquia department, causing it to crash. On September
15, FARC guerrillas killed eight public health workers at Mocoa,
Putumayo department, who were engaged in a malaria eradication
campaign. At times, guerrillas also showed no respect for the
sanctity of bodies of the dead. For example, on February 17,
two soldiers were killed and five were wounded at the army's artillery
school in Bogota when a grenade exploded as the soldiers unloaded
the corpses of three soldiers who had died in combat with the
FARC. The FARC had booby-trapped one of the bodies.
President Pastrana, during his campaign
and upon assuming office, placed a high priority upon achieving
a lasting internal peace. President-elect Pastrana initiated
peace efforts with a July 9 meeting with the FARC leader "Manuel
Marulanda Velez". Civil society groups met with the ELN
in Mainz, Germany, on June 28 in an attempt to "humanize"
the Government-ELN conflict. A second round of ELN-civil society
talks was held in Colombia on October 12. In a prenegotiation
concession to the FARC, the Government committed to withdraw its
military forces from five southern municipalities November 7 for
a 90-day period, effectively turning the area over to FARC control.
At year's end, the Government and the FARC agreed to begin peace
talks at a town in the demilitarized region in January 1999.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties,
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for freedom
of the press; although the Government generally respected this
right in practice, there were significant exceptions. Journalists
regularly practiced self-censorship. However, the privately owned
print media published a wide spectrum of political viewpoints
and often voiced harsh antigovernment opinions without fear of
administrative reprisals. In 1997 the Constitutional Court declared
unconstitutional the Government's ban on publication of guerrilla
communiques by the media. A ban on the publication of evidence
pertaining to criminal investigations, based on the secrecy provisions
of the Penal Code and an anticorruption statute, remained in effect.
The Samper administration had been
quick to apply pressure on the media when its core interests were
threatened. Self-censorship was common, either to curry favor
with the Government or to avoid political or economic retaliation.
In August the dean of the Los Andes University law school and
the leading daily newspaper El Tiempo filed a legal challenge
to the 1997 Constitutional Court decision upholding a 1996 law
that gave the Government unprecedented authority over the content
of television programming. The plaintiffs asserted that the law
was aimed at limiting journalistic freedom of expression. There
was no decision on the challenge at year's end.
Journalism faculties and students
widely criticized a March 18 Constitutional Court ruling that
abolished professional licensing requirements for journalists,
although it met with the approval of the media and free speech
All citizens have the right to seek
a judicial injunction or motion ("tutela") in cases
involving violations of constitutional rights. This provides
all persons and organizations, including the media, with a mechanism
to denounce both governmental and private violations of fundamental
Both Colombian and international
journalists typically work in an atmosphere of threats and intimidation.
Fearing for their safety, journalists often refrain from publishing
or airing stories counter to the interests of paramilitary groups,
guerrillas, or narcotics traffickers. Unknown assailants murdered
at least 13 journalists during the year, although not all the
murders apparently were related to the journalists' work. Oscar
Garcia, sports reporter for Bogota's second leading daily newspaper,
El Espectador, was murdered on February 23, the day before he
was to meet with representatives of the Prosecutor General's office,
apparently to discuss organized crime links that he had uncovered
to the bullfighting industry. On April 16, Nelson Carvajal, a
radio announcer and schoolteacher, was killed in front of his
school in Pitalito, Huila department. Carvajal's killing was
apparently in retaliation for his charges of corruption against
a former Pitalito mayor. On May 19, radio and television journalist
Bernabe Cortes, who was rumored to have links to organized crime,
was murdered in Cali. On August 14, Luz Amparo Jimenez, a television
reporter and coordinator of the Cesar and La Guajira department
chapters of "Redepaz" (an NGO), was murdered in front
of her home in Valledupar. She recently had criticized local
police links to paramilitary groups and regularly covered the
plight of displaced persons in the region (see Section 4). On
September 11, journalist and aspiring politician Nestor Villar
Jimenez was killed in Villavicencio. On October 14, the editor
of El Panorama magazine, Jose Arturo Guapacha, was murdered in
the Valle del Cauca department. He had written exposes on narcotics
According to Pais Libre, 16 journalists
were kidnaped during the year. Most of the incidents appeared
to have been related to journalists' work and aimed at intimidation.
The trend of concentration of media
ownership continued, with large news firms purchasing small, previously
independent newspapers. Wealthy families or groups associated
with one or the other of the two dominant political parties also
continued to expand their holdings of news media, and regional
firms continued to purchase local news media outlets. Although
the press remained generally free, these trends in news media
ownership tended to narrow the range of political viewpoints offered.
