Justice for Colombia arranges regular delegations to Colombia. They are normally made up of trade unionists, politicians and/or lawyers. The information on this page is based on the background briefings that we provide to these people prior to their visit to Colombia. It is therefore designed to give a general overview of the situation with an emphasis on human rights.
Introduction to Colombia
Colombia was liberated from the Spanish in 1810 by Simon Bolivar – the Latin American independence leader who is a national hero. The country is the size of France, Germany and the UK combined and has a population of 45 million people.
The population is approximately 74% white/mestizo, 24% black/mixed race and 2% indigenous. Nearly 90% of the population are Roman Catholics and Spanish is spoken by all but some isolated indigenous groups.
Colombia is the only country in South America to have coasts on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and it also reaches, in the extreme south east of the country, the Amazon River. The Andes Mountains run north to south through the centre/west of the country while the eastern half of the nation is split between flat plains and tropical jungle.
Administratively the country is split into 32 provinces (known as departments) plus the capital district of Bogota which is home to around 8.5 million residents.
Colombia is remarkably rich in natural resources and exports petroleum (BP is the second largest foreign investor in the country), coal (Colombia has the largest opencast mine in the world), emeralds (over half of the world’s emeralds are Colombian), nickel, gold, copper, iron ore and natural gas. Agriculture, in which over 25% of the workforce is employed, is also crucial to the economy and the country exports large quantities of bananas, sugarcane, palm oil and cut flowers among other products.
Over half of all exports have traditionally gone to the United States and neighbouring Venezuela, though due to political tensions with the latter, including periods when their border is closed, China has recently replaced Venezuela as Colombia’s number two trading partner. Whilst a relatively large proportion of Colombia’s exports go to the European Union, less than 0.5% of the EU’s total trade is with Colombia.
For 45 years there has been a war in Colombia which, though complex, is fundamentally between government forces and leftwing guerrillas groups. In more recent years rightwing paramilitary organisations, often working in collaboration with the security forces, have joined the conflict. The war is still being fought today and continues to cause immense suffering for the people of Colombia.
Less than 5% of Colombian workers are members of trade unions – the lowest level in the Americas. Less than twenty years ago it was double that figure but violence against trade unionists, changes in the labour market and anti-trade union policies have led to a huge decrease in membership. Today only 850,000 Colombians are members of a trade union.
The union movement in Colombia is fragmented and there are over 2,000 registered unions in the country and three national centres – the CTC, the CGT and the CUT. However, the CUT is by far the biggest centre with 746 affiliated trade unions representing over 600,000 members between them. The union movement is attempting to engage in a consolidation process though progress is slow.
By far the largest union in Colombia is FECODE, a national federation representing around 250,000 teachers. The second largest is FENSUAGRO, another national federation representing around 100,000 peasant farmers and agricultural workers. Both are CUT affiliated as are most of the other key trade unions in the country including ANTHOC (health workers), UNEB (financial sector workers), USO (oil workers), FENALTRASE (public sector workers), SINDESENA and SINTRAUNICOL (further education workers), SINTRAELECOL (workers in electricity generation), SINTRAEMSDES (workers in the water industry) and FUNTRAMINERGETICA (workers in the energy, mining, chemicals and metal industries).
Whilst the three trade union centres are all affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), only a small proportion of Colombia’s 2,000 individual unions are affiliated to their relevant Global Union Federations.
Colombia is infamous for being the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. According to the database of the CUT trade union federationi, nearly 2,800 union activists have been assassinated since the CUT was established in 1986. Contrary to claims sometimes made by Colombian officials, all of these men and women were killed as a direct result of their trade union activities.ii
As of the end of June 2010 at least 32 trade unionists – more than one per week – had been murdered.iii This is the highest rate of killings for some years, again contradicting official accounts which allege that the numbers of murders are falling.
Killings of Colombian trade unionists in recent years
End of year figure if assassinations continue at the same rate Trade unionists assassinated
In addition to the assassinations, nearly 200 trade union activists have been forcibly disappearedvi whilst others have been subjected to arbitrary imprisonment or physical attacks. Torture of trade unionists has also been well documented and trade unions and their members receive regular death threats, leading to many thousands of members fleeing their homes and jobs, sometimes into exile abroad.
Exacerbating the problem is the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the violence. Virtually no one is ever arrested for murders or other crimes committed against trade unionists in Colombia. And whilst the authorities assert that they are acting to apprehend the perpetrators, the evidence on the ground does not support this and the CUT claims that in over 97% of assassinations nobody has been convicted. Furthermore, the Colombian Government has been either unwilling or unable to provide concrete details (for example name, place of detention, etc) of any of the hundreds of individuals that they regularly assert are imprisoned for killing a trade unionist.v
The majority of the killings are carried out by rightwing paramilitaries. However, there are also numerous cases in which the state security forces themselves, in particular the Army, have been found to be responsible for assassinations and in 2006 it was revealed that the DAS secret police, which reports directly to the Colombian president, had drawn up a death list of trade union leaders which had then been passed on to the paramilitaries. Several of those on the list were subsequently murdered and others forced to flee after receiving threats. The most recent international investigation focused on anti-trade union violence in Colombia, a 2007 report by Amnesty International, blamed, in the cases in which the perpetrator was known, the paramilitaries for 49% of the abuses, the security forces for 43% and the guerrillas for 2%. The report also gives details of the DAS involvement in trade union murders.
i The CUT database, along with that maintained by the National Trade Union School (ENS, www.ens.org.co), are considered to be the best sources of information on anti-trade union violence in Colombia.
ii On occasion Colombian officials have alleged that some trade unionists were killed for personal reasons or as a result of crime, such as during robberies. However, the CUT does not include such cases in their database.
iii Figures provided by the CUT.
vi According to the CUT database 196 trade union activists are currently classified as ‘disappeared’.
v Numerous international delegations to Colombia have asked the authorities to provide details of those they say are imprisoned for murdering a trade unionist. In addition the British TUC has requested such a list from the Colombian Embassy in London. So far no list has ever been provided leading to doubts about the veracity of the claims.
Recent years have seen the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies in Colombia, including a widespread privatisation program, that have significantly impacted, sometimes directly through changes to the Labour Code, on the rights of workers.
Perhaps the most obvious impact has been the dramatic reduction in collective bargaining agreements between unions and employers; and today less than 1% of Colombian workers are covered by such agreements.i In the public sector, in clear violation of ILO Conventions, collective bargaining is not permitted. In the private sector, ‘collective pacts’ between individual workers and their employers are often used to subvert collective bargaining. Collective pacts, which are legal, give the employers the right to negotiate pay and conditions at any time with groups of workers when no union is present or when a union represents less than one-third of employees. Unions allege that in cases when a minority union presents a collective bargaining proposal, employers offer some workers better pay in exchange for their leaving the union and joining a ‘pact’, undermining the union’s ability to bargain collectively. Indeed, to all intents and purposes collective bargaining no longer exists in Colombia.
Another consequence of the economic reforms has been the increase in the numbers of workers involved in informal employment, an issue that disproportionately affects women workers.ii Indeed, of Colombia’s 18 million working people a staggering 11 million are working in the informal economy, an area that is virtually impossible to organise and where working conditions are generally abysmal. Of the remaining 7 million people (who do have formal employment) only 4 million benefit from permanent employment contracts with the remainder being on temporary contracts.iii
Those on temporary contracts are not covered by the Labour Code and therefore not covered by the right to join a union. In addition, it is common for employers not to renew the contracts of temporary workers should they express an interest in joining a union. This problem has been exacerbated by the restructuring of privatised companies so that workers formerly on a permanent contract (and therefore allowed to join a union) are moved over to either temporary contracts or end up being employed by so-called ‘employment co-operatives’. The members of these self-styled ‘co-operatives’, which in some ways are similar to agency workers, are classed as self-employed meaning that workers find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to continue their union membership. A report by the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards raised “concerns in relation to the increase use of cooperatives” which, they stated, “place obstacles in the way of freedom of association”.iv
The right to strike has also been impacted by economic and labour reforms and it is now prohibited to engage in strikes in a wide range of public services – far greater than the ‘essential’ services defined by ILO standards. Further restrictions include a prohibition of federations or confederations of unions calling a strike. And the power, given to employers, to fire workers that have engaged in a strike or work stoppage if the courts, after the strike has occurred, subsequently declare, as they frequently have done, that the industrial action did not conform to the law.v
Given the prevalence of anti-trade union laws it is therefore perhaps not surprising that the Colombian Government was the only one in the world to oppose the granting of observer status to the ITUC at the United Nations.vi
ii The ILO has stated about Colombia that “Women form the majority of workers in subcontracted, temporary or casual work, part-time work and informal occupations. As a result, more women than men are in unorganized and unprotected jobs which lack security of tenure, perpetuating poverty in families."
v For more on all of these issues see the brief prepared for the European Union by the ITUC at www.justiceforcolombia.org/downloads/Report_from_ITUC_with_Colombian_tus.pdf
The Political System
Nominally Colombia is a parliamentary democracy with national elections held every four years for both the presidency and for Congress (161 Representatives and 102 Senators). However, in practice the system is weak, with widespread corruption and irregularities i, abysmal turnout in elections ii, and serious violence affecting the political process.
The Colombian Conservative Party was founded in 1848 and the Liberal Party the following year, and from that time onwards the country had a two-party system. The main differences between the two parties hinged on religion (the Conservatives were closely identified with the Catholic Church, the Liberals espoused a secular state) and the constitution (the Conservatives supported more centralised control whilst the Liberals advocated a federal state) but leading members of both were predominantly large landowners and merchants and the policies followed by both parties strongly favoured those elites.
