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. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture and arbitrary detention by government security forces and armed groups; rape and abuse of women and children, as well as unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by armed groups; criminalization of libel; widespread government corruption; violence against and forced displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; killings and other violence against trade unionists; and child labor.
The government generally took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, although some cases continued to experience long delays. The government generally implemented effectively laws criminalizing official corruption. The government was implementing police reforms focused on enhancing community-police relations, accountability, and human rights.
Armed groups, including dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, National Liberation Army, and drug-trafficking gangs, continued to operate. 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
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 26, there were 28 cases of “intentional deaths of civilians committed by state agents.”
According to government and NGO reports, police officers killed multiple civilians during nationwide protests that began on April 28. The NGO Human Rights Watch collected information linking 25 civilian deaths during the protests to police, including 18 deaths committed with live ammunition. For example, according to Human Rights Watch and press reports, protester Nicolas Guerrero died from a gunshot wound to the head on May 3 in Cali. Witness accounts indicated a police shooter may have been responsible for Guerrero’s death. As of July 15, the Attorney General’s Office opened investigations into 28 members of the police for alleged homicides committed during the protests, and two police officers were formally charged with homicide. Police authorities and the Attorney General’s Office opened investigations into all allegations of police violence and excessive use of force.
Armed groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), committed numerous unlawful killings, in some cases politically motivated, usually in areas without a strong government presence (see section 1.g.).
Investigations of past killings proceeded, albeit slowly due to COVID-19 pandemic and the national quarantine. From January 1 through July 31, the Attorney General’s Office registered six new cases of alleged aggravated homicide by state agents. During the same period, authorities formally charged four members of the security forces with aggravated homicide or homicide of a civilian.
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 1,437 members of the security forces in cases related to false positive cases since 2008. Many of those convicted in the ordinary and military justice systems were granted conditional release from prisons and military detention centers upon transfer of their cases to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). The military justice system developed a protocol to monitor the whereabouts of prisoners granted conditional release and was responsible for reporting any anomalies to the JEP’s Definition of Juridical Situation Chamber to take appropriate action.
The Attorney General’s Office reported there were open investigations of five retired and active-duty generals related to false positive killings as of July 31. The Attorney General’s Office also reported there were 2,535 open investigations related to false positive killings or other extrajudicial killings as of July 31.
In addition the JEP, the justice component of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Nonrepetition provided for in the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (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” largely committed by the First, Second, Fourth, and Seventh Army Divisions. In a February 18 ruling, the JEP concluded that, from 2002 to 2008, the army killed at least 6,402 civilians and falsely presented them as enemy combatants in a “systematic crime” to claim rewards in exchange for increased numbers of for combat “enemy” casualties. Several former soldiers and army officers, including colonels and lieutenant colonels convicted in the ordinary justice system, admitted at the JEP to additional killings that had not previously been investigated nor identified as false positives.
On July 6, the JEP issued charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes against a retired brigadier general, nine other army officers, and one civilian in a case concerning the alleged extrajudicial killing and disappearance of at least 120 civilians in Norte de Santander in 2007 and 2008. The killings were allegedly perpetrated by members of Brigade 30, Mobile Brigade 15, and Infantry Battalion 15 “General Francisco de Paula Santander.” On July 15, the JEP issued a second set of war crimes and crimes against humanity indictments against 15 members of the Artillery Battalion 2 “La Popa” for killings and disappearances that took place in the Caribbean Coast region between 2002 and 2005.
In 2019 there were allegations that military orders instructing army commanders to double the results of their missions against guerillas, criminal organizations, and 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 July 31, 15 police officials were formally accused of having ties with armed groups.
According to a February 22 report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 133 human rights defenders were killed in 2020, but the OHCHR was only able to document 53 of those cases, due to COVID-19 pandemic-related movement restrictions. According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the cases of more than 400 killings of human rights defenders from January 2016 to August 2021, the government had obtained 76 convictions. According to the OHCHR, 77 percent of the 2020 human rights defender killings occurred in rural areas, and 96 percent occurred in areas where illicit economies flourished. The motives for the killings varied, and it was often difficult to determine the primary or precise motive in individual cases. For example, on August 21, two armed men entered the motorcycle shop of Eliecer Sanchez Caceres in Cucuta and shot him multiple times, killing him. Sanchez was the vice president of a community action board and had previously complained to authorities about receiving threats from armed groups. Police officials immediately opened an investigation into the killing, which was underway as of October 31.
