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Colombia

Executive Summary

Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty republic. Presidential and legislative elections were held in 2018. In June 2018, voters elected Ivan Duque Marquez president in a second round of elections that observers considered free and fair and the most peaceful in decades.

The Colombian National Police (CNP) force is responsible for internal law enforcement and is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. The Migration Directorate, part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the immigration authority. The CNP shares law enforcement investigatory duties with the attorney general’s Corps of Technical Investigators. In addition to its responsibility to defend the country against external threats, the army shares limited responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order within the country. For example, military units sometimes provided logistical support and security for criminal investigators to collect evidence in high-conflict or remote areas. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings; reports of torture and arbitrary detention by both government security forces and illegal armed groups; criminalization of libel; widespread corruption; rape and abuse of women and children by illegal armed groups; violence and threats of violence against human rights defenders and social leaders; violence against and forced displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; forced child labor; and killings and other violence against trade unionists.

The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, although some cases experienced long delays that raised concerns about accountability.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) perpetrated armed attacks across the country during the year, including a car bomb attack on a police academy in Bogota that killed 22 persons. Other illegal armed groups, including dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and drug-trafficking gangs, continued to operate. Illegal armed groups, as well as narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of human rights abuses and violent crimes and committed acts of extrajudicial and unlawful killings, extortion, and other abuses, such as kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, bombings and use of landmines, restriction on freedom of movement, sexual violence, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and intimidation of journalists, women, and human rights defenders. The government investigated these actions and prosecuted those responsible to the extent possible.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Violence and harassment, as well as the criminalization of libel, inhibited freedom of the press, and the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

Violence and Harassment: According to the domestic NGO Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), through August 16, there were 83 threats against journalists and 250 incidents of violence or harassment. FLIP also reported that between January and August, no journalists were illegally detained and 21 were physically assaulted. One was ordered detained for failure to comply with a protective order related to a defamation case, but the detention order was never enforced. According to FLIP, there were three convictions for threats against journalists through September.

As of June 30, the NPU provided protection services to 162 journalists. Some NGOs raised concerns about perceived shortcomings in the NPU, such as delays in granting protection and the appropriateness of measures for addressing specific threats.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: FLIP alleged some journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of being sued under libel laws or of being physically attacked, mostly by nongovernment actors. FLIP asserted that the high degree of impunity for those who committed aggressions against journalists was also a factor.

Libel/Slander Laws: By law slander and libel are crimes. There is no specific law against slandering public officials, and the government did not use prosecution to prevent media outlets from criticizing government policies or public officials. Political candidates, businesspersons, and others, however, publicly threatened to sue journalists for expressing their opinions, alleging defamation or libel. FLIP reported one defamation case filed against a journalist during the year.

Nongovernmental Impact: Members of illegal armed groups inhibited freedom of expression by intimidating, threatening, kidnapping, and killing journalists. National and international NGOs reported local media representatives regularly practiced self-censorship because of threats of violence from these groups. For example, NGOs reported on the June killing of Libardo Montenegro, a reporter for the community radio station in Samaniego, Narino. No arrests were made, but NGOs reported the killing might have been a response to Montenegro’s coverage of drug-related violence in the region. In August, five journalists in Valle de Cauca received threats via text message after reporting on power cuts to municipalities in the area. Those responsible for the threats were unknown.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Due to the general climate of impunity and violence in some areas, self-censorship occurred both online and offline, particularly within rural communities.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Some NGOs alleged that riot police (Esmad) used excessive force to break up demonstrations.

On January 1, the National Police issued a directive to govern their response to demonstrations. NGOs and press reports alleged the directive had not been entirely effective in managing protests peacefully, citing the use of police force during university protests in September. Human rights groups and NGOs also alleged the Esmad used excessive force to suppress protests by indigenous groups in March and April. Indigenous communities joined together to hold sustained protests (known as a minga) that closed highways as they called for increased government attention to address violence against social leaders, implement the 2016 peace accord, and fulfill agreements reached with indigenous communities after two months of strikes in late 2018.

In November student groups, labor unions, and human rights activists engaged in mostly peaceful protests throughout the country, advocating for changes to the government’s social and economic policies. Some NGOs and media reports accused security forces of using excessive force after protests turned violent, and media outlets reported that the Attorney General’s Office opened 11 investigations involving the Esmad resulting from the protests in Bogota.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Freedom of association was limited, however, by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups against NGOs, indigenous groups, and labor unions.