Although there was a short period of military dictatorship (1953-1958), the Liberals and Conservatives have effectively dominated Colombian politics for over 150 years including during a period known as the ‘National Front’ (1958-1974) when the two parties agreed to take it in turns to rule by rotating the presidency between them.
The exclusion of all other political groups from the system was accompanied by violent responses towards attempts to reform it – most notably demonstrated by the 1948 assassination of Jorge Elicier Gaitan, a massively popular political figure who tried to reform the Liberal Party and open up political participation to the masses.iii It was also, in part, this sense of political alienation that led to the formation of Colombia’s guerrilla groups, some of which trace their origins to the ‘National Front’ period when few other political options were open to those in favour of reform, and in particular land reform. Indeed, the FARC itself, today the largest guerrilla group in Colombia, was established by disaffected Liberal Party members following Gaitan’s assassination (see The Armed Conflict below for more on Gaitan and the roots of the conflict).
But other factors contributed to this sense of political exclusion. For example, in most elections, even today, large numbers of votes are simply bought.iv Furthermore, in recent years the paramilitaries (see The Para-Political Scandal, below) have played an increasingly pivotal role in delivering elections for their favoured candidates by, for example, ensuring the other candidates on the ballot are threatened into pulling out – leaving just one name on the ballot and thereby increasing the belief among the electorate that voting is a pointless exercise.v The paramilitaries also fund some electoral campaigns leaving the successful candidates indebted to them rather than to their electorate.vi
Historically violence has also been used, as it was in many Latin American countries, to ensure that no credible challenge could arise from the left of the political spectrum. In the 1980s and 90s one leftwing party, the Patriotic Union, was literally wiped out via a systematic campaign of extermination waged by the Army and paramilitaries against its members. During that period some 4,000 members of the party, including two presidential candidates, numerous members of Congress and countless Mayors and local councillors, were simply murdered. Many of those killed were trade unionists and other progressive activists, whilst some were former FARC guerrillas who had opted to join the political process. Some of those that survived returned to the mountains to keep fighting claiming that the political elite was unwilling to allow them to participate in the democratic process.vii
More recently the political left has been undermined by claims made by senior officials that they are nothing more than FARC supporters in disguise viii (see Stigmatisation below) and by paramilitary threats preventing leftist parties from campaigning in several regions.ix
Another impediment to Colombian democracy is the partiality of the Colombian media. Though the country ostensibly has a free press, in reality this freedom is severely restricted both by violence and more subtle methods. Furthermore, the country’s main daily national newspaper – El Tiempo – is co-owned by the Santos family, one of the historical political dynasties of Colombia that includes among its members the current President, Juan Manuel Santos, and the former Vice President (2002-2010), Francisco Santos.
The situation in television and radio is similar with the major national TV and radio stations owned by two other political dynasties: RCN by the Ardila Lulle family and Caracol by the Santo Domingo family. As well as having heavily influenced Colombian politics for many years, both families are extremely wealthy with numerous other business interests – indeed, the head of the Santo Domingo family is Colombia’s only official dollar billionaire.
Violence too plays a role and Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries on earth in which to be a journalist, with seven having been assassinated during 2009 alone.x Those who report on corruption, expose links between the paramilitaries and political figures, or who report on human rights violations have been particularly targeted.xi As a result “self censorship” is widely practiced and the ability of citizens to make informed political choices severely limited.
Whilst all of these factors have severely weakened Colombian democracy, many politicians and officials in Colombia do remain strongly committed to democracy and the rule of law. Unfortunately such people have not, in recent years, been in a position to address the violence, corruption and paramilitary structures that continue to undermine the system.
i In March 2010 the Bogota-based Electoral Observation Mission reported that Congressional elections held that month suffered from “severe irregularities” including problems with vote buying across the whole country which “cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process”, see www.larepublica.com.co/archivos/ASUNTOSLEGALES/2010-03-24/la-responsabilidad-de-las-elecciones-debe-ser-compartida_96274.php and http://wradio.com.co/nota.aspx?id=975118 In May 2010 the Organisation of American States (OAS) announced that they had registered at least 15,000 irregularities during the Congressional elections, see www.eltiempo.com/colombia/politica/mision-electoral-de-la-oea-encontro15000-irregularidades_7696478-1
ii Turnout in the 2010 presidential election, for example, was less than 45%.
iii In 1989 another Liberal reformist, Luis Carlos Galan, was assassinated shortly before the presidential elections which he was predicted to win.
iv A Gallup Poll commissioned by the UN Development Program (UNDP) shortly after the March 2010 Congressional elections found that 20% of the electorate had been promised goods, money or work in return for their votes, see http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/8540-20-of-colombian-electorate-promised-gifts-for-votes.html. Also see http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/interviews/9815-are-you-here-to-buy-my-vote-election-observers-in-colombia.html
v A good example of this is the case of Pedro Arenas, a former Congressman representing the region of Guaviare, who was forced to pull out of elections after paramilitary death threats, see www.ciponline.org/colombia/blog/archives/000183.htm
vi Over 50 members of the 2006-2010 Colombian Congress are currently under investigation for taking campaign contributions from paramilitaries.
vii One of the principle commanders of the FARC today, Ivan Marquez, a member of the ruling Secretariat of the guerrilla group, was, prior to taking up arms, a member of the Colombian Congress representing the Patriotic Union.
viii During the 2006 presidential election then-President Alvaro Uribe claimed that a vote for his principle opponent, Carlos Gaviria of the leftwing Democratic Pole party, was a vote for the FARC. Mr Uribe made the same claim two years later when a Democratic Pole party candidate, Samuel Moreno, was on the verge of winning the election for Mayor of Bogota.
ix Interviews with Democratic Pole members of Congress.
x The seven reporters murdered during 2009 were Maria Eugenia Guerrero, Jose Everardo Aguilar, Hernando Salas Rojas, Jamel Torres Zamora, Diego Rojas Velasquez, Ferney Henao and Harold Humberto Rivas.
xi For example, magazine editor and radio reporter Clodomiro Castilla Ospina who was shot dead on March 19th 2010 had often reported on the links between the authorities and paramilitary groups (see http://en.rsf.org/colombia-journalist-gunned-down-in-region-22-03-2010,36802.html). Jose Everardo Aguilar, a radio reporter killed on April 24th 2009, had reported on government corruption (see http://en.rsf.org/colombia-a-suspect-arrested-in-the-15-07-2009,32830.html). A ‘Reporters Without Borders’ statement in December 2009 also denounced how the Colombian intelligence services were targeting two journalists, Claudia Duque and Hollman Morris, well known for their work investigating human rights abuses (see http://en.rsf.org/colombia-manual-teaches-intelligence-agency-21-12-2009,35397.html).
In 2002 Liberal Party Senator Alvaro Uribe failed to secure his party’s nomination for the presidency. He resigned, ran as an independent and easily won the election – the first time a candidate not backed by either of Colombia’s traditional political parties had won the presidency. Having run on a rightwing ticket, Uribe set about building a likeminded coalition that would support his administration in Congress. Whilst the Conservatives and some dissident Liberals threw their support behind the new President, a number of new parties were also established by Uribe’s independent supporters and these came to the fore (though some later collapsed when their links to paramilitaries were exposed – see The Para-Political Scandal, below).
Whilst the new coalition, known as ‘Uribistas’, was rightwing, an inadvertent consequence of its formation was that the Colombian left, fragmented and weak since the decimation of the Patriotic Union (see above), began, for the first time in years, to unify. The Democratic Pole, a new progressive party which received widespread support from the trade unions, was the result of this process and they quickly became the principle opposition. By the time of the 2006 presidential election (in which Uribe was running for re-election) the party was able to present a strong challenge to the president and the Democratic Pole candidate came second – beating even the Liberal Party candidate.
So whilst the Liberals and the Conservatives still exist as formidable political forces, the past decade has seen a fundamental shift in Colombian politics with a number of new parties, some of them stronger than the traditional two, having emerged as key players. The 2010 presidential elections reflected this new situation with the ‘Uribista’ parties coming together around Uribe’s close ally, Juan Manuel Santos, who subsequently won the election. Santos announced that, like his predecessor, he would govern with the support of a coalition of rightwing parties, with the Democratic Pole, who did not perform as well as in 2006, and part of the Liberal Party, again establishing themselves as the political opposition. Today the principle political parties represented in the Colombian Congress are:
Partido de la U (Party of the U): The single biggest party in the current Congress was created during President Uribe’s first term in an effort to unify his supporters. The founder of the party was Juan Manuel Santos who, with the party’s strong support, won the 2010 presidential election. The party, which has been implicated in the ‘Para-Politica’ scandal and seen its co-leader, Senator Carlos Garcia Orjuela jailed for paramilitary ties, is on the right of the political spectrum and forms the core of the coalition supporting President Santos.
Partido Conservador (Conservative Party): One of the two historical political parties in Colombia, the Conservatives are currently the second largest party in Congress and another key part of President Santos’ coalition. The Conservatives, who have also been implicated in the ‘Para-Politica’ scandal, are also on the right of the political spectrum.
Partido Liberal (Liberal Party): The other of Colombia’s two historical political parties, the Liberals are the third largest party in the Colombian Congress, though they are bitterly divided with some elements supporting President Santos and others vocally opposed to him. These difficulties were seen during the Uribe presidency too, with an ‘official’ majority faction of the party opposing Uribe, and a smaller, but still effective, minority faction that backed the President. The party is politically centrist though ideology has also contributed to the Liberal’s difficulties, with divisions opening up between the ‘social democratic’ and ‘neo-liberal’ strands within the party.
Partido de Integracion Nacional (National Integration Party): This extreme rightwing political party, known as the ‘PIN’, was established in November 2009 by political figures closely allied to Colombia’s illegal paramilitary groups. The party’s ideological mentor, Senator Luis Alberto Gil, was a close supporter of ex-President Uribe but is now in jail as part of the ‘Para-Politica’ scandal. The Party has said that its representatives in Congress wish to join the pro-Santos coalition, though President Santos has not confirmed this.