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 regarding human rights defenders through the Lead Life campaign, in partnership with civil society, media, and international organizations. Additionally, there was an elite Colombian National Police (CNP) corps, 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, except for conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP (see section 1.c. for additional information regarding investigations and impunity).
According to the Attorney General’s Office, there were six formal complaints of forced disappearance from January 1 through July. As of December 2020, the National Institute of Forensic and Legal Medicine registered 32,027 cases of forced disappearance since the beginning of the country’s armed conflict. Of those, 923 persons were found alive and 1,975 confirmed dead. According to the Attorney General’s Office, as of July 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 19 cases of torture, including 40 victims. Members of the military and police accused of torture generally were tried in civilian rather than military courts. NGOs including Human Rights Watch reported that police beat and sexually assaulted demonstrators during the nationwide April-June protests. Human Rights Watch documented 17 cases of beatings, including one that resulted in death. The human rights Ombudsman’s Office and multiple NGOs reported at least 14 cases of alleged sexual assault by police officers during the protests. Police launched internal investigations of all allegations of excessive use of force.
The Attorney General’s Office reported it convicted six members of the military or police force of torture between January and July 31. In addition the Attorney General’s Office reported 50 continuing investigations into alleged acts of torture committed by police or the armed forces through July.
CINEP reported organized-crime gangs and armed groups were responsible for four documented cases of torture including seven victims through August. CINEP reported another 19 cases of torture in which it was unable to identify the alleged perpetrators. According to government and NGO reports, protesters kidnapped 12 police officials during the nationwide protests, torturing some.
According to NGOs monitoring prison conditions, there were numerous allegations of sexual and physical violence committed by guards and other inmates.
The Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, except for 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 goal of identifying those most 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.
President Duque signed three decrees in March to modernize the military justice system. The decrees transfer the court system from the Ministry of Defense to a separate jurisdiction with independent investigators, prosecutors, and magistrates. This was a step toward transitioning the military justice system from the old inquisitorial to a newer accusatory justice system. Transition to the new system continued slowly, and the military had not 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.
In June, President Duque announced police reform plans focused on enhancing community-police relations, accountability, and human rights. Since the announcement, the CNP established a human rights directorate that responds directly to the director general of police and hired a civilian to oversee it. In partnership with a local university, the CNP also developed a human rights certification course for the entire police force and began training 100 trainers to replicate this 200-hour academic and practical course throughout the country. The CNP also enhanced police uniforms with clear and visible identifiable information to help citizens identify police officers who utilize excessive force or violate human rights protocols.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Apart from some new facilities, prisons and detention centers were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, poor health care, and lack of other basic services. Poor training of officials remained a problem throughout the prison system.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding existed in men’s and in women’s prisons. The National Prison Institute (INPEC), which operated the national prisons and oversaw the jails, estimated there were 99,196 persons incarcerated in 132 prisons at a rate of approximately 17 percent over capacity. The government made efforts to decrease the prison population in the context of COVID-19.
The law prohibits holding pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, although this frequently occurred. Juvenile detainees were held in separate juvenile detention centers. The Superior Judiciary Council stated the maximum time a person may remain in judicial detention facilities is three days. The same rules apply to jails located inside police stations. These regulations were often violated.
The practice of preventive detention, in combination with inefficiencies in the judicial system, continued to result in overcrowding. The government continued to implement procedures introduced in 2016 that provide for the immediate release of some pretrial detainees, including many accused of serious crimes such as aggravated robbery and sexual assault.
Physical abuse by prison guards, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and authorities’ failure to maintain control were problems. INPEC’s office of disciplinary control continued to investigate allegations that some prison guards routinely used excessive force and treated inmates brutally. As of July 31, INPEC reported 14 disciplinary investigations against prison guards for such actions as physical abuse and personal injuries. The Inspector General’s Office reported 46 disciplinary investigations of INPEC officials from January through August 5.