Although the government does not prohibit membership in most political organizations, membership in organizations that engaged in rebellion against the government, espoused violence, or carried out acts of violence, such as FARC dissidents, the ELN, and other illegal armed groups, was against the law.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although there were exceptions. Military operations and insecurity in certain rural areas restricted freedom of movement.

In-country Movement: The government required asylum seekers and individuals without regularized migration status to have salvaconductos (safe passage documents) to travel throughout the country. Organized-crime gangs, ELN guerrillas, and other illegal armed groups continued to establish illegal checkpoints on rural roads.

International and civil society organizations also reported that illegal armed groups confined rural communities through roadblocks, curfews, car bombs at egress routes, and improvised explosive devices in areas where illicit crop cultivation and narcotics trafficking persisted. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between January and August, more than 342,000 persons faced mobility restrictions that limited their access to essential goods and services due to armed incidents and geographical factors.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal suffrage. Active-duty members of the armed forces and police may neither vote nor participate in the political process. Civilian public employees are eligible to vote, although they may participate in partisan politics only during the four months immediately preceding a national election.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Legislative and presidential elections were held in March and May 2018, respectively. Because no presidential candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote in the election, as required for a victory in the first round, in June a second election was held, in which voters elected Ivan Duque Marquez president. Observers considered the elections free and fair and the most peaceful in decades. There were no reports of election-related violence during the June 2018 presidential runoff, in which the candidate of the Democratic Center party, Ivan Duque, defeated the candidate of Humane Colombia, Gustavo Petro. The then minister of defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, described it as the most peaceful election in decades. The leading domestic elections NGO, Electoral Observation Mission, deployed 3,524 nonpartisan volunteers to monitor the elections. International observers included an electoral observation mission of the Organization of American States. The first local and regional elections since the signing of the peace accord took place on October 27 and were largely peaceful. Observers reported some indications of electoral fraud, including vote buying.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Organized-crime gangs and the ELN threatened and killed government officials (see section 1.g.). As of May 31, the NPU, under the Ministry of Interior, was providing protection to 387 mayors, 17 governors, and 1,674 other persons, including members of departmental assemblies, council members, judges, municipal human rights officers, and other officials related to national human rights policies. By decree the CNP’s protection program and the NPU assume shared responsibility for protecting municipal and district mayors.

As part of the peace accord, the FARC registered a political party in 2017 under the name People’s Alternative Revolutionary Force, maintaining the same acronym. The accord guaranteed the FARC political party 10 seats in Congress–five each in the Senate and in the House of Representatives–in the 2018 and 2022 elections.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The share of female officials in the cabinet was more than 50 percent.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively, although officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices without punishment. The World Bank’s worldwide governance indicators reflected that government corruption was a serious problem. Revenues from transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking, exacerbated corruption.

Corruption: Through September the Attorney General’s Office registered 31,239 allegations related to corruption and had formally begun investigating 4,014. In September authorities sentenced Aida Merlano to 15 years in prison for buying votes to win a seat in the March 2018 election for seats in Congress. The first politician to be jailed for buying votes, Merlano escaped police custody on October 1 and remained at large as of November.

Financial Disclosure: By law public officials must file annual financial disclosure forms with the tax authority. The information is not made public. The law states that persons who intend to hold public office or work as contractors for the government for more than three months shall submit a statement of assets and income as well as information on their private economic activity. The human resources chief in each entity is responsible for verifying the information submitted. Congress maintained a website on which members could voluntarily post their financial information.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were typically cooperative and willing to listen to local human rights groups’ concerns.

Several NGOs reported receiving threats in the form of email, mail, telephone calls, false obituaries, and objects related to death, such as coffins and funeral bouquets. The government condemned the threats and called on the Attorney General’s Office to investigate them. Some activists claimed the government did not take the threats seriously.

The government announced advances in the investigations into attacks and killings of human rights defenders and assigned priority resources to these cases.

Through July the Attorney General’s Office reported 753 active investigations into threats against human rights defenders. There were three convictions in cases of threats against human rights defenders during the year.

As of May 31, the NPU’s protection program provided protection to a total of 7,313 individuals. Among the NPU’s protected persons were 4,519 human rights activists.

To help monitor and verify that human rights were respected throughout implementation of the peace accord, the government formally renewed the mandate of the OHCHR in October for a period of three years. The accord requests that the OHCHR include a “special chapter on implementation of the agreements from the standpoint of human rights” in its annual reports.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman is independent, submits an annual report to the House of Representatives, and has responsibility for providing for the promotion and exercise of human rights. According to human rights groups, underfunding of the Ombudsman’s Office limited its ability to monitor violations effectively. The ombudsman, as well as members of his regional offices, reported threats from illegal armed groups issued through pamphlets, email, and violent actions.