Despite an attempt by some members
of Congress to abolish it, the National Television Commission
continued to oversee television programming throughout the year.
Detractors charged that it was susceptible to political influence.
The Government generally respected
academic freedom, and there was a wide spectrum of political activity
throughout the country's universities. However, paramilitary
groups and guerrillas often targeted teachers at the elementary
and secondary levels in areas of conflict. The CPDH reported
that slightly more than 10 percent of all victims of politically
motivated homicides during the year were public school teachers.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The Constitution provides for freedom
of peaceful assembly, and the Government respects this right in
practice. The authorities normally do not interfere with public
meetings and demonstrations and usually grant the required permission
except when they determine that there is imminent danger to public
In September and October, a lengthy
strike by public sector workers resulted in violent confrontations
with the police on various occasions in several cities (see Section
The Constitution provides for freedom
of association, and the Government respects this right in practice.
Any legal organization is free to associate with international
groups in its field. Membership in proscribed organizations,
such as the FARC, the ELN, and the EPL, is a crime.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for complete
religious freedom, and the Government respects this right in practice.
There is little religious discrimination. Roman Catholic religious
instruction is no longer mandatory in public schools, and a 1994
Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official
government reference to religious characterizations of the country.
The Government permits proselytizing among the indigenous population,
provided that it is welcome and does not induce members of indigenous
communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional
lands. The law on the freedom of religion provides a mechanism
for religions to obtain the status of recognized legal entities.
Both the Constitutional Court (on
October 7) and the Council of State (on November 19) found that
Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonite seminarians had been regularly
forced into military service, in violation of constitutional and
other provisions for conscientious objectors. Both the court
and council directed the Government to exempt the two churches'
seminarians in the same manner that it exempted Roman Catholic
d. Freedom of Movement Within the
Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Constitution provides citizens
with the right to travel domestically and abroad. Outsiders who
wish to enter Indian tribes' reserves must be invited. In areas
where counterinsurgency operations were underway, police or military
officials occasionally required civilians to obtain safe-conduct
passes; paramilitary forces and guerrillas often used similar
means to restrict travel in areas under their control. Military
counterinsurgency operations, forced conscription by paramilitary
and guerrilla organizations, guerrilla incursions, and land seizures
instigated by wealthy individuals or narcotics traffickers often
forced peasants to flee their homes and farms, and there was a
very large population of internally displaced persons (see Section
Colombia has had a tradition of providing
asylum since the 1920's. During the 1970's, Colombia granted
asylum to Argentine, Chilean, Uruguayan, and Paraguayan citizens
seeking refuge from dictatorial regimes. The right to asylum,
under terms established by law, is provided for in the 1991 Constitution.
The Government cooperates with the
office of the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting
refugees and internally displaced persons. The Government reserves
the right to determine eligibility for asylum, based upon its
own assessment of the nature of the persecution an applicant may
have suffered. The issue of the provision of first asylum did
not arise. There were no reports of the forced expulsion of persons
to a country where they feared persecution.
Section 3 Respect for Political
Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The Constitution provides for the
right of citizens to change their government, and citizens exercise
this right in regularly scheduled elections by secret ballot.
Conservative Party candidate Andres Pastrana defeated Liberal
Party candidate Horacio Serpa in a second round of presidential
elections on June 21 with heavy voter turnout. Both rounds of
presidential elections were free, fair, and transparent despite
some threats by paramilitary groups, narcotics traffickers, and
guerrillas to the electoral process.
Presidential elections are held every
4 years, with the incumbent barred for life from reelection.
The Liberal and Conservative parties have long dominated the formal
political process with one or the other winning the presidency.
Public employees are not permitted to participate in partisan
campaigns. Officially, all political parties operate freely without
government interference. Those that fail to garner 50,000 votes
in a general election lose the right to present candidates and
may not receive funds from the Government. However, they may
reincorporate at any time by presenting 50,000 signatures to the
National Electoral Board. Voting is voluntary and universal for
citizens age 18 and older, except for active-duty members of the
police and armed forces, who may not vote.
Although large numbers of citizens
voted in the March 8 election for all 102 members of the Senate
and all 161 members of the Chamber of Representatives, voter turnout
was significantly lower in guerrilla-controlled areas. In spite
of guerrillas' detention of 52 electoral workers and burning of
electoral materials and vehicles, normal elections were carried
out in more than 90 percent of all municipalities. Although the
elections were free, fair, and transparent, several Congressmen
publicly identified with narcotics trafficking interests were
reelected. Some vote buying and fraud took place, but neither
significantly affected the outcome of the elections.