INPEC reported 159 deaths in prisons, jails, pretrial detention, or other detention centers through July 31, including four attributed to internal fights.
Many prisoners continued to face difficulties receiving adequate medical care. Nutrition and water quality were deficient and contributed to the overall poor health of many inmates. Inmates stated authorities routinely rationed water in many facilities, which officials attributed to city water shortages.
INPEC’s physical structures were generally in poor repair. The Inspector General’s Office noted some facilities had poor ventilation and overtaxed sanitary systems. Prisoners in some high-altitude facilities complained of inadequate blankets and clothing, while prisoners in tropical facilities complained that overcrowding and insufficient ventilation contributed to high temperatures in prison cells. Some prisoners slept on floors without mattresses, while others shared cots in overcrowded cells.
Administration: Authorities investigated credible prisoner complaints of mistreatment and inhuman conditions, including complaints of prison guards soliciting bribes from inmates, but some prisoners asserted the investigations were slow.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local and international human rights groups. INPEC required a three-day notice before granting consular access. Some NGOs complained that authorities, without adequate explanation, denied them access to visit prisoners.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were allegations, however, that authorities detained citizens arbitrarily. CINEP reported 85 cases of arbitrary detention involving 394 victims committed by state security forces through August 1. Other NGOs provided higher estimates of arbitrary detention, reporting more than 2,000 cases of arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, or illegal deprivations of liberty committed in the context of the national protests.
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.” Multiple NGOs alleged that police abused a temporary protection mechanism during the national protests to detain protesters arbitrarily. For example, NGOs and press reported that police in Cali arbitrarily detained protester Sebastian Mejia Belalcazar on May 28 for more than 24 hours. Mejia alleged police beat and threatened him before releasing him. According to NGOs, there was no official record of the arrest.
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 99,196 prison detainees, 26,651 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 authorities subjected some community leaders to extended pretrial detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Much of the judicial system was overburdened and inefficient, and subornation, corruption, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses hindered judicial functioning.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. While the government began implementing an accusatory system of justice in 2005, the use of delay tactics by defense lawyers to slow or impede proceedings, prosecutors’ heavy caseloads, and other factors, diminished the anticipated increased efficiencies and other benefits of adopting the adversarial model. Under the criminal procedure code, the prosecutor presents an accusation and evidence before an impartial judge at an oral, public trial. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and have the right to confront the trial evidence and witnesses against them, present their own evidence, and communicate with an attorney of their choice or have one provided at public expense. Defendants had adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right to appeal their proceedings. Although defendants have the right to an interpreter, the court system lacked interpreters for less commonly encountered languages. Crimes committed before 2005 are processed under the prior written inquisitorial system in which the prosecutor investigates, determines evidence, and makes a finding of guilt or innocence. In those cases the trial consists of the presentation of evidence and finding of guilt or innocence to a judge for ratification or rejection.
In the military justice system, military judges preside over courts-martial. Counsel may represent the accused and call witnesses, but most fact finding takes place during the investigative stage. Military trial judges are required to issue rulings within eight days of a court-martial hearing. Representatives of the civilian Inspector General’s Office are required to be present at a court-martial.
Criminal procedure within the military justice system includes elements of the inquisitorial and accusatory systems. The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty and have the right to timely consultation with counsel.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government declared 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 107 persons on charges of rebellion or of aiding and promoting insurgency and had convicted 34. The government provided the International Committee of the Red Cross 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.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The 2011 Victims’ and Land Restitution 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 July, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent and autonomous public institution, assisted in 1,425 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 15, it had received 1,845 requests, 68 of them for collective restitution of territories of ethnic communities. From January through July 15, courts issued 212 rulings ordering restitution of 229 land titles.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, but there were allegations the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Government authorities generally need a judicial order to intercept mail or email or to monitor telephone conversations, including in prisons. Government intelligence agencies investigating terrorist organizations sometimes monitored telephone conversations without judicial authorization; the law bars evidence obtained in this manner from being used in court.
NGOs continued to accuse domestic intelligence or security entities of spying on lawyers and human rights defenders.