Cambio Radical (Radical Change): During the first and second Uribe administrations Cambio Radical, which is on the far right of the political spectrum, was a key element of the pro-Uribe coalition though it did less well in the 2010 Congressional elections. Whilst initially running their own candidate in the first round of the 2010 presidential elections, they subsequently moved closer to Juan Manuel Santos and the party’s elected representatives have since joined his ruling coalition. The party has been deeply implicated in the ‘Para-Politica’ scandal.
Polo Democratico (Democratic Pole): Though only five years old, the leftwing Democratic Pole has established itself as a significant political player in Colombia. The party came second in the 2006 presidential elections (though did less well in 2010) and currently holds the position of Mayor of Bogota, the second most important political post in the country. The Pole, which is supported by most of the trade unions in Colombia, is the main opposition force in Congress. Politically it is made up of a variety of factions ranging from Social Democratic to Socialist and Communist. The party has had numerous leaders and activists assassinated.
Colombian civil society is vibrant and can mobilise large numbers of people for political campaigns, protests, rallies and the like. Whilst the trade unions are perhaps the most important single element, the student movement is also well organised, as are NGOs, in particular those working on human rights and peace. Peasant farmers, and increasingly plantation/agricultural workers too, also play a key role and in many regions of Colombia they are well organised and politically radical, especially in the struggle for land reform and rural development. Religious groups, including some elements of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, also involve themselves to some extent in the activities of Colombian civil society.
However, three parts of civil society merit special mention: The strong women’s movement in Colombia has, in many ways, become the backbone of Colombia’s growing peace movement. As a result many of the most high profile peace campaigners in the country are women i and there has been large-scale participation by women in organising events and campaigns in favour of peace – “Women don’t carry or have sons and daughters for the War” has become a common slogan.
The other two elements of civil society that should be highlighted are Colombia’s large Afro-Colombian population and the well-organised and very active indigenous movement. Both have suffered disproportionally the effects of the conflict (in particular from forced displacement ii and assassinations of their leaders iii ) but both also play an increasingly active role in mobilisations and protests against violence and in favour of peace as well as in campaigns around land, resources and the environment. Afro-Colombian organisations for example have been at the forefront of efforts to assist displaced people to return to their land, whilst the indigenous movement has played a key role in protecting the autonomy and ecology of indigenous reserves as well as, in some regions, the struggle for land reform.
Colombian civil society organisations, despite the violence meted out against them, remain key players in the politics and society of Colombia and important potential agents of reform.
i Notable among them are Liberal Party Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has recently mediated the release of several FARC hostages, Democratic Pole Senator Gloria Ramirez, a former leader of Colombia’s largest trade union, and Democratic Pole Senator Gloria Cuartas, a former mayor and well known peace campaigner.
ii Around 25% of Colombia’s displaced population, over one million people, are Afro-Colombians.
iii According to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) some 1,400 indigenous people have been assassinated since 2002, including many leaders of indigenous communities.
The Armed Conflict
The origins of the conflict in Colombia today can be traced back to the 1940s when animosities between a growing labour movement, a newly organised peasantry and the two official parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, erupted into violence. Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (see photo above), a hugely popular and charismatic Liberal Party figure who commanded the support of much of the working classes and peasantry, ran for the presidency on a program of profound reforms. He would have easily won had he not been assassinated just prior to the 1948 election. His killing sparked off a decade of violence which has become known in Colombia simply as ‘La Violencia’ – a period during which around 200,000 Colombians were killed as Liberals and Conservatives fought a war of attrition.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s several remote peasant farming communities had been established in isolated mountainous regions of Colombia. Made up mainly of Liberal Party supporters, they had colonised these new areas as a way of escaping from the ongoing violence that had engulfed much of the rest of the country. They were soon joined by members of the Communist Party of Colombia who were also fleeing violence and these largely self-sufficient communities gradually became politically radicalised, though still cut-off from the rest of the nation.
As ‘La Violencia’ gradually came to an end in the early 1960s attention soon turned to these peasant communities and the political elite (and the US Government), given the recent success of the Cuban Revolution, increasingly came to view them as a threat. The communities began being derogatorily referred to as ‘independent republics’ and as a threat to the wellbeing of the nation.
In May 1964 ‘Marquetalia’, one of the largest and most successful of the peasant communities, was attacked by tens of thousands of Colombian soldiers backed by US military advisers in an effort to destroy it. However, the community, led by a young Liberal Party-affiliated peasant farmer called Manuel Marulanda resisted the attack with those that survived taking the decision to remain armed and under Marulanda’s leadership. It was at this point that the character of the Colombian conflict fundamentally altered and the peasants of Marquetalia become known as the FARC.
Whilst the origins of the FARC were therefore basically a peasant self-defence force, it soon declared itself (in 1966) to be a Marxist-Leninist organisation fighting for the liberation of the Colombian people. In the mid-1960s other guerrilla groups, also of an overtly leftwing political nature though with very different origins, began to appear and the Colombian conflict transformed into what it essentially remains today – a guerrilla insurgency fighting to overthrow the Colombian State.
The variety of leftist guerrilla groups that existed during the 1970s, 80s and 90s in Colombia, in particular the more prominent organisations such as the M-19 and EPL, had a big impact on Colombia, as did their eventual demobilisations and incorporation into civil society – processes that were sometimes accompanied by great bloodshed. Today only one leftwing guerrilla force – the FARC – still operates nationwide whilst a small group, known as the ELN, is active in perhaps two or three areas of the country. However, the ELN, though once clearly on the left, has more recently fragmented into rival factions with some elements now working as hired guns for drugs traffickers or even, in one region, with rogue elements of the military.i
Manuel Marulanda (pictured, see above), the group’s founder, continued to lead the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) until 2008 when he died of natural causes aged 78. The guerrilla organisation that he led for 40 years grew into a sizeable illegal army, though it changed little ideologically and remains a peasant-based insurgency. Today the FARC operate in around 50% of Colombia’s territory (mainly jungle and mountainous regions) and is estimated to be around 18,000-strong making it not only the oldest, but probably also the largest, guerrilla army in the world today.
The EU and US both include the FARC on their respective lists of terrorist organisations and the group’s declared aim continues to be the overthrow of the Colombian State and its replacement with a leftwing revolutionary government – a mixture of Marxist and Bolivarian ideas.
Several Army offensives over the years (most notably the intensive 2002-2010 military campaign conducted by the Uribe administration) whilst successful in ejecting the guerrillas from many urban areas have failed to dislodge the FARC from rural regions – where they continue to launch attacks on a daily basis.
President Uribe claimed at the beginning of his first administration in 2002, that he would defeat the FARC militarily within 120 days. Though his offensive led the guerrillas to suffer several setbacks, including the killings of two members of their ruling secretariat in 2008, after two presidential terms Uribe had not come close to defeating the FARC. As a result of this stalemate on the battlefield repeated attempts have been made by Colombian civil society to encourage the two sides to engage in peace talks as the only viable way of bringing the conflict to an end.
A widely supported proposal for the Government and guerrillas to engage in a prisoner exchange (guerrillas held in prison in return for soldiers captured by the FARC on the battlefield) is seen as a possible first step towards dialogue and eventual peace talks though so far neither side has been willing to back down over several pre-conditions that both have imposed and, as a result, there is currently no contact between the two sides. The attitude of President Santos may be more pragmatic (especially given that he played a key role in the 1998-2002 peace talks with the FARC), though whilst serving as Defence Minister under former president Uribe, he too took a militaristic position.
Colombia’s rightwing paramilitary death squads are notorious for their brutality and have been responsible for the vast majority of the human rights abuses that have occurred in the country in the past 25 years.i They are infamous for their use of vicious violence, including massacres with chainsaws, brutal torture, sexual violence and cutting off of limbs as tactics designed to instil fear and terror among those they target. The scale of their violence is astonishing and it is estimated that the paramilitaries have killed around 150,000 Colombians and displaced hundreds of thousands more (see Forced Displacement).
Though paramilitary-style forces have been around in Colombia since the 1960s, the origins of those which exist today can be found in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These origins, however, are complicated and overlapping though essentially modern day Colombian paramilitaries derived from three sources:
- As leftwing guerrilla movements grew in strength in the 1970s and 80s some Colombian landowners and business leaders began establishing private armies that would defend them from guerrilla extortion attempts;
- In the early and mid-1980s as individual drugs traffickers grew more powerful and wealthy they formed cartels, most notably the Medellin and Cali Cartels. These cartels formed their own private armies to defend their business interests.
- Again in response to the growth of the guerrillas the Colombian Army began to implement, with the assistance of US military advisers, an increasingly brutal counter-insurgency campaign that involved the use of clandestine death squads made up of off-duty soldiers and paramilitary-style personnel to carry out a secret ‘dirty war’ against those perceived to be sympathetic to the guerrillas.
The crossover and interrelationships between these three sets of groups cannot be underestimated and as time went on it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between them with, for example, the landowners and business leaders paying the private drug cartel armies to protect their interests and these armies, in turn, carrying out assassinations and other military operations for the Army and intelligence services. These relationships were no doubt solidified by the fact that all three of the above mentioned groups saw the guerrillas as their principle, common enemy.
By the 1990s this complex web of overlapping groups directed by a network of wealthy landowners and business figures, senior military officers and drugs traffickers had begun to amalgamate into one national structure. This structure became known as the United-Self Defence Forces of Colombia or, more commonly, its Spanish acronym AUC. The principle role of this new organisation was counter-insurgency and they publicly announced that they would target the guerrillas and anyone deemed to be sympathetic to them.
