Democracy and rights
Abbreviated as COL by Abbreviationfinder, Colombia has sometimes emerged as a democratic example in the Latin America of the generals. Power has generally shifted through elections and not coups and the constitution guarantees fundamental freedoms and rights. But the country has a violent history and is characterized by extensive violations of human rights.
As an electoral democracy, Colombia is comparatively good. Political parties seem free, elections are held regularly and the outcome is not given in advance. However, there are irregularities and disclosures have been made about close cooperation between politicians and serious crime (see further under Justice and Legal Security below).
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Civil rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association and assembly are guaranteed by law. But the armed conflict has had devastating effects on human rights. Particularly vulnerable to the violence are activists representing indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians and small farmers, as well as human rights defenders, trade union leaders (see also Labor Market) and journalists (see below). According to a report by Front Line Defenders, one-third of human rights activist murders in the world occurred in Colombia in 2019, or 103 of 304 murders. This makes the country the most dangerous in the world for activists.
During the long civil war, many assaults were committed by left-wing guerrillas and the military, and not least by paramilitary right-wing militia. According to official estimates, 260,000 people were killed and around 80,000 “disappeared” between 1958 and 2018. The vast majority of victims were civilians. Over 200,000 of the deaths occurred during the course of a few years around the turn of the millennium, when the right-wing militia was most active (see Calendar).
A little into the new century, the levels of violence decreased significantly. This was initially due in large part to the disarmament of the militia groups and the then President Álvaro Uribe’s policies against the leftist guerrillas (see Modern History and Conflicts-Colombia). Strong economy and declining poverty are believed to have made it. The peace agreement with Farc 2016 contributed to the number of murders committed the following year being the lowest in more than 40 years. The murder rate has fallen from 70 per 100,000 residents at the beginning of the 1990s, to 24 per 100,000 residents. The number of kidnappings has decreased even more dramatically.
However, there are now worrying signs that violence is rising again, especially in some parts of the country. When Farc dropped his weapons, a power vacuum ensued in several places where the guerrillas controlled the drug trade, and there are plenty of armed groups fighting over who should take over. A wave of deadly attacks has been directed at human rights defenders and other activists, as well as people supporting the peace agreement – including former guerrillas. According to the UN, 173 former Farc members were murdered in 2017–2019. Hundreds of people have also been forced to flee their homes again. Colombia was for a long time the country in the world that had the most internal refugees (see Social conditions). The right of Iván Duque to take office in August 2018 made the future of the peace agreement uncertain and increased fears of new outbreaks of violence.
Freedom of expression and media
Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution, but it is jeopardized by threats and violence against journalists from armed groups and narcotics forces, as well as from the security forces and the authorities. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the Western Hemisphere.
Since the 1990s, dozens of journalists have been killed in Colombia and many more have been threatened or assaulted. The victims have usually reported on topics such as corruption, environmental problems, security issues, armed conflicts or human rights violations. Violence has subsided, but in conjunction with political tensions during the 2018 election year, the threats to the media representatives increased significantly. Colombia ranks 130 out of 180 countries in 2020 on Reporters Without Borders (RUG) index of press freedom in the world. In all of Latin America, only Venezuela, Mexico and Honduras are worse off (for the ranking list see here).
The violence and threats have created a lot of self-censorship in the media. Vulnerable journalists can receive state protection. But according to RUG, the people who are supposed to protect the journalists have also spied on them on behalf of the security service. The information has then been used to threaten journalists. President Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010) indirectly exposed individual journalists to threats by publicly identifying them as guerrilla sympathizers.
At the local and regional level, there are hundreds of radio channels, which are often subject to pressure from both armed groups and government officials. The media is also dependent on advertising revenue from public agencies, which paves the way for mutual dependency between the media and local government officials.
It is common for leading journalists – and media owners – to have close ties to politicians. The largest national newspaper is El Tiempo, which was owned and run by the influential Santos family for nearly a century. The newspaper has been close to the Liberal Party for a long time and has since supported Álvaro Uribe’s right-wing government in the 1990s. When Juan Manuel Santos won the 2010 election, it was the second time the family occupied the presidential post. Since 2012, El Tiempo has been owned by Colombia’s richest man, banker Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo.
The multiple award-winning weekly magazine, Semana, stood for most revelations of political scandals in Colombia.
The major corruption scandal surrounding the construction group Odebrecht in Brazil has had repercussions in Colombia, as well as in most countries in Latin America. Two senators and a number of former congressmen and bureaucrats were charged in 2017 for bribery. A central witness in the Odebrecht investigation, Jorge Enrique Piazno, passed away in November 2018, and just three days later his son died of a mysterious poisoning. A few years earlier, Pizano had provided information on financial irregularities to Néstor Humberto Martínez, who was then a lawyer and is now a prosecutor. Former head of the State Prosecutor’s Anti-Corruption Unit, Luis Gustavo Moreno, has been extradited to the United States where he will face trial for bribery.
Colombia ranks 96th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s list of corruption levels in the countries of the world, roughly in the same region as Ecuador and Peru (the ranking list is here).
Judicial system and legal security
The judiciary is formally independent and has a relatively strong position, but conflicts have arisen between the president and the courts. The Constitution provides extensive opportunities to appeal judgments. In practice, therefore, already ineffective courts have been overpowered with work. It has been slow to judge for serious crimes committed by right-wing militia, left-wing guerrillas and even by military and police, and the impunity is widespread.
Alongside the civil courts are military courts. The Constitutional Court ruled in 1997 that all human rights violations should be handled by civil courts, but the military courts often require to bring up cases where militants have committed such crimes. This will lead to bureaucracy and delays and to get punished for the abuses.
In terms of the rule of law, Colombia is regionally ranked 20 out of 30 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, by the World Justice Project.
However, the justice system has shown strength in processes that followed revelations about politicians’ cooperation with paramilitaries. One example is the parapolitic scandal that was first discovered in 2006 (see Modern History). Over the years, the investigation has included hundreds of congressmen, governors, mayors and other politicians, and many have been sentenced, often to long prison terms.
Disclosures of extrajudicial executions in the “false positive scandal” in 2008 have also led to convictions. “False positive” refers to a result that incorrectly confirms a cause. The scandal was discovered when several young men who disappeared from Bogota’s poor areas were found in a mass grave. It exposed how militaries systematically tricked young boys away with promises of jobs, to then kill them and show them those guerrillas killed in battle. The government’s demands for military success in the war on guerrillas and a developed reward system paved the way for these crimes. Up to 5,000 murders of this type are estimated to have been committed. 2015 said Human Rights Watch have seen evidence that even senior officers – “generals and commanders” – have known about the extrajudicial executions. Just over ten years after the revelation, more than 900 lower-ranking soldiers have been sentenced for involvement in the scandal, some of them for years in prison. A former Army chief was sentenced in 2016 to 30 years in prison for 31 such murders.
Following Iván Duque’s accession in 2018, fears that demands for results in the fight against serious crime should lead to similar abuses (see Calendar).
In 2015, a former colonel, Alfonso Plazas Vega, was also sentenced to 30 years in prison for crimes committed in connection with the storming of the Justice Palace in 1985 (see Modern History). Eleven people had been removed by the military and then “disappeared”. Human rights organizations welcomed the verdict as a breakthrough when such a high officer was convicted of the crime. However, then-President Uribe criticized the court’s ruling.