There are no legal restrictions,
and few practical ones, on the participation of women or minorities
in the political process, although both are underrepresented in
official and party positions. A female independent presidential
candidate, Noemi Sanin, made a strong third-place finish during
the first round of the presidential elections in May and was the
first-place finisher in most large cities, including Bogota.
Voters elected 14 women to the Senate and 19 women to the Chamber
of Representatives in March. President Pastrana appointed 2 women
to his 16-member Cabinet, to serve as Ministers of Communication
and Foreign Trade.
Indigenous people are underrepresented
in government and politics. Two of 102 Senate seats are reserved
for indigenous representatives. Blacks also are underrepresented
in government and politics. A 1993 law that set aside two House
seats for citizens of African heritage was declared unconstitutional
in September 1996 by the Constitutional Court, which nonetheless
allowed the incumbents to complete their terms in office. There
is one black Senator but no black members of the Chamber of Representatives.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude
Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged
Violations of Human Rights
A large and varied nongovernmental
human rights community is active, providing a wide range of views.
Among the many groups are: the Catholic Bishops Conference, the
Colombian Commission of Jurists; the Intercongregational Commission
for Justice and Peace; the Permanent Committee for the Defense
of Human Rights; the Center for Investigations and Popular Research;
the Advisory Committee for Human Rights and Displacements; the
Latin American Institute for Alternative Legal Services; the Committee
in Solidarity with Political Prisoners; the Association of Families
of Detained and Disappeared Persons; the Reinsertion Foundation
(focused on demobilized guerrillas); the Pais Libre Foundation
(focused on the rights of kidnap victims); and the Vida Foundation
(focused on the rights of victims of guerrilla violence). Other
international human rights organizations in the country that were
active include the ICRC and Peace Brigades International. The
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has an office
Although the Government generally
did not interfere directly with the work of human rights NGO's,
many prominent human rights monitors worked under constant fear
for their physical safety. Human rights groups were subjected
to surveillance, harassing phone calls, graffiti campaigns, and
threats by elements of the military, intelligence, police, paramilitary,
and guerrilla forces.
Jose Fernando Castro, the national
human rights Ombudsman, was harshly critical of the Government's
human rights record during his March 20 presentation to the United
Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. He cited excessive
use of force by the military, weak institutions, and harassment
of the Ombudsman's office as problems faced by human rights monitors.
Castro said that the Government prevented representatives of
his office from visiting the scene of fighting that month between
the security forces and guerrillas, even to the point of an attack
by helicopter on a boat his office was using.
NGO's investigated and reported on
human rights abuses committed by government forces, various paramilitary
groups, and the guerrilla armies. Many NGO's expressed serious
concern over the growing paramilitary and guerrilla violence--and
the Government's increasingly apparent inability to stop either
of them. In particular, a number of NGO, as well as governmental,
human rights officials were alarmed by the rapid growth of paramilitary
groups, both in terms of their responsibility for an increased
proportion of human rights violations and their growing political
and military power.
The human rights community came under intense pressure during the year. Human Rights Watch/Americas cited a "shocking record" of killings of human rights defenders. Human rights monitors were subject to a systematic campaign of intimidation, harassment, and violence. Human Rights Watch also reported that 6 human rights defenders were killed in the first 10 months of the year, including Jesus Maria Valle in Medellin and Eduardo Umana Mendoza in Bogota (see Section 1.a.). In addition, many human rights workers fled the country for their own safety.
On May 13, an urban counterterrorism
unit attached to the army's Fifth Division, accompanied by a state
prosecutor bearing a legal warrant, raided the offices of the
human rights NGO Justice and Peace. The ostensible purpose of
the raid was to search for information regarding subversive guerrilla
movements and the May 12 assassination of former Defense Minister
and commanding General Fernando Landazabal. During the course
of the raid, the security forces at least partially copied the
NGO's "never again" database of over 40,000 human rights
crimes. The search was executed with a valid search warrant issued
by the Prosecutor General's office, but the prosecutor who accompanied
the army was fired for having conducted the raid in an illegal
manner. The armed forces, which have no legal mandate to perform
domestic law enforcement functions, retained evidence that by
law should have been turned over to the prosecutor. Army commander
Major General Jorge Enrique Mora (who was in command of the Fifth
Division at the time) told the press that Thirteenth Brigade commander
Brigadier General Rito Alejo del Rio (see Section 1.a.) had ordered
Police had no leads in the August 11 murder of Luz Amparo Jimenez, a television reporter and NGO coordinator who criticized local police links to paramilitary groups, in Valledupar, Cesar department (see Section 2.a.). In September the Government indicted five persons in the 1997 murders of two CINEP workers (see Section 1.a.).