In reality the AUC rarely engaged the guerrillas in combat, though on the few occasions when they did they usually came out of the fighting worse off. This was perhaps due, to some extent, to the fact that whilst many paramilitary commanders were either former military officers or experienced combatants,ii the majority of their ‘foot soldiers’ were from the urban underclass (who joined out of economic necessity rather than any ideological motivation) and therefore no match, in rural warfare, for the peasant based guerrillas.
Far more often, then and now, paramilitaries target the civilian population; predominantly those perceived to be sympathetic to the guerrillas, but also virtually anyone who their paymasters deem a problem. This latter category includes journalists and even government officials who are seen as a threat by the reactionary alliance of paramilitary backers.
As their role in the counter-insurgency war developed so too did the AUC’s collusion with the Colombian military and, though the level of integration varied from region to region, the Army and AUC grew so close that it was common for soldiers and paramilitaries to patrol together, engage in joint offensive operations and to share bases, transportation, supplies and communications facilities. The UN, as well as respected NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have produced detailed investigations on the close relationship between the army and paramilitaries with one report from Human Rights Watch titled “Paramilitaries: the Sixth Division” iii – the Colombian Army having only five official divisions.
The paramilitaries’ tactics are gruesome. Extreme violence is perpetrated in public in small towns, rural communities or shantytowns aimed at inciting fear in the civilian population and deterring any potential support for the guerrillas.iv All over the country those seen as being on the left (and therefore possible guerrilla sympathisers) were, and continue to be, systematically assassinated, disappeared or forced to flee – the victims including hundreds of trade unionists, human rights activists, student and community leaders as well as members of the Communist Party and other leftwing organisations.
Parallel to their military operations, the economic and political power of the paramilitaries has increased and recent years have seen them become major drugs traffickers (having displaced the original cartels that helped establish them) as well as thoroughly infiltrating the Colombian political system (see The Para-Political Scandal).
Bizarrely the Colombian authorities currently deny the existence of the paramilitaries and allege that all such groups have ‘demobilised’.v These denials, which few observers accept as true, result from the so-called ‘Paramilitary Peace Process’, though the fact is that paramilitaries, some still using the name AUC, some using new names,vi continue to function all over the country and persist in threatening, attacking and killing those that they deem to be guerrilla supporters or whom threaten the interests of their sponsors, be they drugs traffickers, politicians, business figures or senior military officers.vii
Furthermore, whilst the shift in relationships that occurred during the splintering of the AUC into several new paramilitary organisations temporarily muddied the waters, more and more evidence is emerging to demonstrate that the relationship between elements of the Colombian security forces and the paramilitaries continues to remain strong. Indeed, a February 2010 study by Human Rights Watch documented links between the security forces and the paramilitaries in every one of the regions that those conducting the study visited.viii
i 2009 interview with Gustavo Gallon, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists. Also ‘Paramilitarism and Colombia’s Low-Intensity Democracy’, Journal of Latin American Studies, (Cambridge University Press) and www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,HRW,,COL,,3ae6a7e30,0.html and www.cfr.org/publication/4737/what_kind_of_war_for_colombia.html
ii One such commander was allegedly Santiago Uribe, the younger brother of President Alvaro Uribe, who commanded a paramilitary unit known as the 12 Apostles, responsible for numerous selective assassinations, see ‘Colombian President’s brother said to have led death squads’, Washington Post, 24th May 2010, available at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/23/AR2010052303821.html?wprss=rss_world/southamerica
v Colombian officials regularly claim that the paramilitaries are in fact ‘emerging armed groups’ or ‘criminal gangs’, ignoring the fact that the same personnel and commanders as before the ‘demobilisation’ are still involved, the same tactics are used, the same victims are targeted, etc, etc.
vi Other names that the paramilitaries use today include ‘Aguilas Negras’ (Black Eagles), ‘Nueva Generacion’ (New Generation), ‘Renacer’ (Rebirth), ‘Los Rastrojos’ and ‘Los Urabenos’.
viii According to the most recent (2009) US State Department Human Rights Report (www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/wha/136106.htm) paramilitaries “continued to commit numerous unlawful acts and related abuses, including the following: political killings and kidnappings; physical violence; forced displacement; subornation and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses; infringement on citizens' privacy rights; restrictions on freedom of movement; recruitment and use of child soldiers; violence against women, including rape; and harassment, intimidation, and killings of human rights workers, journalists, teachers, and trade unionists.”
Human Rights in Colombia
Colombia has by far the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. Numerous and serious violations occur throughout the country on a daily basis. Every year the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expresses deep concern about the situation in Colombia and the UN has permanent offices in several regions of the country to monitor the human rights crisis.i In addition, Colombia is the only South American country to appear on the 'major countries of concern' human rights list maintained by the UK Foreign Office.ii
In recent years (2002-2010) an average of 4,368 people have been killed or disappeared in combat and conflict-related violence each year - around 12 people per day.iii If deaths not directly related to the conflict are included, the annual death toll is closer to 17,000 - a daily average of 47 homicides.iv The Colombian Government and human rights NGOs do not agree on the situation. The former argue that the situation has vastly improved whilst the latter claim that the country is still plagued by abuses. There are also strong disagreements about who is responsible for perpetrating the abuses. However, the picture is mixed as illustrated by the following examples:
|Extrajudicial Executions||In recent years the Colombian Army have executed between 2,000 and 3,000 civilians. The worst years for such killings were 2006, 2007 and 2008 when literally hundreds of civilians were murdered each year, but it is clear that since that time the numbers being killed have dropped. Despite the improvement, claims that the Army have ended the practice are unfounded and many cases of extrajudicial executions continue to come to light (see The 'False Positives' Scandal for more on this phenomenon).|
|Forced Displacement||Colombia has the second highest number of displaced people in the world - around 4.5 million. Recent years have seen no real progress and hundreds of thousands of people continue to be forced from their homes and land, most commonly by rightwing paramilitaries, each year (see Forced Displacement).|
|Forced Disappearances||Colombia probably has the highest number of forced disappearances in the world - with approximately 30,000 people currently believed to be disappeared.v The state security forces are responsible for the vast majority of disappearances with the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) stating that "public functionaries are compromised in one way or another in around 97% of the disappearances." vi In recent years the Commission and others have documented an increase in the number of cases.vii|
|Torture||The World Organisation Against Torture has stated that "the practice of torture is systematically and deliberately used in Colombia as a form of political persecution and to sow terror." They attribute over 90% of cases to the Colombian State.viii As most victims of torture are subsequently killed or disappeared, the overall number of cases, and therefore trends, are difficult to document.|
|Selective Assassinations||Selective assassinations, including of trade union leaders, are widespread. The CCJ has reported that in recent years an average of seven people were assassinated out of combat (that is, at home, on the street or at work) for socio-political motives each day in Colombia. Of these killings the Commission attributed responsibility to the Colombian State in 75.15% of cases (either as a result of direct action by State agents or through tolerance or support of killings committed by paramilitary groups) and to guerrilla groups in 24.83% of cases.ix|
|Kidnapping||Though kidnapping remains a problem, there has been a huge improvement in recent years. Between 2002 and 2010 around 9,200 people were kidnapped in Colombia, though each year during that period there was a decline in the number of victims compared to the previous year.x Guerrilla groups and common criminals were responsible for the vast majority of the cases.|
i The UN High Commission for Human Rights has been present in Colombia since 1997 and has offices in Bogota, Medellin, Bucaramanga and Cali. They publish an annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. Their website is www.hchr.org.co
ii See the most recent FCO report here: http://centralcontent.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/human-rights-reports/human-rights-report-2009
iii The Colombian Ministry of Defence reports that between 2002 and March 2010 a total of 20,915 people were killed in combat. The Colombian Commission of Jurists estimates that between mid-2002 and mid-2008 a total of 14,028 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence. All original sources are linked to at this page: www.cipcol.org/?p=1471
iv The figure of 17,700 homicides is for the year 2009 and comes from the Colombian Forensic Medicine Institute's annual report, available at www.medicinalegal.gov.co/drip/2009/2%20Forensis%202009%20Homicidios.pdf
Forced displacement refers to the coerced movement of a person or persons away from their home or home region. The situation in Colombia is a humanitarian disaster with around 4.5 million people, or 10% of the population, having been displaced – the second highest rate in the world after Sudan.i
Recent years have seen around 2 million people forced from their homes. No real progress seems to have been made in tackling the problem and the numbers being displaced each year remains huge:
Forced Displacement in Colombia 2003-2009
Source: CHODES ii
In Colombia displacement is primarily used as a method of seizing land and, to date, around 7 million hectares (an area about the size of Austria) has been seized.iii The victims are predominantly peasant farmers, indigenous or Afro-Colombian people, sometimes entire communities, whilst those responsible are most commonly the paramilitaries.iv The methods generally follow a similar pattern as explained by Colombian academic Jorge Ruiz:
“The paramilitaries will enter a region and disappear several people over a series of days before starting to execute local community leaders. This causes panic among residents who are then informed by the paramilitaries that if they do not leave the region, they too will end up dead or disappeared.
“Once the land is seized it is passed on to large landowners, drugs traffickers, or their front companies, and other members of the economic elite that finance the paramilitaries. It is then used to consolidate local power, finance further paramilitary operations, facilitate drug production and trafficking, launder drug profits or simply for other economic projects such as large scale plantations or mining.
“And it is incredibly difficult, and of course very dangerous, for the victims to try and get their homes and land back. In some cases the peasants are forced under threat to sign documents meaning that the land obtained by violence will be legally titled. The paramilitaries have even amputated the index fingers of their victims to include the fingerprint on false paperwork, or murdered the farmer to force family members to sign.
“Fundamentally it is the expropriation of the land, a reverse land reform, taking the land from the poorest sector of the population and transferring it to the richest.”
