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Colombia

Executive Summary

Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty republic. Presidential and legislative elections were held in 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 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 Colombian National Police 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. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings; reports of torture and arbitrary detention by government security forces and illegal armed groups; rape and abuse of women and children, as well as unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by illegal armed groups; criminalization of libel; widespread corruption; violence against and forced displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; 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 continued to experience long delays.

Illegal armed groups, including dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), 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, restriction on freedom of movement, sexual violence, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and threats of violence against journalists, women, and human rights defenders. The government investigated these actions and prosecuted those responsible to the extent possible.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Center for Research and Education of the Populace (CINEP), from January 1 through August 19, there were 15 cases of “intentional deaths of civilians committed by state agents.”

For example, in June a group of army soldiers allegedly killed rural community leader Salvador Jaime Duran in the department of Norte de Santander. A local community association responded by detaining six army soldiers whom they identified as responsible for the killing, ultimately turning the soldiers over to the Attorney General’s Office. According to press reports, army officials said they were in the area conducting security and defense operations when they were attacked. The investigation into the killing continued as of the end of August.

On September 8, police officers allegedly killed civilian Javier Humberto Ordonez Bermudez in Bogota. According to press reports, Ordonez was drinking publicly in violation of COVID-19 restrictions and officers told him he would be fined for public intoxication. A video of the incident shows police officers using taser shocks and beating Ordonez to restrain him. Ordonez later died in the hospital, and an autopsy revealed the beating was the cause of death. President Duque, the minister of defense, and other government officials condemned the killing, and authorities arrested the two police officers allegedly responsible. The inspector general banned the two officers from public service for 20 years. The attorney general appointed a special human rights prosecutor to lead the investigation into the killing. Ordonez’ killing sparked widespread demonstrations.

Illegal armed groups, including the ELN, committed numerous unlawful or politically motivated killings, often in areas without a strong government presence (see section 1.g.).

Investigations of past killings proceeded, albeit slowly. From January 1 through August, the Attorney General’s Office registered 25 new cases of alleged aggravated homicide by state agents for killings that occurred between 2008 and August 2020. During the same period, authorities formally charged six members of the security forces with aggravated homicide or homicide of a civilian, with all six of those crimes occurring in previous years.

Efforts continued to hold officials accountable in “false positive” extrajudicial killings, in which thousands of civilians were killed and falsely presented as guerrilla combatants in the late 1990s to early 2000s. As of June the Attorney General’s Office reported the government had convicted 1,740 members of the security forces in 270 cases related to false positive cases since 2008.

The Attorney General’s Office reported there were open investigations of 14 retired and active-duty generals related to false positive killings as of August. The Attorney General’s Office also reported there were 2,286 open investigations related to false positive killings or other extrajudicial killings as of July 31.

In addition the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the justice component of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Nonrepetition provided for in the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law. This included activities to advance Case 003, focused on extrajudicial killings or “false positives” committed by the First, Second, Fourth, and Seventh Army Divisions. As of August 31, the JEP reported it had received 250 “voluntary versions” in the case from alleged perpetrators recounting their versions of events that occurred during the conflict. Such testimony led investigators to uncover a mass grave of alleged false positive victims in the department of Antioquia. On July 25, retired army general William Henry Torres Escalante admitted his responsibility for false positives before the JEP and apologized to the families of the victims.

In 2019 there were allegations that military orders instructing army commanders to double the results of their missions against guerillas, criminal organizations, and illegal armed groups could heighten the risk of civilian casualties. An independent commission established by President Duque to review the facts regarding these alleged military orders submitted a preliminary report in July 2019 concluding that the orders did not permit, suggest, or result in abuses or criminal conduct, and that the armed forces’ operational rules and doctrine were aligned with human rights and international humanitarian law principles. As of September a final report had not been issued.

Human rights organizations, victims, and government investigators accused some members of government security forces of collaborating with or tolerating the activities of organized-crime gangs, which included some former paramilitary members. According to the Attorney General’s Office, between January and September, nine members of government security forces were formally accused of having ties with illegal armed groups.

According to a February 26 report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), there were 108 verified killings of social leaders and human rights defenders in 2019. According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the cases of more than 400 killings of human rights defenders from January 2016 to August 2020, the government had obtained 60 convictions. According to the OHCHR, 75 percent of the 2019 social leader killings occurred in rural areas, and 98 percent occurred in areas where the ELN and other criminal groups were present. The motives for the killings varied, and it was often difficult to determine the primary or precise motive in individual cases. For example, on March 19, armed men reportedly kidnapped and killed crop substitution activist Marco Rivadeneira in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. On April 10, authorities arrested Abel Antonio Loaiza Quinonez, alias “Azul,” in Puerto Asis. According to officials in the Attorney General’s Office, Azul was a senior member of an illegal armed group linked to several killings in the region, possibly including the killing of Rivadeneira.