The ICRC, working with the presidential
human rights adviser and the public security forces, helped provide
training programs in international humanitarian law. These programs
were directed not only at affected civilian populations but also
were integrated into the military training curriculum. The security
forces sent 26,000 persons to an average of 4.5 hours of training.
Many observers credited these programs with having done much
to foster a climate of increased respect for human rights and
international humanitarian law within the military forces in recent
years. The ICRC continued to expand its operations, with an office
in Bogota plus 15 offices in various conflict zones.
The Government has an extensive human
rights apparatus, which includes the Office of the President's
Adviser for Human Rights, the Ministry of Defense human rights
office, and dependent offices for each of the armed forces. The
national human rights Ombudsman and its regional representatives
and corps of public defenders, the Attorney General's office and
its office for human rights and regional representatives, and
the Prosecutor General's office and its human rights unit are
all independent institutions, not subject to executive branch
direction. In September President Pastrana named Vice President
Gustavo Bell to serve concurrently as Presidential Advisor on
The human rights Ombudsman's office
received 20,101 human rights complaints during 1997 and concluded
investigations of 11,047 complaints that year. It also provided
29,406 free legal consultations through its corps of nearly 1,000
public defenders, many of whom work only part time.
In 1997 the United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights opened a field office in Bogota to observe human
rights practices and advise the Government. Originally scheduled
to end after 1 year, the Government asked that its mandate be
extended until April 1999. The office is tasked with monitoring
and analyzing the human rights situation throughout the country
and with the provision of assistance to the Government, civil
society, and NGO's in the field of human rights protection. It
submitted reports to the Government and to the United Nations
and spoke out publicly on particularly egregious abuses committed
by government, paramilitary, or guerrilla forces.
Section 5 Discrimination Based
on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution specifically prohibits
discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, language,
or social status. In practice, however, many of these provisions
are not enforced. The killing of homosexuals as part of the practice
of social cleansing continued.
Rape and other acts of violence against
women are pervasive in society, and like other crimes, seldom
are prosecuted successfully. The quasi-governmental Institute
for Family Welfare (ICBF) and the Presidential Adviser's Office
for Youth, Women, and Family Affairs continued to report high
levels of spouse and partner abuse throughout the country. The
ICBF conducted programs and provided refuge and counseling for
victims of spousal abuse, but the level and amount of these services
were dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem.
The Institute for Legal Medicine
estimated in 1997 that 239,400 persons are victims of sexual abuse
annually, 88 percent of them women. The Institute also estimated
that 95 percent of all abuse cases are never reported to the authorities.
The 1996 Law on Family Violence criminalizes
violent acts committed within families, including spousal rape.
The law also provides legal recourse for victims of family violence,
immediate protection from physical or psychological abuse, and
judicial authority to remove the abuser from the household. It
allows a judge to oblige an abuser to seek therapy or reeducation.
For acts of spousal sexual violence, the law mandates sentences
of 6 months to 2 years and denies probation or bail to offenders
who disobey restraining orders issued by the courts. A 1997 law
also made additional, substantial modifications to the Penal Code
and introduced sentences of between 4 and 40 years for crimes
against sexual freedom or human dignity, including rape, sex with
a minor, sexual abuse, induction into prostitution, and child
pornography. The law also repealed an old law that fully exonerated
a rapist if he subsequently offered to marry the victim and she
accepted. However, there was little evidence that this legislation
was enforced systematically. The Institute for Legal Medicine's
preliminary 1998 statistics state that 25,669 persons were victims
of domestic violence.
Women also faced an increased threat
of torture and sexual assault due to the internal conflict (see
The Constitution prohibits any form
of discrimination against women and specifically requires the
authorities to ensure "adequate and effective participation
by women at decisionmaking levels of public administration."
Even prior to implementation of the 1991 Constitution, the law
had provided women with extensive civil rights. However, despite
these constitutional provisions, discrimination against women
persisted. According to figures published by the United Nations,
women's earnings for formal sector, nonagricultural work correspond
to approximately 85 percent of men's earnings for comparable work,
and women must demonstrate higher qualifications than men when
applying for jobs. Moreover, women constitute a disproportionately
high percentage of the subsistence labor work force, especially
in rural areas.
1997 ICBF data indicated that although
working women suffered from a higher rate of unemployment than
men, the economically active female population had a higher level
of education than did men. However, some 39 percent of working
women were employed in minimum wage jobs, compared with 31 percent
Despite an explicit constitutional
provision promising additional resources for single mothers and
government efforts to provide them with training in parenting
skills, women's groups reported that the social and economic problems
of single mothers remained great. The Constitutional Court ruled
in September 1997 that pregnant women and mothers of newborn children
under 3 months of age could not be fired from their jobs without
"just cause." Bearing children, the Court ruled, was
not just cause.