This displacement also contributes to the counterinsurgency campaign being waged in Colombia by depriving the guerrillas of their potential rural support base – yet another motive for forcing people from their land. Indeed, on occasions counterinsurgency is the primary motivation of displacement; most clearly demonstrated by the Army’s use of so-called ‘economic blockades’ when food, medicine and other supplies are prevented from entering a region – forcing rural residents to leave.v
Displaced people generally end up in the shantytowns surrounding Bogota and other major towns and cities in Colombia and the poverty-stricken conditions in which the millions of victims live are horrific. Nearly 50% of the displaced are children and the vast majority of heads of households are women, many of them either widowed or abandoned in the process of being displaced. The high numbers of women and children involved leads to increases in the level of exploitation that displaced populations face. Among those of working age there is massive unemployment with most who do find work (invariably in the informal sector) earning less than a dollar a day.vi
Whilst there is legislation in Colombia to protect and assist displaced people, there is an enormous gap between the law and the reality and many displaced populations receive no assistance at all. Colombia’s Constitutional Court, most recently, in 2009, has repeatedly highlighted the inadequacy of the Government’s response and has called the lack of assistance an ‘unconstitutional state of affairs’.vii International organisations have also expressed their concern about the lack of Government action to assist displaced people, highlighting issues such as the lack of assistance to women and girls and the severe deficiencies in the provision of medical care to displaced communities, in spite of the fact that by law they are entitled to free access to health care and medicines.viii
Lastly, some observers, including on occasion government officials, allege that displacement is predominantly caused by fighting, i.e. people fleeing combat zones. Whilst it is clear that people do flee combat zones, sometimes on a temporary basis, this is not in fact a major cause of forced displacement. The International Committee of the Red Cross has clearly stated that displacement in Colombia is “a deliberate strategy rather than a by-product of the conflict.” ix The fact that large scale economic projects subsequently occur in many of regions where displacement is most intense, would also indicate that a deliberate strategy to expropriate land is in use.x
ii The Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES, www.codhes.org) a Colombian NGO provides detailed reporting on displacement on a monthly basis. It is used as a source by the US State Department among others.
vi The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council publishes in-depth research on the economic and social situation facing Colombia’s displaced population, www.internal-displacement.org/countries/colombia
viii See for example www.alertnet.org/db/an_art/59877/2009/10/17-115843-1.htm and www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWFiles2005.nsf/FilesByRWDocUnidFilename/ACIO-6CSQLH-globalidp-col-27may.pdf/$File/globalidp-col-27may.pdf
x See www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR23/015/2009/en/6022342b-845a-4079-96da-14b3aa41b331/amr230152009eng.pdf and www.internal-displacement.org/8025708F004BE3B1/(httpInfoFiles)/D96C087614B5073D802570BA005448F8/$file/Colombia%20-May%202005.pdf
The ‘stigmatisation’ of critics by Colombian Government officials is a problem constantly raised by Colombian civil society and in particular trade unions, human rights groups, journalists and the political opposition. Senior figures, up to and including the president and senior ministers, have, on repeated occasions, made very public and serious allegations against such people, accusing them of being ‘guerrilla collaborators’, ‘criminals’ or ‘terrorists’. Whilst sometimes aimed at individuals, such comments are more regularly made in a sweeping manner, tarnishing the entire human rights movement, whole political parties, or trade unionists in general.i
The potentially dangerous results of these comments cannot be underestimated as once such accusations are made – and repeated as ‘truths’ by the Colombian media – the lives of those accused are put in grave danger. Death threats against those singled out almost always follow and in many cases people have actually been assassinated by the paramilitaries following their being labelled a ‘guerrilla’, ‘subversive’ or ‘terrorist’ by senior officials.
Following her September 2009 visit to Colombia Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, specifically highlighted how, “A prime reason for the insecurity of human rights defenders lies in the systematic stigmatisation and branding of defenders by Government officials.... human rights defenders have been repeatedly accused by high level Government officials of being, or colluding with, ‘terrorists’ or ‘guerrillas’.” ii
Whilst former president Uribe was renowned for these sorts of comments his successor, president Juan Manuel Santos, has also made similar outbursts including his February 2009 attack, on a national radio show, against Hollman Morris, a journalist well-known for reporting on human rights abuses. Santos, who was at the time serving as Uribe’s Defence Minister, accused Morris of being “close to the guerrillas” and the journalist subsequently received a string of death threats.iii In September of the previous year Mr Santos had also publicly attacked human rights organisations provoking a formal complaint from Amnesty International.iv
i Examples of such comments include a February 7th 2009 speech by then President Uribe during which he accused those involved in human rights work and peace advocacy, as well as those who opposed Free Trade Agreements, of being the 'intellectual bloc of the FARC', for the text of the speech see http://web.presidencia.gov.co/sp/2009/febrero/07/07072009.html In November 2008 Mr Uribe responded to concerns about the ongoing assassinations of trade unionists by claiming that those being murdered were "a bunch of criminals dressed up as unionists", see www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/11/14/delay-consideration-colombia-trade-deal In July 2010 Uribe went even further and accused an international delegation, including several Members of the European Parliament, of being 'terrorists' after they visited the a site where the Colombian Army had been depositing unidentified dead bodies, see LA MACARENA for further information.
Prisons and Political Prisoners
There are approximately 5,700 political prisoners incarcerated in Colombia today.i They are civilians jailed for their political beliefs and their democratic opposition to the policies of the Colombian Government and include numerous trade unionists, student and community leaders, human rights activists, indigenous people, academics and other activists and campaigners - sometimes detained in mass roundups.
Political prisoners are virtually always accused of either 'rebellion' or 'terrorism' - the same charge made against captured guerrillas. In addition, political prisoners are held separately from the general prison population in special high-security 'blocks' or 'patios', along with the approximately 1,500 captured guerrilla combatants that are currently in jail in Colombia. This blurring of the distinction between civilians and guerrillas is, allege human rights groups, a further attempt to stigmatise (see Stigmatisation) trade unionists and other legitimate political actors.
Political prisoners are normally held for long periods without trial or due process, and only a tiny minority are ever actually convicted of any crime. The testimony of paid informants often forms the basis of charges brought against the prisoners - a practice harshly criticised by the UN.ii Furthermore, the lawyers who represent them are regularly denied access to evidence against their clients and, in many cases, are themselves threatened or accused of being associated with the 'crime' of their client.iii Yet despite this, in the vast majority of cases, the individual concerned will be released, never having been convicted of any crime, after a year or more in jail. In many cases they then find themselves in immediate danger, labelled as a guerrilla sympathiser or subversive, and several former prisoners have been assassinated upon release or forced to flee into exile.iv
Some women prisoners are single mothers, who, if they have no relatives able to take the children in, are either forced to abandon their children to the wholly inadequate (and often abusive) government 'care' service, or, if they are infants, have their children imprisoned with them. Prisoners complain that their children are not given full recognition as separate prisoners and are forced to share food rations with their mothers creating health problems for both mother and child.
Those who visit political prisoners are also at risk and family members are sometimes threatened and accused of being 'subversives' themselves based on the 'evidence' that they visited a 'subversive'. Women visiting male political prisoners also regularly complain of sexual and verbal abuse including aggressive internal examinations conducting on the basis of 'security'. Prisoners are also often held in jails very far from their homes in other regions of the country making it even harder for friends and family to visit and further isolating them.
With regards to conditions, overcrowding is endemic, with not enough cells to hold prisoners.v There is rarely access to decent health care, prisoners get little or no exercise time or access to educational materials, and poor sanitary conditions are rampant. Though no formal study has yet been conducted in relation to this issue, it is reasonably clear that conditions for political prisoners are inferior to those of 'common criminal' prisoners.
In extreme cases political prisoners may be held for up to seven years before being released without having been convicted of any crime, whilst those who are found guilty of 'rebellion' often receive 40-year sentences. This is in stark contrast to those who perpetrate human rights abuses who, as outlined in the following section (Impunity), are rarely punished. [Click here to visit the JFC political prisoner campaign page.]
ii In 2009 Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, visited Colombia and stated that, "I want to express my serious concern about the arbitrary arrests and detention (sometimes on a massive scale) of human rights defenders, as well as unfounded criminal proceedings brought against them, on the basis of military and police intelligence reports and on testimonies of demobilized individuals or informants in exchange of legal and/or pecuniary benefits."
iii For more on threats, harassment and killings targeted at lawyers see the report of the 2008 visit to Colombian arranged by the Law Society of England and Wales, available at http://international.lawsociety.org.uk/files/Caravana%20Report%205%2005%2009%20FINAL.pdf
iv One well-known case is that of Alfredo Correa, a leading Colombian sociologist, human rights activist and a professor at the university of Magdalena. He was detained by the DAS intelligence service in 2004 and accused of 'rebellion' though the case was thrown out be a judge a month later. He was assassinated shortly after leaving prison. For more information on his and other similar cases see the February 2009 report by Human Rights First 'Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia; In the Dock and Under the Gun', available at www.humanrightsfirst.org/pdf/090211-HRD-colombia-eng.pdf
v According to the most recent (2009) US State Department Human Rights Report (www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/wha/136106.htm) around 77,000 prisoners were held in facilities designed to hold fewer than 55,000.
At the core of the human rights crisis in Colombia is the problem of impunity.
The failure of the Colombian authorities to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish abuses has created an environment in which human rights abusers correctly assume that they will not be held accountable for their crimes.
According to Amnesty International’s most recent report on Colombia “impunity remained the norm in most cases of human rights abuses” i whilst the United Nations recently stated that “the right to justice [in Colombia] continues to be impaired by prevailing impunity”.ii The UN has also reported that in 98.5% of cases in which the Colombian Army had extra-judicially executed civilians, nobody had been brought to justice iii – a similar figure to the 97% impunity rate cited earlier in this report in relation to the assassinations of trade unionists.