The Commission of the Timely Action Plan for Prevention and Protection for Human Rights Defenders, Social and Communal Leaders, and Journalists, created in 2018, strengthened efforts to investigate and prevent attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders. The Inspector General’s Office and the human rights ombudsman continued to raise awareness on the situation of human rights defenders through the public “Lead Life” campaign, in partnership with civil society, media, and international organizations. Additionally, there is an elite corps of the National Police, a specialized subdirectorate of the National Protection Unit (NPU), a special investigation unit of the Attorney General’s Office responsible for dismantling criminal organizations and enterprises, and a unified command post, which shared responsibility for protecting human rights defenders from attacks and investigating and prosecuting these cases.

By law the Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP (see section 1.c. for additional information regarding investigations and impunity).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities during the year. According to the National Institute of Forensic and Legal Medicine, from January 1 through June, a total of 2,052 cases of disappearances were registered, including 53 forced disappearances. The government did not provide information on the number of victims of disappearances who were located.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, as of October there were no convictions in connection with forced disappearances.

The Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons, launched in 2018, continued to investigate disappearances that occurred during the conflict.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the law prohibits such practices, there were reports government officials employed them. CINEP reported that through August, security forces were allegedly involved in six cases of torture, including nine victims. Members of the military and police accused of torture generally were tried in civilian rather than military courts.

The Attorney General’s Office reported it convicted 18 members of the military or police force of torture between January and July 31, all for crimes occurring in previous years. In addition the Attorney General’s Office reported 50 continuing investigations into alleged acts of torture committed by the police or armed forces through July. All but one of the investigations were linked to alleged crimes committed in previous years.

CINEP reported organized-crime gangs and illegal armed groups were responsible for six documented cases of torture through August.

According to NGOs monitoring prison conditions, there were numerous allegations of sexual and physical violence committed by guards and other inmates. In June seven members of the army were charged with raping a 12-year-old indigenous girl in the department of Risaralda. The Attorney General’s Office was investigating the incident and prosecuting the accused persons. According to one NGO, police officers allegedly sexually assaulted three women who were protesting police violence in September.

The Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP. The JEP continued investigations in its seven prioritized macro cases with the objective of identifying patterns and establishing links between perpetrators, with the ultimate goal of identifying those most criminally responsible for the most serious abuses during the conflict.

Some NGOs complained that military investigators, not members of the Attorney General’s Office, were sometimes the first responders in cases of deaths resulting from actions of security forces and might make decisions about possible illegal actions. The government made improvements in investigating and trying cases of abuses, but claims of impunity for security force members continued. This was due in some cases to obstruction of justice and opacity in the process by which cases were investigated and prosecuted in the military justice system. Inadequate protection of witnesses and investigators, delay tactics by defense attorneys, the judiciary’s failure to exert appropriate controls over dockets and case progress, and inadequate coordination among government entities that sometimes allowed statutes of limitations to expire–resulting in a defendant’s release from jail before trial–were also significant obstacles.

The military justice system functioned under both the old inquisitorial and a newer accusatory justice system, which was not yet fully implemented. Transition to the new system continued slowly, and the military had not yet developed an interinstitutional strategy for recruiting, hiring, or training investigators, crime scene technicians, or forensic specialists, which is required under the accusatory system. As such, the military justice system did not exercise criminal investigative authority; all new criminal investigation duties were conducted by judicial police investigators from the CNP and the Attorney General’s Corps of Technical Investigators.

Property Restitution

The 2011 Victims’ and Land Restitution Law (Victims’ Law) continued to provide a legal basis for assistance and reparations to victims of the conflict, including victims of government abuses, but the government acknowledged that the pace of restitution was slow. From January through August 31, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent and autonomous public institution, assisted in 171 cases related to land reclamation, i.e., requests for restitution.

The Land Restitution Unit, a semiautonomous entity in the Ministry of Agriculture, is responsible for returning land to displaced victims of conflict. The unit reported that as of July 31, it had received 571 requests for collective restitution of territories of ethnic communities.

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 471 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 July the NPU’s protection program provided protection to more than 7,000 individuals. Among the NPU’s protected persons were 5,144 human rights activists.

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

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. NGOs and the OHCHR reported that Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities continued to be disproportionately affected by illicit economic activities in rural territories that lacked sufficient state presence.

The government continued 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 law gives special recognition to the fundamental rights of indigenous persons, who make up approximately 4.4 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 842 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. In October indigenous communities convened in several cities to hold a protest known as a minga to draw attention to violence in rural territories and to press for increased government attention to the 2016 peace accord implementation.

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, 274 indigenous persons had been killed. The OHCHR’s February report noted particular concern for the safety of indigenous communities, particularly in the department of Cauca, where the OHCHR registered the killing of 66 members of the indigenous Nasa people. In July soldiers from the army’s Second Division allegedly killed indigenous leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar during a military operation targeting the ELN.

Despite precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, ethnic Wayuu children continued to die of malnutrition. According to a 2015 government survey, 77 percent of indigenous households in the department of La Guajira, where the largest number of Wayuu lived, were food insecure. An August Human Rights Watch report stated that the travel restrictions associated with the government’s COVID-19 national quarantine severely limited the Wayuu’s access to food.

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