The Attorney General’s Office reported that as of July 31, there were no active criminal investigations underway in connection with illegal communications monitoring. The Inspector General’s Office reported that as of August 5, there were 40 disciplinary investigations against 38 state agents in connection with illegal surveillance and illegal monitoring of communications.
g. Conflict-related Abuses
The government and the FARC, formerly the country’s largest guerrilla insurgency group, continued to implement the 2016 peace accord. In 2017 the FARC completed its disarmament, and as of July nearly 13,000 former members were engaged in reincorporation activities, including the formation of a political party. An estimated 800 to 1,500 FARC dissident members did not participate in the peace process from the outset. As of October, NGOs estimated FARC dissident numbers had grown to approximately 5,200 due to new recruitment and some former combatants who returned to arms. A significant percentage of FARC dissidents were unarmed members of support networks that facilitated illicit economies. Some members of the FARC who participated in the peace process alleged the government had not fully complied with its commitments, including ensuring the security of demobilized former combatants or facilitating their reintegration, while the government alleged the FARC had not met its full commitments to cooperate on counternarcotics efforts and other peace accord commitments. Following the signing of the 2016 peace accord, three transitional justice mechanisms were established and were operational throughout the year: the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Nonrepetition; the Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons; and the JEP.
The ELN, a leftist guerilla force that NGOs estimated at 2,400 members, continued to commit crimes and acts of terror throughout the country, including bombings, violence against civilian populations, and violent attacks against military and police facilities. Armed groups and drug gangs, such as the Gulf Clan, also continued to operate. For example, on June 15, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated at a military base housing the army’s 30th brigade in Cucuta, Norte de Santander. At least 44 persons were injured in the explosion, including military officials. President Duque’s helicopter was hit with gunfire in the same region on June 25. The Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of 10 alleged members of a FARC dissident group in connection with both attacks. On August 30, an improvised explosive device detonated at a police station in Cucuta, injuring at least 13 persons. The ELN took credit for the attack. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group and other NGOs considered some of these armed groups to be composed of former paramilitary groups. The government acknowledged that some former paramilitary members were active in armed groups but noted these illegal groups lacked the national, unified command structure and explicit ideological agenda that defined past paramilitary groups, including the disbanded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Killings: The military was accused of some killings, some of which military officials stated were “military mistakes” (see section 1.a.). In other cases military officials stated they believed an individual was fighting on behalf of an armed group, while community members stated the victim was not a combatant. On March 2, the army bombed a FARC dissident site in Guaviare and reported killing 13 FARC dissidents. According to press reports, some of those killed may have been children. Officials acknowledged minors were present at the site, describing them as young combatants recruited by the FARC dissident group, and claimed the attack on the site fell within the bounds of international law.
Armed groups, notably the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the Gulf Clan, committed unlawful killings, primarily in areas with illicit economic activities and without a strong government presence. The government reported that between January and July 28, there were 109 killings of state security force members, including 53 police officers, allegedly committed by armed groups. Government officials assessed that most of the violence was related to narcotics trafficking enterprises.
Independent observers raised concerns that inadequate security guarantees facilitated the killing of former FARC militants. According to the UN Verification Mission, as of September 24, a total of 291 FARC former combatants had been killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accord. The Attorney General’s Office reported 34 homicide cases with convictions, 37 in the trial stage, 17 under investigation, and 42 with pending arrest warrants. The United Nations also reported the government began to implement additional steps to strengthen security guarantees for former FARC combatants, including deploying additional judicial police officers and attorneys to prioritized departments, promoting initiatives for prevention of stigmatization against former combatants, and establishing a roadmap for the protection of political candidates, including the FARC political party.
Abductions: Organized-crime gangs, FARC dissidents, the ELN, and common criminals continued to kidnap persons. According to the Ministry of Defense, from January 1 to June 30, there were 81 kidnappings, six attributed to the ELN and the remainder attributed to other organized armed groups. On April 18 in Arauca, FARC dissidents kidnapped army lieutenant colonel Pedro Enrique Perez. According to press reports, the FARC dissidents were holding the military officer in Venezuela and released a proof-of-life video in September.