The Constitution formally provides
for free public education, which is compulsory between the ages
of 6 and 14. Nevertheless, an estimated 25 percent of children
in this age group do not attend school, due to lax enforcement
of truancy laws, inadequate classroom space, and economic pressures
to provide income for the family.
Despite significant constitutional
and legislative commitments to the protection of children's rights,
these were implemented only to a minimal degree. The Constitution
imposes the obligation on family, society, and the State to assist
and protect children, to foster their development, and to assure
the full exercise of these rights. A special Children's Code
sets forth many of these rights and establishes services and programs
designed to enforce the protection of minors. Children's advocates
reported the need to educate citizens with regard to the code
as well as the 1996 and 1997 laws on family violence, which had
been drafted particularly to increase legal protection for women
According to the Institute for Legal
Medicine, during 1997, 82 percent of sexual abuse victims were
minors. An estimated 25,000 boys and girls under age 18 work
in the sex trade. In 1996 legislators passed a law prohibiting
sex with minors or the employment of minors for prostitution,
and they amended that law in 1997 to provide that conviction for
nonviolent sexual abuse of a child under age 14 carries a prison
sentence of 4 to 10 years. Conviction for rape of anyone under
the age of 12 carries a mandatory sentence of 20 to 40 years in
prison. Although enforcement of such laws is lax, crimes against
children are being dealt with more severely than in the past.
The ICBF oversees all government child protection and welfare
programs and funds nongovernmental and church programs for children.
In conflict zones, children often
were caught in the crossfire between the public security forces,
paramilitary groups, and guerrilla organizations. Children suffered
disproportionately from the internal conflict, often forfeiting
opportunities to study as they were displaced by conflict and
suffered psychological traumas. The use of child soldiers was
common. Paramilitary groups sometimes pressed children into their
ranks. The army estimated that 3,000 children were members of
the ELN or FARC (see Section 1.g.). In August the Simon Bolivar
Guerrilla Coordinating Board admitted that 7 to 10 percent of
armed guerrillas were children between the ages of 13 and 17.
The ELN agreed to stop forcing children into its ranks as part
of its accord with civil society signed on June 28 in Mainz, Germany.
People With Disabilities
The Constitution enumerates the fundamental
social, economic, and cultural rights of the physically disabled,
but serious practical impediments exist that prevent the full
participation of disabled persons in society. There is no legislation
that specifically mandates access for the disabled. According
to the Constitutional Court, physically disabled individuals must
have access to, or if they so request, receive assistance at,
voting stations. The Court also has ruled that the social security
fund for public employees cannot refuse to provide services for
the disabled children of its members, regardless of the cost involved.
There are approximately 80 distinct
ethnic groups among the 800,000-plus indigenous inhabitants.
The Constitution gives special recognition to the fundamental
rights of indigenous people. It provides for a special criminal
and civil jurisdiction, based upon traditional community laws,
within Indian territories. The Ministry of Interior, through
the Office of Indigenous Affairs, is responsible for protecting
the territorial, cultural, and self-determination rights of Indians.
Ministry representatives are located in all regions of the country
with indigenous populations and work with other governmental human
rights organizations, as well as with NGO human rights groups
and civil rights organizations, to promote Indian interests and
investigate violations of indigenous rights. Nonetheless, members
of indigenous groups suffer discrimination in the sense that they
traditionally have been relegated to the margins of society.
Few opportunities exist for those who might wish to participate
more fully in modern life. In addition, indigenous communities
suffer disproportionately from the internal armed conflict (see
According to the National Agrarian
Reform Institute (INCORA), 344,505 people live on designated Indian
reserves. Traditional Indian authority boards operate some 476
reserves; the boards handle national or local funds and are subject
to fiscal oversight by the national Comptroller General. These
boards administer their territories as municipal entities, with
officials elected or otherwise chosen according to Indian tradition.