The National System for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law–led by a commission of 18 senior government officials, including the vice president–designs, implements, and evaluates the government’s policies on human rights and international humanitarian law. The Office of the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights coordinates national human rights policy and actions taken by government entities to promote or protect human rights.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have human rights committees that served as forums for discussion of human rights problems.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Although prohibited by law, rape of men or women, including spousal rape, remained a serious problem. The law provides for sentences ranging from eight to 30 years’ imprisonment for violent sexual assault. For acts of spousal sexual violence, the law mandates prison sentences of six months to two years. By law femicide is punishable with penalties of 21 to 50 years in prison, longer than the minimum sentence of 13 years for homicide.

Violence against women, as well as impunity for perpetrators, continued to be a problem. Members of illegal armed groups, including former paramilitary members and guerrillas, also continued to rape and abuse women and children sexually.

The government continued to employ the Elite Sexual Assault Investigative Unit interagency unit in Bogota, which was dedicated to the investigation of sexual assault cases. From January to August, the Attorney General’s Office opened 26,968 new investigations for sexual crimes, compared with 28,942 in 2018.

The law requires the government to provide victims of domestic violence immediate protection from further physical or psychological abuse.

The Ministry of Defense continued implementing its protocol for managing cases of sexual violence and harassment involving members of the military. The district secretary of women, in Bogota, and the Ombudsman’s Office offered free legal aid for victims of gender violence and organized courses to teach officials how to treat survivors of gender violence respectfully.

The law augments both imprisonment and fines if a crime causes “transitory or permanent physical disfigurement,” such as acid attacks, which have a penalty of up to 50 years in prison.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C, but isolated incidents were reported in several indigenous communities in different parts of the country. Two-thirds of women from the Embera community had undergone FGM/C, according to the UN Population Fund.

Sexual Harassment: The law provides measures to deter and punish harassment in the workplace, such as sexual harassment, verbal abuse or derision, aggression, and discrimination, which carries a penalty of one to three years’ imprisonment. Nonetheless, NGOs reported sexual harassment remained a pervasive and underreported problem in workplaces and in public.

Coercion in Population Control: Coerced abortion is not permitted under the law. The law allows the involuntary surgical sterilization of children with cognitive and psychosocial disabilities in certain cases.

Through August 18, the Attorney General’s Office reported opening 18 investigations related to cases of forced abortion.

Discrimination: Although women have the same legal rights as men, discrimination against women persisted. The Office of the Advisor for the Equality of Women has primary responsibility for combating discrimination against women, but advocacy groups reported that the office remained seriously underfunded. The government continued its national public policy for gender equity.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory in most cases. Most births were registered immediately. If a birth is not registered within one month, parents may be fined and denied public services.

Child Abuse: Child abuse was a serious problem. The Attorney General’s Office reported that 53 percent of its nearly 27,000 investigations into sexual crimes through July 31 involved a minor younger than 14. The Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) reported that between January and July 31, there were 6,150 cases of sexual abuse against children.

Early and Forced Marriage: Marriage is legal at the age of 18. Boys older than 14 and girls older than 12 may marry with the consent of their parents. According to UNICEF, 5 percent of girls were married before age 15 and 23 percent before age 18.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual exploitation of children remained a problem. The law prohibits sexual exploitation of a minor or facilitating the sexual exploitation of a minor and stipulates a penalty of 14 to 25 years in prison, with aggravated penalties for perpetrators who are family members of the victim and for cases of sexual tourism, forced marriage, or sexual exploitation by illegal armed groups. The law prohibits pornography using children younger than 18 and stipulates a penalty of 10 to 20 years in prison and a fine for violations. The minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The penalty for sexual activity with a child younger than 14 ranges from nine to 13 years in prison. The government generally enforced the law.

The Attorney General’s Office reported opening 796 investigations related to cases of child pornography and sentenced 24 perpetrators. In September, Liliana Campo Puello, whom authorities charged with running an extensive child trafficking ring for the purposes of sexual exploitation, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Her father, Carlos Enrique Campo Caballero, was also convicted and sentenced to 56 months’ imprisonment. The judge in the case accused Puello of continuing to operate the trafficking ring while imprisoned. In 2018 authorities in Cartagena arrested Puello as part of a three-day operation, during which they arrested 18 persons and charged them with the sexual exploitation of more than 250 women and girls. Prosecutors alleged that some of the women and girls were tattooed and trafficked for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. Media reported authorities conducted several raids to dismantle networks of sexual exploitation of minors in Cartagena and other cities in 2018. In total, 42 persons were captured, and goods valued at 154 billion Colombian pesos ($49 million) were seized. Commercial sexual exploitation of children in mining areas remained widespread.