Between January and June, the Ministry of Defense reported five civilians and one member of the military remained in captivity. The Attorney General’s Office reported two convictions as of July 31 for the crime of kidnapping.
The Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons provided for in the peace accord is mandated to account for those who disappeared in the context of the armed conflict and, when possible, locate and return remains to families. According to the Observatory of Memory and Conflict, more than 80,000 persons were reported missing because of the armed conflict, including 1,214 military and police personnel who were kidnapped by the FARC and ELN.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: From January through August, CINEP reported ELN and organized-crime gangs were responsible for four documented cases of serious abuse that included seven victims.
The ELN, FARC dissidents, and other groups continued to lay land mines. According to the High Commissioner for Peace, 10 persons were killed and 104 wounded as the result of improvised explosive devices and land mines between January 1 and September 12.
Child Soldiers: There were reports the ELN, FARC dissident groups, the Gulf Clan, and other armed groups recruited persons younger than age 18. According to the Child and Family Welfare Department, 7,023 children separated from armed groups between November 16, 1999, and June 30. Government and NGO officials confirmed rates of child recruitment increased with the appearance of COVID-19 and related confinement measures. The government continued efforts to combat child recruitment via the Intersectoral Committee for the Prevention of Recruitment and Utilization of Children and the “Join Me” program, which focused on high-risk areas.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Reports of other human rights abuses occurred in the context of the conflict and narcotics trafficking. Drug traffickers and armed groups continued to displace predominantly poor and rural populations (see section 2.e., Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons). Armed groups, particularly in the departments of Cauca, Choco, Cordoba, Narino, and Norte de Santander, forcibly recruited children, including Venezuelan, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian youth, to serve as combatants and informants, harvest illicit crops, and be exploited in sex trafficking.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected this right. NGOs and journalists alleged increased harassment and threats from state officials, including police officers, during coverage of the nationwide protests. 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 September 6, there were 99 threats against journalists, some involving more than one target, for a total of 117 journalists affected by threats. FLIP reported 129 incidents of violence or harassment, affecting 158 journalists. According to multiple NGOs, including Amnesty International, journalists Jose Alberto Tejada and Jhonatan Buitrago began receiving death threats, and Tejada was the subject of a plot to kill him. NGOs alleged the threats against both journalists, which began with the onset of national protests in April, were connected to their coverage of the demonstrations. FLIP also reported that between January and August, 17 journalists were illegally detained. The Attorney General’s Office reported that from January through July, it had obtained no convictions in cases of homicides of journalists but had 21 open investigations involving alleged threats against journalists.
As of June 30, the NPU provided protection services to 187 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 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. 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 September 6, there were five cases of judicial harassment affecting journalists.
Nongovernmental Impact: Members of 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.
The government reported it did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, including during the national protests. Civil society organizations reported interruption of internet and cell service during protests, which government officials attributed to acts of vandalism during the protests. 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, but the government did not always respect these rights. During mostly peaceful nationwide protests that began on April 28, protesters and NGOs alleged that members of the police force used excessive force to curb demonstrations, including killing protesters. Some of the protests were violent, including attacks on police officers, police stations, looting, and burning of government buildings and public transportation. Protesters also erected thousands of roadblocks, impeding the delivery of food, supplies, and emergency services.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. NGOs alleged that police, including riot police, used excessive force to break up demonstrations during nationwide protests. The protests began on April 28, initially in response to a since-canceled tax reform, but also as a continuation of a protest movement that began in November 2019, which then stalled with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and a six-month national quarantine. Protests occurred in more than 860 of the country’s 1,103 municipalities and were mostly peaceful, with most violence occurring in the southwestern city of Cali. Human Rights Watch collected information, with support from the Attorney General’s Office, linking 25 civilian deaths during the protests to police, including 18 deaths committed with live ammunition. The NGO Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz (INDEPAZ) reported as many as 80 deaths occurring in the context of the protests. The Attorney General’s Office reported 57 deaths during the protests, with 29 of those deaths related to the demonstrations. The Ministry of Defense reported three police officers killed during the protests. The Ministry of Defense also reported 1,140 civilians and 1,738 police officers injured, although NGOs reported civilians often did not report their injuries for fear of retaliation. While most protests were peaceful, demonstrators committed acts of violence, including looting hundreds of commercial buildings, burning police stations, and attacking and largely disrupting the public transportation system in Cali. On May 28, President Duque deployed the military to the regions most affected by violence. The military largely worked to dismantle more than 3,000 roadblocks erected by protesters.
