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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.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Authorities must bring detained persons before a judge within 36 hours to determine the validity of the detention, bring formal charges within 30 days, and start a trial within 90 days of the initial detention. Public defenders contracted by the Office of the Ombudsman assisted indigent defendants but were overloaded with cases. Detainees received prompt access to legal counsel and family members as provided for by law. Bail was generally available except for serious crimes such as murder, rebellion, or narcotics trafficking. Authorities generally respected these rights.

Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, this requirement was not always respected. NGOs characterized some arrests as arbitrary detention, including arrests allegedly based on tips from informants about persons linked to guerrilla activities, detentions by members of the security forces without a judicial order, detentions based on administrative authority, detentions during military operations or at roadblocks, large-scale detentions, and detentions of persons while they were “exercising their fundamental rights.” For example, NGOs alleged that on May 20, members of the army’s Seventh Division arbitrarily detained and searched crop substitution leader Ariolfo Sanchez Ruiz along with a group of rural farmers in the department of Antioquia. According to media reports, army soldiers killed Sanchez. Army officials stated that soldiers were in the area to eradicate illicit crops and that the killing was under investigation.

Pretrial Detention: The judicial process moved slowly, and the civilian judicial system suffered from a significant backlog of cases, which led to large numbers of pretrial detainees. Of the 106,700 prison detainees, 29,450 were in pretrial detention. The failure of many jail supervisors to keep mandatory detention records or follow notification procedures made accounting for all detainees difficult. In some cases detainees were released without a trial because they had already served more than one-third of the maximum sentence for their charges.

Civil society groups complained that authorities subjected some community leaders to extended pretrial detention.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government declared that it did not hold political prisoners; nevertheless, authorities held some members of human rights advocacy groups on charges of conspiracy, rebellion, or terrorism, which the groups described as government harassment against human rights advocates. According to INPEC, the government held 66 persons on charges of rebellion or of aiding and promoting insurgency. The government provided the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regular access to these prisoners.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens may sue a government agent or entity in the Administrative Court of Litigation for damages resulting from a human rights violation. Although critics complained of delays in the process, the court generally was considered impartial and effective. Cases involving violations of an individual’s human rights may be submitted through petitions by individuals or organizations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in turn may submit the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court may order civil remedies, including fair compensation to the individual injured.

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 14, there were 98 threats against journalists, some involving more than one target, for a total of 126 journalists affected by threats. FLIP reported 304 incidents of violence or harassment, including 80 journalists who were physically assaulted. According to FLIP, one journalist, Jose Abelardo Liz, was killed in connection with his work. Liz, an indigenous radio journalist, worked for a radio station in Corinto, Cauca. FLIP also reported that between January and August, no journalists were illegally detained. The Attorney General’s Office reported that from January through August, they obtained seven convictions in cases of homicides of journalists.

As of July 31, the NPU provided protection services to 182 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. In May media reported that members of the intelligence community inappropriately followed, monitored, and profiled 52 journalists.

Libel/Slander Laws: By law slander and libel are crimes. 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 that through August 22, there were 88 cases alleging libel or slander affecting 98 journalists.

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, media reported that eight journalists in the department of Magdalena received death threats from the ELN in August.

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 a salvoconducto (safe passage document) to travel throughout the country. Illegal armed groups continued to establish checkpoints on rural roads and took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to establish their own curfews and movement restrictions in an effort to expand their territorial control.

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, by the end of September, 61,000 persons lived in communities that suffered from confinement, limiting 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 Marquez, defeated the candidate of Humane Colombia, Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego. The then minister of defense, Luis Carlos Villegas Echeverri, 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 2016 peace accord took place in October 2019 and were largely peaceful and the most inclusive in the country’s history. Observers reported some indications of electoral fraud, including vote buying.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Organized-crime gangs, FARC dissidents, and the ELN threatened and killed government officials (see section 1.g.). As of June 31, the NPU, under the Ministry of Interior, was providing protection to 421 mayors, 20 governors, and 787 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 2016 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 Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.

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. Revenues from transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking, exacerbated corruption.

Corruption: Through September the Attorney General’s Office registered 30,724 allegations related to corruption and registered 4,070 formal corruption charges. In April the comptroller general, the attorney general, and the inspector general established a unit to monitor funds allocated as part of the COVID-19 response, following allegations of corruption. The Attorney General’s Office announced investigations into more than 40 public officials, including the minister of agriculture, governors, and mayors, for corruption related to the administration of contracts for COVID-19 emergency support.

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.

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