Whilst some high profile cases are investigated the vast majority are not. The CUT has stated that in the small number of cases of assassinations of trade unionists in which progress has been made, it is almost always against the gunmen who carried out the murder (who generally have no idea why they are being asked to commit the crime) rather than the intellectual authors who planned, ordered and paid for the killing.
Furthermore, while according to Colombian law human rights crimes should be subject to the civilian criminal justice system, many cases (of the small number that are properly investigated), in which members of the security forces are involved, are in fact dealt with by the military justice system – a key barrier to bringing the perpetrators to justice given that military courts are notoriously lenient when dealing with members of the security forces. For this reason the UN has repeatedly recommended that the Colombian authorities ensure that the civilian and not the military justice system deal with cases involving human rights abuses – a recommendation that to date has not been implemented. iv
Whilst the Colombian authorities publicly state that they have made progress in tackling impunity, government officials have themselves repeatedly stated, off the record, that in fact it remains one of Colombia’s greatest problems. However, their commitment to tackling the issue is not clear given that senior officials continue to launch very public verbal attacks against investigators, judges and other members of the judiciary who are attempting to investigate abuses.
In one case then president Uribe, during a June 2010 speech, called prosecutors and judges “useful idiots” for investigating extrajudicial executions by the Army and illegal interceptions of communications by the intelligence services. v Days later his Defence Minister Gabriel Silva described those investigating an Army General for involvement in killings of civilians as “traitors” who were attempting to "divert the country into a direction of deception and lies." vi Such comments clearly make the job of investigators far more difficult and dangerous.
iv The UN points outs that whilst more cases are being send to civilian courts, "nonetheless, military judges still accept jurisdiction in cases which should be tried in civilian courts. In some instances, they even ordered parallel investigations into cases that the Attorney General's Office was investigating. In this context, the Attorney General's Office should retain exclusive competence over serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and accelerate the investigation of cases it receives." See www.hchr.org.co/documentoseinformes/informes/altocomisionado/Informe2008_eng.pdf
The ‘False Positives’ Scandal
In November 2005 the Colombian Ministry of Defence issued ‘Directive 29’, a secret order that established a financial bonus system for those who killed guerrillas. Rewards paid out for a dead guerrilla ranged from 3.8 million to 5 billion Colombian pesos depending on the rank of the individual killed. i Alongside of the financial bonuses, the Army introduced an informal incentive scheme which provided additional rewards for killing a guerrilla such as time off work and promotions. The then commander of the Army, General Mario Montoya, visited Army bases around the country exhorting troops to produce “litres of blood”. ii
Shortly after the new rewards system was implemented, human rights groups reported an upsurge in extrajudicial executions. The human rights groups complained that soldiers were murdering young men and boys, dressing their bodies in FARC uniforms and then presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat in return for the rewards on offer. By mid-2007 nearly a thousand cases had been documented by Colombian and international human rights organisations. iii
The response of the Colombian Government was to aggressively attack the human rights organisations that were documenting the killings; once again trying to link them to the guerrillas in an effort to discredit their work (see Stigmatisation). In a July 2007 speech for example, the then president, Alvaro Uribe, claimed that “the guerrillas have another strategy: every time there is a casualty in the guerrillas, they immediately mobilize their chorus leaders in the country and abroad to say that it was an extrajudicial execution.” iv In October that year he repeated the same charge in a speech to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, v whilst his defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who is now president of Colombia, described the denunciations of army killings as “a pantomime with clear political intentions”. vi
Despite such accusations making their work more difficult and dangerous, human rights investigators continued to collect evidence of the extrajudicial executions. Finally, in September 2008, the now infamous case of Soacha, a poor neighbourhood in Bogota, came to light when the families of 23 young men who had disappeared from the neighbourhood discovered that their loved ones had been buried hundreds of miles away by the Army who claimed that they were guerrillas killed in combat. Further investigation revealed that the Army had established a bogus employment agency in the neighbourhood to lure away young men with promises of employment. The victims were then executed and their bodies presented as FARC members killed in combat so that the troops involved could qualify for the rewards program. vii
The month following the Soacha revelations, the United Nations, who themselves had documented an increasing number of extrajudicial executions, viii dispatched the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to Colombia. At the end of her week-long visit she held a press conference in Bogota at which she accused the Colombian Army of “systematic and widespread” extrajudicial executions of innocent civilians and said that in her opinion the scale of the killings constituted a “crime against humanity”. xi In Colombia the killings soon became known as ‘false positives’.
The UN followed up in June 2009 by sending Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, to Colombia to further investigate the situation. His report was damming and accused the Colombian military of “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit”. To follow is an unedited extract from his report: x
“The phenomenon is well known. The victim is lured under false pretences by a ‘recruiter’ to a remote location. There, the individual is killed soon after arrival by members of the military. The scene is then manipulated to make it appear as if the individual was legitimately killed in combat. The victim is commonly photographed wearing a guerrilla uniform, and holding a gun or grenade. Victims are often buried anonymously in communal graves, and the killers are rewarded for the results they have achieved in the fight against the guerrillas.
“But there are two problems with the narrative focused on ‘falsos positivos’ and Soacha. The first is that the term provides a sort of technical aura to describe a practice which is better characterised as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit. The second is that the focus on Soacha encourages the perception that the phenomenon was limited both geographically and temporally. But while the Soacha killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigations show that they were but the tip of the iceberg. I interviewed witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Valle del Cauca, Casanare, Cesar, Cordoba, Huila, Meta, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Sucre and Vichada. A significant number of military units were thus involved.
“Some officials continue to assert that many of the cases were in fact legitimate killings of guerrillas or others. But the evidence – including ballistics and forensics reports, eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of soldiers themselves – strongly suggests that this was not the case. The ‘dangerous guerrillas’ who were killed include boys of 16 and 17, a young man with a mental age of nine, a devoted family man with two in-laws in active military service, and a young soldier home on leave. I cannot rule out the possibility that some of the falsos positivos were, in fact, guerrillas, but apart from sweeping allegations, I have been provided with no sustained evidence to that effect by the Government. Evidence showing victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots which are four sizes too big for them, or lefthanders holding guns in their right hand, or men with a single shot through the back of their necks, further undermines the suggestion that these were guerrillas killed in combat.
“A further problem concerns the systematic harassment of the survivors by the military. A woman from Soacha described how, in 2008, one of her sons disappeared and was reported killed in combat two days later. When another of her sons became active in pursuing the case, he received a series of threats. He was shot and killed earlier this year. Since then, the mother has also received death threats. This is part of a common pattern.”
Professor Alston went on to say that claims that the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples in the military did not stand up to scrutiny: “The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.”
Indeed, the number of murders now documented is vast. The Colombian Attorney General is currently looking at over 2,000, xi whilst in May 2010 human rights groups announced they had documented over 3,000 extrajudicial executions by the army since President Uribe came to power in 2002. xii The true extent, however, may be far greater: For example, no investigations have yet begun to establish the identities or circumstances of death of the hundreds of unidentified bodies recently revealed to have been dumped in anonymous graves by the Army in the village of La Macarena (see see the separate section on this website).
Whilst the Colombian authorities’ initial response to the extrajudicial killings was to attack those who had highlighted them, following the UN’s intervention, the Government promised to take action. The commander of the Army, General Mario Montoya, stepped down from his post (he was instead appointed Colombian Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a post he still holds today) and another 27 military personnel were dismissed. However, none of those removed from the army were put on trial and, to date, according to a March 2010 report from the UN, impunity is running as high as 98.5%. In effect, those responsible for the killings are not being brought to justice. xiii To make matters worse, senior officials continue to make negative comments with then defence minister Gabriel Silva using an August 2010 speech to describe those involved in judicial investigations against the army as “enemies of the fatherland”. xiv
Despite the lack of convictions against those who carried out the murders, the Colombian authorities insist that they have taken measures to end the extrajudicial executions. And whilst there is evidence to suggest that the numbers being killed have dropped in the past year, the UN stated in a 2009 report that, in relation to extrajudicial executions, “the number of complaints and victims recorded show that institutional policies adopted by the Ministry of Defence and the army High Command to combat such practices have not had a significant impact in curbing serious violations.” xv
The situation in the Soacha case is even more disturbing. In January 2010 the 29 soldiers alleged to have been involved were released from custody without having been convicted of anything after a judge ruled that prosecutors had run out of time. Whilst the Ministry of Defence ordered that the 29 be given desk jobs, confined to base and taken off tactical and operational missions, the army also laid on a huge congratulatory party for the men and their families. xvi Meanwhile the mothers of those murdered continue to receive regular death threats ordering them to stop campaigning for justice. xvii
i For a copy of Directive 29 see www.lasillavacia.com/sites/default/files/media/docs/historias/Directiva_29_2005-comentado.pdf
viii See for example the UN annual report on human rights in Colombia published in March 2007 (www.hchr.org.co/documentoseinformes/informes/altocomisionado/Informe2006_eng.pdf) and also that published in May 2006 (www.hchr.org.co/documentoseinformes/informes/altocomisionado/Informe2005_eng.pdf) both of which report increasing numbers of extrajudicial executions carried out by the Colombian security forces.