The Attorney General’s Office reported that from April 28 through July 15, there were 312 investigations of police for illegal use of force during the protests. As of July 15, 28 members of the police were under active investigation for alleged homicide in the context of the protests. The Inspector General’s Office reported 312 disciplinary investigations of police for misconduct during the protests.
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 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 armed groups, was against the law.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
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. Armed groups continued to establish checkpoints on rural roads to establish their own curfews and movement restrictions to expand their territorial control.
International and civil society organizations also reported that 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 (OCHA), by September, 40,000 persons lived in communities that suffered from confinement, limiting their access to essential goods and services due to armed incidents and geographical factors.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
There were approximately eight million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country, largely a result of the armed conflict and continuing violence in rural areas. Threats posed by armed groups drove internal displacement in remote areas as well as urban settings. After the 2016 peace accord, FARC withdrawal resulted in a struggle for control by other armed groups, causing violence and internal displacement. The government, international organizations, and civil society groups identified various factors causing displacement, including threats, extortion, and physical, psychological, and sexual violence by armed groups against civilian populations, particularly women and girls. Other causes of displacement included competition and armed confrontation among and within armed groups for resources and territorial control; confrontations between security forces, guerrillas, and organized-crime gangs; and forced recruitment of children or threats of forced recruitment. Drug trafficking, illegal mining, and large-scale commercial ventures in rural areas also contributed to displacement. Local institutions often lacked the capacity in many areas to protect the rights of, and provide public services to, IDPs and communities at risk of displacement. Consequently, the government continued to struggle to provide adequate protection or humanitarian assistance to newly displaced populations.
OCHA reported that 25,366 persons were affected in 94 displacement events in 2020 and that 48,597 persons were affected in 98 displacement events between January and July. Departments with the highest rate of mass displacements included Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, Narino, and Norte de Santander.
The Victims’ Unit maintained the Single Victims Registry as mandated by law. Despite improvements in the government registration system, IDPs experienced delays in receiving responses to their displacement claims due to a large backlog of claims built up during several months, lack of the unit’s presence in rural areas, and other constraints. Government policy provides for an appeals process in the case of refusals.
The ELN and other armed groups continued to use force, intimidation, and disinformation to discourage IDPs from registering with the government. International organizations and civil society expressed concern regarding urban displacement caused by violence stemming from territorial disputes between criminal gangs, some of which had links to larger criminal and narcotics trafficking groups.
The Victims’ Unit cited extortion, forced recruitment by armed groups, killings, and physical and sexual violence as the primary causes of intraurban displacement. The Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that displacement disproportionately affected indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups.
As of June the government registered 483,260 IDPs who identified as indigenous, and 1,127,913 who identified as Afro-Colombian. Indigenous persons constituted approximately 6 percent and Afro-Colombians approximately 14 percent of new IDPs registered by the government.
The NGO National Association of Displaced Afrodescendants (AFRODES) stated that threats and violence against Afro-Colombian leaders and communities continued to cause high levels of forced displacement, especially in the Pacific Coast region. AFRODES and other local NGOs expressed concern that large-scale economic projects, such as agriculture and mining, contributed to displacement in their communities.
By law, 52 government agencies are responsible for assisting registered IDPs. In addition dozens of international organizations; international NGOs; domestic nonprofit groups; and multilateral organizations, including the International Organization for Migration, World Food Program, International Committee of the Red Cross, UNHCR, and Colombian Red Cross, coordinated with the government to provide emergency relief and long-term assistance to displaced populations.