Displaced Children: The NGO Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement estimated in 2016 that 31 percent of persons registered as displaced since 1985 were minors at the time they were displaced (see also section 2.e.).

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

According to the 2018 national census, approximately 9.3 percent of the country’s population described themselves as being of African descent. A 2011 UN report estimated Afro-Colombians made up 15 to 20 percent of the population, while human rights groups and Afro-Colombian organizations estimated the proportion to be 20 to 25 percent.

Afro-Colombians are entitled to all constitutional rights and protections, but they faced significant economic and social discrimination. According to a 2016 UN report, 32 percent of the country’s population lived below the poverty line, but in Choco, the department with the highest percentage of Afro-Colombian residents, 79 percent of residents lived below the poverty line.

In 2010 the government approved a policy to promote equal opportunity for black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquera, and Raizal populations. (Palenquera populations inhabit some parts of the Caribbean coast, Raizal populations live in the San Andres archipelago, and Blacks and Afro-Colombians are Colombians of African descent who self-identify slightly differently based on their unique linguistic and cultural heritages.) The Ministry of Interior provided technical advice and funding for social projects presented by Afro-Colombian communities.

The National Autonomous Congress of Afro-Colombian Community Councils and Ethnic Organizations for Blacks, Afro-Colombians, Raizals, and Palenqueras, consisting of 108 representatives, met with government representatives on problems that affected their communities.

Indigenous People

The constitution and law give special recognition to the fundamental rights of indigenous persons, who make up approximately 3.4 percent of the population, and require the government to consult beforehand with indigenous groups regarding governmental actions that could affect them.

The law accords indigenous groups perpetual rights to their ancestral lands, but indigenous groups, neighboring landowners, and the government often disputed the demarcation of those lands. Traditional indigenous groups operated 710 reservations, accounting for approximately 28 percent of the country’s territory. Illegal armed groups often violently contested indigenous land ownership and recruited indigenous children to join their ranks.

The law provides for special criminal and civil jurisdictions within indigenous territories based on traditional community laws. Legal proceedings in these jurisdictions were subject to manipulation and often rendered punishments more lenient than those imposed by civilian state courts.

Some indigenous groups continued to assert they were not able to participate adequately in decisions affecting their lands. The constitution provides for a “prior consultation” mechanism for indigenous communities, but it does not require the government to obtain the consent of those communities in all cases. Indigenous communities joined together to hold weeks-long protests known as the “Minga for Defending Life, Territory, Democracy, Justice, and Peace” that closed highways as they called for increased government attention to systemic violence facing indigenous communities.

The government stated that for security reasons, it could not provide advance notice of most military operations, especially when in pursuit of enemy combatants, and added that it consulted with indigenous leaders when possible before entering land held by their communities.

Despite special legal protections and government assistance programs, indigenous persons continued to suffer discrimination and often lived on the margins of society. They belonged to the country’s poorest population and had the highest age-specific mortality rates.

Killings of members and leaders of indigenous groups remained a problem. According to the NGO National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, since the signing of the peace accord, 177 indigenous persons had been killed. For example, on June 23, the press reported the killing of Carlos Biscue, an indigenous leader on the Huellas Indigenous Reservation in Caloto, Cauca. Biscue, an agricultural producer and community organizer, was shot by armed intruders during a party in his honor. On October 29, FARC dissidents allegedly involved in narcotrafficking killed five members of the Nasa indigenous community, including the indigenous reserve governor and spiritual leader, in La Luz village in the semiautonomous municipality of Taceuyo, Cauca. On the following day, the government announced the deployment of 2,500 troops to the area to reinforce security, restore order, and capture those responsible. President Duque also announced plans to accelerate implementation of the Cauca Social Plan, a program to create greater socioeconomic opportunities for the inhabitants of Cauca through interventions in the areas of education, entrepreneurship, infrastructure, and rural development.

Despite precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, ethnic Wayuu children continued to die of malnutrition. The United Nations and the government reported an increase in binational Wayuu families, including children, arriving in Colombia due to deteriorating conditions in Venezuela. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia reported that a series of threats and armed confrontations led to the displacement of indigenous persons from the Jurado municipality. According to the indigenous organization, more than 1,500 Embera Katio, Jumara Carra, Wounaan, and Embera persons had been displaced to Santa Terecita and Dos Bocas.

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