The DAS Interceptions Scandal
The Administrative Department of Security (DAS) is Colombia's intelligence service. It reports directly to the President, employs around 7,000 staff and is officially engaged in anti-terrorism and secret intelligence work. The first signs that something was wrong at the DAS appeared in 2006 when it was revealed that Jorge Noguera, whom Alvaro Uribe had appointed as his first DAS director upon assuming the presidency in 2002, was working with paramilitaries.i
Noguera (pictured with Uribe) had drawn up death lists of trade unionists for the paramilitaries (some on the list were subsequently killed) ii, ordered DAS agents to engage in joint operations with the paramilitaries, provided the paramilitaries with intelligence on government opponents, and given the paramilitaries advance warning of operations against their drug trafficking activities. He had also arranged for intelligence files on the paramilitaries and their drug trafficking activities to be doctored and/or deleted.iii
President Uribe's response was perplexing - he immediately removed Noguera from his post and appointed him as Colombian Consul to Milan, Italy.iv However, following a public uproar, Noguera was soon forced to return to Colombia to face an investigation. But the investigations into the conduct of the DAS had only just begun and over the following years more and more details about their illegal activities came to light.
The most recent of these has been the revelation that the DAS managed a systematic strategy of interceptions of communications of those considered to be hostile to President Uribe. Targets included members of the Colombian Supreme Court (who were involved in investigating links between paramilitaries and political figures close to Uribe), opposition politicians, journalists, trade unionists and human rights activists as well as those in the international community seen to be unsympathetic to the President.v This latter category included Justice for Colombia, the International Federation for Human Rights, the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and the Human Rights sub-committee of the European Parliament.vi
But as well as spying on such organisations and individuals, further investigations exposed how the DAS had developed and implemented plans of harassment and intimidation to try and silence those targeted through fear and threats. Activities included disinformation campaigns and a plan to try and falsely link opponents of the Uribe administration to the FARC.vii
Such revelations are ongoing but included sending threatening letters to trade unionists and journalists, the fabrication of documents allegedly demonstrating guerrilla links, as well as breaking into homes and following individuals in an effort to scare them. In one case leaked documents showed how the DAS had threatened to kill the 11-year-old daughter of Claudia Duque, a journalist deemed critical of President Uribe, with the documents outlining exactly how to make the threat (from a public phone box with no CCTV cameras nearby), how long to stay on the line (less than 60 seconds to avoid a trace) and the exact wording to use to threaten the journalist and her daughter, including the girl's name.viii
As well as Noguera, others implicated in the scandal include the two subsequent directors of the DAS (Andres Penate and Maria del Pilar Hurtado), President Uribe's personal secretary Bernardo Moreno (who has been accused by the former DAS head of counterintelligence of ordering the surveillance program), his press secretary Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, presidential adviser Jorge Mauricio Eastman and presidential judicial adviser Edmundo de Castillo - all of whom have now been called for questioning by the Supreme Court.
The involvement of so many figures close to the president in the scandal has led to the Supreme Court describing the case as "a criminal enterprise directed from the presidential palace",ix whilst Interpol, the international police agency, has stated that due to concerns about its conduct, it no longer wishes the DAS to be its contact organisation in Colombia.x However, whilst the US Government has passed legislation declaring the DAS ineligible for any US assistance due to their illegal activities , the British Government has refused to comment on press reports that they provided the DAS with the equipment used in the interception activities.xi Whilst investigators are making progress the full extent of the scandal is still not yet known and new revelations are constantly coming out - most recently, in June 2010, accusations that the DAS had also been intercepting phone calls and conducting surveillance of Ecuador's president Rafael Correa.xii
x See http://editor.caracoltv.com/noticias/politica/articulo139127-interpol-no-quiere-seguir-trabajando-el-das-tras-chuzadas also http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/4061-interpol-no-longer-wants-to-work-with-das.html
xi Copy of the relevant legislation: www.justf.org/Legislation_Text?bill_number=Conference%20Report%20111-366&date=2009-12-08
The Para-Political Scandal
The scandal known as ‘Para-Politica’ broke in late 2006 and is ongoing. It refers to the exposure of close links between senior political figures and illegal rightwing paramilitaries. The revelations confirmed what some had alleged – namely that senior figures in the State (rather than simply the military) were collaborating with the paramilitaries. But the extent of the links so far revealed, and the large number of political figures involved, has shocked many.
The scandal broke after a senior official in the DAS secret police revealed that his boss – then DAS director Jorge Noguera – had been working for the paramilitaries for some years (see previous section for more). Noguera was arrested in February 2007 and subsequent investigations found that the DAS and paramilitaries had worked together to assassinate trade union leaders and opposition figures, that they had perpetrated electoral fraud in favour of President Uribe, and that the DAS had lent protection to paramilitary drug trafficking operations. i
But the Noguera revelations were just the tip of a huge iceberg. Subsequent enquiries found that numerous political figures had received funding from the paramilitaries, assisted them in evading justice, and worked with them to intimidate, or even kill, political opponents. Furthermore, it later became apparent that several politicians had actually signed a formal pact, known as the ‘Ralito Pact’, with the paramilitaries. The number of people implicated, and their seniority, were astonishing – as was the fact that virtually all of those implicated are close political allies of former President Uribe and current President Santos.
Former president Uribe’s reaction to the scandal was deeply concerning; rather than condemning those involved for working with paramilitaries and drugs traffickers, he attempted to hamper the investigation by continuously interfering and launching very public verbal attacks on the Colombian Supreme Court – the body tasked with investigating senior political figures.ii The Court responded by appealing for international verification of their work.iii
To date around a third of the members of 2006-2010 Colombian Senate have been caught up in the scandal – and some of them, or their family members, were re-elected in the 2010 election.iv To follow are some illustrative examples of those so far implicated in the ‘Para-Politica’ scandal. All the examples given are from the Senate, though the situation in the lower house of Congress is similar.
- Former president Uribe’s cousin, Senator Mario Uribe, established a small group of Senators in the Colombian Congress (known as ‘Democratic Colombia’) who were seen as closest to Uribe. All of this group, including the President’s cousin, have now been charged with collaborating with the paramilitaries. Among them are Senator Miguel de la Espriella, Senator Ricardo Elcure Chacon and Senator Alvaro Garcia Romero who organised a massacre of 15 peasant farmers by a paramilitary death squad in the village of Macayepo in northern Colombia.
- Senator Alvaro Araujo was one of former president Uribe’s key Congressional allies, leading one of the political parties established to support him following the 2002 elections. He has been charged with electoral fraud, extortion and kidnapping – all carried out in conjunction with paramilitaries. His sister, Uribe’s foreign minister Maria Consuelo Araujo, has also been forced to resign her post, whilst their father has been imprisoned for kidnapping a political rival. Another senior member of the party, Senator Oscar Suarez Mira, was found to be working with paramilitaries to forcibly displace peasant farmers, whilst a third, Senator Antonio Valencia Duque, has been arrested for working with a notorious paramilitary and drugs trafficker who is currently in US custody.
- Eight out of the 15 Senators elected in 2006 for the Cambio Radical party – one of the three key parties in President Satnos’ ruling coalition in Congress – are under investigation. They are Senator Rubén Darío Quintero, Senator Humberto Builes Correa, Senator David Char Navas, Senator Reginaldo Montes, Senator Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, Senator Miguel Pinedo Vidal, Senator Luis Carlos Torres and Senator Antonio Guerra de la Espriella.
- Another key political faction supporting former president Uribe’s coalition in the Colombian Congress was known as the ‘Movimiento Colombia Viva’. All but one of the ten Senators involved in the faction are now charged with collaborating with the paramilitaries including Senator Jorge Castro, who was found to be the brother of a senior paramilitary commander. A similar situation developed in another party backing the President known as ‘Convergencia Ciudadana’ with the majority of their Senators too, including party leader Senator Luis Alberto Gil, facing charges of paramilitary collaboration.
- Several senior Conservative Party Senators – another of the parties in the President Santos coalition – have been implicated including Senators Ciro Ramirez and Luis Humberto Gomez, a former President of the Senate, both of whom were found to have been collaborating with drugs traffickers and paramilitaries. Other Conservatives implicated include Senator Julio Alberto Manzur and Senator William Montes who signed the ‘Ralito Pact’ with the paramilitaries.
- Numerous senior members of the largest party in President Santos’ coalition, the ‘Party of the U’, have also been implicated. They include the co-leader of the party Senator Carlos Garcia Orjuela who was jailed in 2008 for working with paramilitaries. President Santos himself was the other co-leader of the party though to date there is no evidence implicating him in the scandal.
More information is coming out all of the time v but the scale of the scandal so far clearly indicates the infiltration of the Colombian State by the paramilitaries – badly undermining Colombian democracy.