Indigenous communities are free to educate their children in
traditional dialects and in the observance of cultural and religious
customs. Indigenous men are not subject to the national military
The INCORA estimated that some 40
indigenous communities had no legal title to land that they claimed
as their own, and reported that an estimated 400 requests by indigenous
communities to establish new reserves remained outstanding at
Members of indigenous communities
continued to be victims of all sides in the internal conflict,
and a number of them were killed. In August the national human
rights Ombudsman stated in his annual report that the indigenous
communities most affected by extrajudicial killings during 1996-97
were the Zenu (26 persons reportedly killed by paramilitary groups),
the Embera-Katio (9 persons allegedly killed by the army, paramilitary
groups, and the FARC), the Paez (8 persons allegedly killed by
paramilitary groups and guerrillas), the Koreguaje (23 persons
known to have been killed by the FARC), the Los Pastos (1 person
reportedly killed by the army), and the Pijao (1 person reportedly
killed by the army). In 1997 alone, 63 indigenous leaders and
13 other indigenous community members were killed and 3 disappeared.
According to the human rights Ombudsman, the authorities had
opened investigations into many of the cases at year's end, but
no one had been tried and convicted for these crimes.
Occidental Petroleum returned some
of its exploration concessions to the Government after attempts
to negotiate with the U'wa tribe broke down. The tribe had protested
a 1995 award to Occidental and Ecopetrol allowing them to explore
lands claimed by the U'wa. The U'wa had filed a complaint before
the IACHR. A 1997 OAS joint study with a university recommended
the immediate and unconditional suspension of oil exploration
or exploitation activities; clarification of the status of U'wa
territories and protected reserves; and the development of a formal
process of consultation under auspices of the Government. The
U'wa had also threatened to commit collective suicide if their
wishes were not respected.
Approximately 2 million citizens
of African heritage live primarily in the Pacific departments
of Choco, Valle del Cauca, and Narino, and along the Caribbean
coast. They represent roughly 5 percent of the total population,
while the figures of the National Administrative Department of
Statistics place the national black population at 16 percent of
the total, or 6.4 million.
Blacks are entitled to all constitutional
rights and protections but traditionally have suffered from discrimination.
Blacks are underrepresented in the executive branch, judicial
branch, and civil service positions, and in military hierarchies.
Despite the passage of the African-Colombian law in 1993, little
concrete progress was made in expanding public services and private
investment in the Choco or other predominantly black regions.
The same law also authorized black communities to receive collective
titles to some Pacific coast lands. However, black leaders complained
that the Government was slow to issue titles, and that their access
to such lands was often inhibited by the presence of armed groups
or individuals. Unemployment among African-Colombians ran as
high as 76 percent in some communities. Choco department remains
the department with the lowest per capita level of social investment
and is last in terms of education, health, and infrastructure.
It also has been the scene of some of the nation's most unremitting
political violence, as paramilitary forces and guerrillas struggled
for control of the Uraba region.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Constitution recognizes the rights
of workers to organize unions and to strike, except for members
of the armed forces and police, and those "essential public
services" as defined by law. However, legislation that prohibits
all public employees from striking is still in effect, even if
Nonemergency government employees
staged a 2-day national strike in September to protest low wages,
which did not keep up with inflation. That action led to a 3-week
long strike in October that brought many public services to a
halt, caused violent clashes between strikers and the police,
and saw the (possibly strike-related) murders of seven labor leaders.
After lengthy negotiations, the Government agreed to a 15 percent
average wage increase for all state workers, with teachers to
receive a 16 percent increase (slightly below the estimated inflation
rate of 17 percent). Union leaders agreed to make up lost workdays,
and the Government agreed to withdraw pending legislation to privatize
telecommunications and social security in order to obtain more
The 1948 Labor Code (which repeatedly
has been amended) provides for automatic recognition of unions
that obtain at least 25 signatures from potential members and
comply with a simple registration process at the Labor Ministry.
The law penalizes interference with freedom of association.
It allows unions to determine freely internal rules, elect officials,
and manage activities, and forbids the dissolution of trade unions
by administrative fiat. According to Labor Ministry estimates,
approximately 7 percent of the work force is organized in about
2,235 labor unions. The number of unions fell dramatically during
1998 (from a 1997 total of approximately 4,900), reflecting the
effects of new legislation that encouraged the consolidation of
individual companies' unions into broader, industry-based unions.
Some unions also were closed due to the murders of their leaders.
Before staging a legal strike, unions
must negotiate directly with management and, if no agreement results,
accept mediation. By law, public employees must accept binding
arbitration if mediation fails; in practice, public service unions
decide by membership vote whether or not to seek arbitration.