International organizations and NGOs remained concerned regarding the slow and insufficient institutional response to displacement. As a result, NGOs took responsibility for providing humanitarian assistance to recently displaced individuals. International organizations and civil society reported that a lack of local capacity to accept registrations in high-displacement areas often delayed assistance to persons displaced individually or in smaller groups. Humanitarian organizations attributed the delays to a variety of factors, including the lack of personnel, funding, declaration forms, and training. Insecurity in communities affected by the conflict, including areas in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, Narino, and Norte de Santander, often delayed national and international aid organizations from reaching newly displaced populations.
Despite several government initiatives to enhance IDP access to services and awareness of their rights, municipalities in many parts of the country did not have the resources or capacity to respond to new displacements and provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Many IDPs continued to live in poverty in unhygienic conditions and with limited access to health care, education, shelter, and employment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some humanitarian organizations increased health promotion education and the distribution of hygiene supplies.
The government estimated that 400,000 to 500,000 Colombians, many of whom had been displaced by the conflict in Colombia and registered as refugees in Venezuela, prior to the signing of the 2016 peace accord, had returned from Venezuela as of August.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Of the approximately 37,000 applications received, the government reported it had approved 753 requests for recognition of refugee status from January 2017 through June. Venezuelans represented approximately 95 percent of applications during the year.
According to migration officials, as of August the country hosted more than 1.7 million Venezuelans. While the government generally provided access to the asylum process for persons who requested international protection, many opted for alternative migration status. The government continued to grant Colombian citizenship to Venezuelan children born in Colombia on or after August 19, 2015, and by August approximately 46,000 children born to Venezuelan parents in Colombia had received citizenship.
Temporary Protection: On February 8, the government announced the granting of a 10-year Temporary Protective Status (TPS) providing an immediate pathway to legal residence for nearly one million Venezuelans and extending legal protections to all 1.7 million Venezuelans in Colombia. TPS allows authorities to identify irregular Venezuelans in a biometric registry; grant Venezuelans formal access to work, health, and education; and facilitate participation in the national COVID-19 vaccination plan. As of October the government had preregistered nearly 1.4 million Venezuelans in TPS.
According to UNHCR, there were more than nine million persons of concern (including refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, returned IDPs, returned refugees, stateless persons, and others of concern) residing in the country in 2018, compared with 7.7 million in 2017.
According to Colombia Migration, the national border control agency, in 2020 there were nearly 4,000 cases of irregular migrants, mostly Haitians, transiting Colombia en route to Central and North American countries. By August approximately 71,000 migrants had crossed from Colombia to Panama, and a large group of migrants on the northern Colombian coast numbered more than 20,000 persons. The flow consisted of Brazilians of Haitian descent, Chileans, Cubans, Haitians, and Venezuelans, in addition to a small number of migrants from other countries.
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 more than 3,500 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 30, the NPU, under the Ministry of Interior, was providing protection to 255 mayors, 16 governors, and 435 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, now known as the Commons 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. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, particularly at the local level. Revenues from transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking, exacerbated corruption.
Corruption: Through July 31, the Attorney General’s Office registered 8,414 allegations related to corruption and 51 active investigations. In August press reports alleged government contractors embezzled a $17 million advance from the Ministry of Technology and Communications in connection with a project to connect rural schools to the internet. The contractors allegedly failed to comply with the commitments in the contract, and the Inspector General’s Office opened an investigation.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards 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. The Attorney General’s Office reported that as of August 10, it had convicted and sentenced 89 persons for the homicides of human rights defenders.
Through July the Attorney General’s Office reported 961 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 8,000 individuals. Among the protected persons were 4,000 human rights defenders and social leaders.
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 armed groups issued through pamphlets, email, and violent actions.
The National System for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law – led by a commission of 21 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 and Societal Abuses
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 armed groups 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 through July, the Attorney General’s Office opened 63,000 investigations into domestic violence, with women identified as the victim in 50,000 of those investigations.
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 Secretariat 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.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. The law, however, allows the involuntary surgical sterilization of children with cognitive and psychosocial disabilities in certain cases.
Contraception was widely available. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive services and emergency contraception was available for survivors of sexual violence, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.
Discrimination: Although women have the same legal rights as men, discrimination against women persisted. There is no law prohibiting access to credit based on gender. 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.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
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.