i There are numerous reports concerning Noguera's activities, see for example www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/09/15/human-rights-watch-comments-office-us-trade-representative-concerning-us-colombia-fr and www.hrw.org/en/news/2006/04/16/colombia-uribe-must-end-attacks-media and www.hrw.org/en/news/2007/06/27/congressional-testimony-violence-against-trade-unionists-and-human-rights-colombia
ii According to Human Rights Watch, "Since the Supreme Court the started parapolitics investigations, President Uribe has repeatedly lashed out against the Court, publicly criticizing it, calling individual justices on the phone, making allegations against them that have later been found to be baseless, and even initiating criminal prosecutions of court members before the Accusations Commission of the Congress, which is controlled by his supporters." See www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/10/16/breaking-grip-0
iv According to the Bogota-based Electoral Observation Mission at least 80 candidates in the March 2010 Congressional elections were either under investigation for links to paramilitaries or family members of those under investigation, see www.el-nacional.com/www/site/p_contenido.php?q=nodo/127198/Internacional/Unos-80-candidatos-a-Congreso-colombiano-tendr%C3%ADan-nexo-paramilitar See also www.semana.com/noticias-nacion/tarjeton-picota/135934.aspx and http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/7704-52-congress-candidates-are-suspicious-el-espectador.html
v On July 13th 2010 the Supreme Court announced that they were opening investigations into a further eight politicians for links to paramilitaries including the involvement of one former Congressman in a massacre of 43 people in the town of Sergovia, see: www.eltiempo.com/colombia/justicia/ARTICULO-WEB-PLANTILLA_NOTA_INTERIOR-7804467.html
The Paramilitary ‘Peace Process’
The paramilitary peace process, also known as the ‘demobilisation process’ or ‘Justice & Peace process’, was instigated by President Uribe shortly after coming to power in 2002. Uribe announced that he would seek to persuade the paramilitaries to hand in their weapons and return to civilian life. But he was widely criticised for failing to address the issues of truth, justice and reparations and, as a result, in 2005 the ‘Justice and Peace’ law was passed which, it was claimed, would ensure that those paramilitaries that demobilised but had committed human rights crimes would face justice and that their victims would be compensated.i
By most accounts the process has been an abject failure. Whilst some paramilitaries did indeed demobilise, a massive number (see Paramilitaries above) continue to function throughout the country. At times the process descended into farce after uniformed ‘paramilitaries’ were shown on television handing over their weapons only for them later to be exposed as local peasants who had been paid to take part in the ‘demobilisation’ ceremony.ii Furthermore, the period of peace negotiations, during which they were supposedly respecting a ceasefire, allegedly saw thousands of assassinations carried out by the paramilitaries.iii
Claims that those who demobilised would face justice have been undermined by the fact that as of July 2010 only two paramilitaries have been convicted of any crimes at all – the pair were sentenced in late June 2010 to eight years imprisonment for a massacre of 11 people and the displacement of over a thousand others from the town of Mampujan in 2000.iv Given the extensive breaches of international humanitarian law perpetrated by the paramilitaries over the years this almost total lack of convictions has led some human rights groups to label the entire process a fraud.
The issue of reparations to the victims has also caused considerable controversy with very little of the illegally acquired assets, most notably the millions of hectares of land stolen by paramilitaries during forced displacement, having been returned to their rightful owners.v Furthermore, given that most of those paramilitaries that did demobilise actually did so before the ‘Justice & Peace’ law came into effect (the law which required the return of illegal assets), there is in reality no requirement whatsoever for the majority of those involved to actually return any property – in effect legalising their illegally acquired assets including vast tracks of land originally belonging to displaced peasant farmers.
The right to truth has also been severely compromised by the extradition to the US of several senior paramilitary commanders on drugs trafficking charges.vi These individuals should have first been tried in Colombia on the far more serious charges of murder and crimes against humanity but are now in effect prevented from properly participating in any Colombian judicial proceedings – or efforts to establish the truth. Whilst the Colombian Government presented the extraditions as proof of their commitment to fighting the paramilitaries, human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, allege that in fact they were sent to the US in order to silence them and prevent them from exposing any further links between the State and the paramilitaries – especially given that many had also been testifying in the ‘Para-Politica’ process outlined above.vii
Citing the speed at which the whole process occurred, the fact that it has not actually led to the dismantling of the paramilitaries, and the lack of any justice or reparations for the victims, critics have questioned whether the process is in fact an effort to ‘legalise’ of the paramilitaries.viii
i See Amnesty International's analysis of the 'Justice & Peace' law: www.amnestyusa.org/all-countries/colombia/justice-and-peace-law-and-decree-128/page.do?id=1101862
ii According to an internal investigation by the Colombian Attorney General's office (quoted by the Washington Post here: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/16/AR2006101600971.html), "paramilitaries recruited peasant farmers to play the part of paramilitary fighters in demobilisations ceremonies" and "a special bank account was set up [by the paramilitaries] to disburse money to unemployed peasants so they could 'pass themselves off as militiamen, the more the better'."
iii A December 2004 report from the Colombian Commission of Jurists (www.coljuristas.org/Portals/0/En_contravia.pdf) documents how the paramilitaries killed or forcibly disappeared 1,899 people between declaring their ceasefire in December 2002 and August 2004. Many others were killed in subsequent months and years with the captured laptop computer of one paramilitary commander giving details of 558 murders committed during the ceasefire in just one province of the country, see: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/16/AR2006101600971.html
v Those involved in campaigns to get the paramilitaries to return land to its rightful owners have been the targets of violence with several having been assassinated including Benigno Gil (killed November 22nd 2008), Yolanda Izquierdo (killed January 31st 2007), Julio Molina (killed May 13th 2008), Walberto Hoyos (killed October 14th 2008), Jaime Gaviria, Juan Jimenez and Ana Gomez. See www.semana.com/noticias-print-edition/the-deadly-fight-for-land-in-colombia/121871.aspx and www.cidh.org/annualrep/2009eng/Chap.IV.eng.htm
vi Those extradited included the national commander of the AUC paramilitaries, Salvatore Mancuso, who had been testifying, as had some of the others that were sent to the US, about the links between the paramilitaries, the security forces, politicians and businessmen. According to Mancuso "they extradited the truth with me", see www.cambio.com.co/portadacambio/830/ARTICULO-WEB-NOTA_INTERIOR_CAMBIO-5289247.html and http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=42356
Colombia’s International Relations
Colombia is seen as a key ally of the West. It was the only country in South America that supported the invasion of Iraq, has recently signed a deal with the United States allowing the US to use seven military bases in the country and has, over the past decade, been one of the largest recipients of US military aid in the world.
Whilst former President Bush was a fervent supporter of the Colombian Government, the relationship with President Obama did not get off to a good start. Obama, on several occasions, spoke out publicly about his concerns around human rights violations and anti-trade union violence in Colombia i and some of his senior Democrat party colleagues have also strongly criticised the record of the Colombian authorities.ii However, more recently the relationship has improved with Obama no longer publicly expressing such concerns and the two countries announcing, in 2009, that Colombia had permitted the US to open seven military bases on Colombian soil – two Army, two Navy and three Air Force.iii
But despite the new military base agreement, recent years have in fact seen a steady decrease in the amount of US military assistance being provided to Colombia. This is in part due to economic factors (Afghanistan and Iraq consumed a growing proportion of such aid) but also over due to concerns in the US Congress about Colombia’s human rights record and in particular the killings of trade unionists and extrajudicial executions by the Colombian Army.iv
These concerns have also resulted in the US Congress refusing to ratify the proposed US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which former Presidents Bush and Uribe negotiated. Colombia’s ongoing efforts to secure the FTA with the US have seen a huge amount of resources poured into lobbying campaigns and public relations work in Washington in an effort to convince lawmakers there that the human rights crisis has been dealt with and that the country should qualify for the trade deal. To date such efforts have not worked and at the current time the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement does not look likely to move forward.v
Colombia’s relations with the European Union (EU) have also increasingly focused on efforts to secure an EU-Colombia FTA and whilst the European Commission has signed off on a proposed Agreement, it has yet to be taken to the European Parliament for ratification. A growing coalition of Colombian and international trade unions and human rights groups, including Justice for Colombia, are active in the campaign to try and block the EU-Colombia FTA until the human rights situation improves dramatically.
The UK is Colombia’s most vocal supporter in Europe with the Colombian Foreign Ministry website claiming that “the UK is Colombia’s principle political and economic ally in the European Union”. Whilst the British Government has made limited criticisms of the human rights situation in Colombia it has not let such concerns impact on the wider relationship and the UK continues to provide military aid to Colombia, including to units of the Colombian security forces implicated in extrajudicial executions. All details of such aid, including its financial value, are secret.vi
In contrast to its good relations with the West, Colombia has strained relations with its Latin American neighbours. Tensions are particularly high with Colombia’s two principle neighbours – Ecuador and Venezuela – and diplomatic relations with both countries have regularly been severed in recent years. Both countries accuse Colombia of violating their sovereignty by allowing military operations (as well as violence more generally, drugs trafficking and forcibly displaced people) to spill over their shared borders, whilst Bogota accuses both Quito and Caracas of having sympathies with the FARC guerrilla group.vii However, both President Chavez of Venezuela and President Correa of Ecuador recently visited President Santos in Colombia as a first step towards improving ties.
Relations with other countries in the region, particularly Bolivia viii and Nicaragua, are also tense (the latter due to their granting of political asylum suspected FARC guerrillas ix) whilst Brazil, the key player in the continent, has allegedly irritated the Colombian authorities by refusing to label the FARC as ‘terrorists’ and repeatedly offering to help kick-start a peace process with the guerrillas.x
i During his final televised presidential debate with John McCain, Mr Obama highlighted his concerns around trade union deaths in Colombia, see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8xaL6_Esq8. According to Colombian press reports Obama has also expressed concerns at the links between Colombian political figures and paramilitary death squads, see: www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-3955449. According to the Wall Street Journal Obama described Colombia as having "a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition", see http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/04/04/obama-refutes-colombian-president/?mod=WSJBlo
ii In a 2009 US Senate hearing Hiliary Clinton explained that "continued violence and impunity in Colombia directed at labor and other civic leaders makes labor protections impossible to guarantee in Colombia today." Her colleague, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives has also expressed concerns about the links between paramilitaries and senior Colombian Government officials, see: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/04/AR2007050402186.html
iv In 2007 a senior Democrat Senator, Patrick Leahy, froze over $50 million in military aid to Colombia citing allegations of links between the commander of the Colombian Army and illegal paramilitaries, see http://articles.latimes.com/2007/apr/20/world/fg-colombia20. In 2009 Senator Leahy froze a further $72 million due to the Colombian Army's role in extrajudicial executions, see http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/3272-us-keeps-us72-in-aid-to-colombia-frozen-because-of-false-positives.html
vi See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8126677.stm
vii See, for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/world/americas/04venez.html?_r=1&ref=americas and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8192631.stm and http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aD8nON228xnU
viii At a 2010 Latin American summit Bolivian President Evo Morales allegedly described the Colombian President as "an agent of the empire", see: www.google.com/hostednews/epa/article/ALeqM5iT-574Lyw2RPqYFHyCAXDPnK77aA