In May the International Labor Organization
(ILO) expressed its serious concern at allegations of murders,
forced disappearances, death threats, and other acts of violence
against trade union officials and members. The ILO documented
more than 300 murders of trade unionists during 1995-98. The
ILO harshly criticized the Government for failing, since November
1996, to provide it with information on a single case of detention,
trial, and conviction of anyone responsible for the murder of
After a 1993 complaint by the ILO
regarding the Labor Code's provision that government officials
supervise union meetings, the Government discontinued its practice
of monitoring such meetings. The Government has not addressed
other ILO criticisms of the Labor Code. In 1993 the ILO had complained
about the following provisions of the law: the requirement that
government officials be present at assemblies convened to vote
on a strike call; the legality of firing union organizers from
jobs in their trades once 6 months have passed following a strike
or dispute; the requirement that contenders for trade union office
must belong to the occupation their union represents; the prohibition
of strikes in a wide range of public services that are not necessarily
essential; various restrictions on the right to strike; the power
of the Minister of Labor and the President to intervene in disputes
through compulsory arbitration when a strike is declared illegal;
and the power to dismiss trade union officers involved in an unlawful
Labor leaders throughout the country
continued to be targets of attacks by paramilitary groups, guerrillas,
narcotics traffickers, and their own union rivals. On October
20, a lone gunman shot and killed Jorge Ortega, vice president
of the Central Workers' Union (CUT), the country's largest public
sector labor organization. Ortega had used his position to denounce
paramilitary actions and the paramilitary presence in the country,
and his name appeared on a list of nine labor and political leaders
allegedly targeted for murder by extreme rightwing elements.
However, just before his murder, he had criticized the ELN attack
on an oil pipeline in Antioquia that left 74 persons dead (see
Section 1.g.). The new Pastrana administration offered a $65,000
(100 million pesos) award for information leading to the arrest
of the killer, but no one had been detained at year's end.
In December the International Confederation
of Free Trade Unions announced in Geneva that at least 50 union
members had been killed because of their union activities during
1998. Many of these were targeted by the FARC for their membership
in, or sympathy with, the National Syndicate of Agricultural Industry
Workers (Sintrainagro), a union largely composed of demobilized
EPL members. Many of the murdered Sintrainagro members had worked
in the banana industry in Uraba region. Other murders of labor
leaders were concentrated in Arauca, Antioquia, Casanare, Cesar,
Cordoba, and Magdalena departments. Also among those targeted
for killing during the year were leaders of the Union of Syndicated
Labor (USO), the National Federation of Agricultural Syndicates
(Fensuagro), and the Cordoba department Teachers' Association
(Ademacor). The National Organized Labor School (ENS) reported
in December that 82 unionized workers were murdered during the
year, a significant decrease from the 154 murderers it reported
in 1997. The ENS attributed the decline to a quieting of tensions
in the Uraba region, where leftist banana workers historically
have been the targets of paramilitary and guerrilla attacks.
The ENS also reported that 28 union leaders had been killed during
The 1995 collective work convention
between Ecopetrol and the USO expired in November. At year's
end, no new agreement had been reached. The accord was the result
of the Government's restructuring, rather than privatizing, Ecopetrol
to avoid massive layoffs. The USO leadership remained in open
conflict with the Government on many issues. USO leaders reported
that its members in the oil-producing Magdalena Medio region continued
to receive death threats from presumed paramilitary groups, who
have accused USO officials of working with the ELN guerrillas
waging a sabotage campaign against the nation's oil pipelines.
Unions are free to join international
confederations without government restrictions.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain
The Constitution protects the right
of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Workers
in larger firms and public services have been most successful
in organizing, but these unionized workers represent only a small
portion of the economically active population. High unemployment,
traditional antiunion attitudes, and weak union organization and
leadership limit workers' bargaining power in all sectors.
The law forbids antiunion discrimination
and the obstruction of free association. Government labor inspectors
theoretically enforce these provisions, but because there are
260 labor inspectors to cover 1,073 municipalities and more than
300,000 companies, the inspection apparatus is weak. Furthermore,
labor inspectors often lacked basic equipment, such as vehicles.
The Labor Code calls for fines to be levied for restricting freedom
of association and prohibits the use of strike breakers.
Collective pacts--agreements between
individual workers and their employers--are not subject to collective
bargaining and typically are used by employers to obstruct labor
organization. Although employers must register collective pacts
with the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry does not exercise any
oversight or control over them.
The Labor Code also eliminates mandatory
mediation in private labor-management disputes and extends the
grace period before the Government can intervene in a conflict.
Federations and confederations may assist affiliate unions in
Labor law applies to the country's
nine free trade zones (FTZ's), but its standards often were not
enforced in the zones, in part due to lack of political will.
Public employee unions have won collective bargaining agreements
in the FTZ's of Barranquilla, Buenaventura, Cartagena, and Santa
Marta, but the garment manufacturing enterprises in Medellin and
Risaralda, which have the largest number of employees, are not
organized. National labor leaders claim that in these FTZ's the
provisions of the Labor Code dealing with wages, hours, health,
and safety are not honored.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory
The Constitution forbids slavery
and any form of forced or compulsory labor, and this prohibition
is generally respected in practice. The law prohibits forced
or bonded labor by children but the Government does not have the
resources to enforce this prohibition effectively (see Section
6.d.). Although there were no known instances of forced child
labor in the formal economy, some children were forced to serve
as paramilitary or guerrilla combatants (see Section 1.g) or to
work as prostitutes or coca pickers.
d. Status of Child Labor Practices
and Minimum Age for Employment
The Constitution bans the employment
of children under the age of 14 in most jobs, and the Labor Code
prohibits the granting of work permits to youths under the age
of 18. A 1989 decree establishing the Minors' Code prohibits
the employment of children under age 12 and stipulates exceptional
conditions and the express authorization of Labor Ministry inspectors
for the employment of children between the ages of 12 and 17 (inclusive).
However, these requirements largely are ignored in practice, and
only 5 percent of those children that work have filed for the
required work permits. By allowing children of ages 12 and 13
to work under any conditions, the law contravened international
standards on child labor, which set the minimum legal age for
employment in developing countries at 14 years.
In the formal sector, child labor
laws are enforced through periodic review by the Ministry of Labor
and by the military, which ensures compliance with mandatory service
requirements. However, in the informal labor sector and in rural
areas, child labor continues to be a problem, particularly in
agriculture and mining. Children as young as 11 years of age
work full time in almost every aspect of the cut flower industry
as a way to supplement family income. Even children enrolled
in school or, in some cases, too young for school, accompany their
parents to work at flower plantations at night and on weekends.
In the mining sector, coal mining presents the most difficult
child labor problem. Many marginal, usually family-run, operations
employ their young children as a way to boost production and income.
The work is dangerous and the hours are long. Younger children
carry water and package coal, while those age 14 and up engage
in more physically demanding labor such as carrying bags of coal.
Even though these informal mining operations are illegal, the
Ministry of Labor has undertaken little or no enforcement action
Recent data on child labor were not
available. A 1997 study by Los Andes University using 1992 data
concluded that at least 1.6 million children between the ages
of 12 and 17 worked. Child participation in agricultural work
soared at harvest times. The study found that 31 percent of 14-
to 17-year-olds are active participants in the labor market, and
784,000 children between the ages of 6 and 11 worked. Twenty-five
percent of working children were employed in potentially dangerous
activities. According to army estimates, at least 3,000 children
were employed by paramilitary groups and guerrillas as combatants
(see Section 5). School attendance by working children was significantly
lower than for nonworking children. Only 10 percent of child
laborers were found to be covered by the health services of the
social security system. A 1996 study by the national human rights
Ombudsman of child labor in Putumayo department found that 22
percent of the children between the ages of 5 and 18 were full-time
coca pickers. In the municipality of Orito, the figure reached
70 percent. The Government prohibits forced and bonded labor
by children but is unable to enforce this prohibition effectively
(see Section 6.c.).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Government sets a uniform minimum
wage for workers every January to serve as a benchmark for wage
bargaining. The monthly minimum wage, set by tripartite negotiation
among representatives of business, organized labor, and the Government
was about $150 (203,826 pesos) throughout the year. The minimum
wage does not provide a decent standard of living for a worker
and family. Because the minimum wage is based on the Government's
target inflation rate, the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation
in recent years. By government estimates, the price of the family
shopping basket is 2.4 times the minimum wage. However, 77 percent
of all workers earn no more than, and often much less than, twice
the minimum wage.
The law provides for a standard workday
of 8 hours and a 48-hour workweek, but it does not require specifically
a weekly rest period of at least 24 hours, a failing criticized
by the ILO. Legislation provides comprehensive protection for
workers' occupational safety and health, but these standards are
difficult to enforce, in part due to the small number of Labor
Ministry inspectors. In addition, unorganized workers in the
informal sector fear the loss of their jobs if they exercise their
right to criticize abuses, particularly in the agricultural sector.
In general, a lack of public safety
awareness, inadequate attention by unions, and lax enforcement
by the Labor Ministry result in a high level of industrial accidents
and unhealthy working conditions. Over 80 percent of industrial
companies lack safety plans. The Social Security Institute reported
115,000 work-related accidents for 1995, 17,000 of which resulted
in deaths. Informed observers reported that the level of work-related
accidents was expected to remain at comparably high levels in
1998, and that the industries most prone to worker accidents were
mining, construction, and transportation. According to the Labor
Code, workers have the right to withdraw from a hazardous work
situation without jeopardizing continued employment.
[end of document]
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