The law gives special recognition to the fundamental rights of indigenous persons, who make up approximately 4.4 percent of the population, and requires 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. 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 participated in the April-June nationwide protest 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 continued. According to INDEPAZ, since the signing of the peace accord, 343 indigenous leaders had been killed. In April unidentified armed men kidnapped and killed Governor Sandra Liliana Pena Chocue, an indigenous person. In her role as governor, Pena worked to clear the indigenous reserve of illicit crops.
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. The OHCHR’s February report noted disproportionately high COVID-19 mortality rates among rural indigenous communities that lacked access to health-care facilities.
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 Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) reported that between January and July 31, there were approximately 8,500 cases of sexual abuse of a minor. The ICBF provided psychosocial, legal, and medical care to victims.
Child, 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 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.
On July 30, police dismantled a sex-trafficking ring operating in three cities, arresting five persons. The criminal organization behind the sex-trafficking ring deceived women with false job advertisements to lure them to China for sexual exploitation. Human traffickers recruited vulnerable women and girls in dire economic circumstances, mostly Colombians and displaced Venezuelans, into “webcam modeling.” In some cases traffickers drugged victims using fear and coercion through debt and extortion to force them to perform live-streaming sex acts. Government officials and civil society organizations expressed concern regarding the burgeoning webcam industry and its ties to sex trafficking. According to media reports, the economic fallout from COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an increase in “webcam modeling.”
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.
The Jewish community, with an estimated 5,000 members, continued to report instances of anti-Israeli rhetoric connected to events in the Middle East, accompanied by anti-Semitic graffiti near synagogues, as well as demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy that were sometimes accompanied by anti-Semitic comments on social media. The Colombian Confederation of Jewish Communities expressed concern over the presence of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Colombia, which promotes the boycott of Israeli products and travel.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law punishes those who arbitrarily restrict the full exercise of the rights of persons with disabilities or harass persons with disabilities, but enforcement was rare. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities but does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against persons with sensory or intellectual disabilities. No law mandates access to information and telecommunications for persons with disabilities. Law 1996, adopted in 2019, recognizes that persons with disabilities older than 18 have full legal capacity.
The Office of the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights under the high counselor for postconflict, public security, and human rights, along with the Human Rights Directorate at the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. According to Somos Defensores and other NGOs, the law was seldom enforced.
Although children with disabilities attended school at all levels, advocates noted most teachers and schools were neither trained nor equipped to educate children with disabilities successfully. Advocacy groups also stated children with disabilities entered the education system later than children without disabilities and dropped out at higher rates. Persons with disabilities were unemployed at a much higher rate than the general population.
In 2013 the State Council ordered all public offices to make facilities accessible to persons with disabilities and asked public officials to include requirements for accessibility when granting licenses for construction and occupancy. The State Council also asked every municipality to enforce rules that would make all public offices accessible to persons with disabilities “in a short amount of time.” The government reported progress during the year at both the national and municipal level, including accessibility adaptations at ports, airports, and other mass transport terminals.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
There were confirmed reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS. In its most recent demographic and health survey (2015), the government reported the responses of 78 percent of those surveyed indicated discriminatory attitudes towards persons with HIV and AIDS, reflecting low levels of social acceptance throughout the country.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
There were allegations of police violence based on sexual orientation. There were no reports of official discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, statelessness, or access to education; however, there were reports of discrimination with respect to access to health care. The government’s national action plan guarantees lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) rights for the 2019-22 period. In August 2020 the constitutional court determined that medical insurance companies must bear the costs of gender affirmation and reassignment surgeries.
Despite government measures to increase the rights and protection of LGBTQI+ persons, there were reports of societal abuse and discrimination as well as sexual assault. NGOs claimed transgender individuals, particularly transgender men, were often sexually assaulted in so-called corrective rape. The NGO Colombia Diversa reported between January 1 and August 18, there were 39 homicides of LGBTQI+ persons, including 26 transgender individuals. The primary forms of abuse were physical, sexual, and psychological aggression, in addition to economic discrimination.
The Attorney General’s Office reported investigating 185 killings of LGBTQI+ persons from 2008 through July 31. Most of the victims were transgender women. In June, Luciana Moscoso Moreno, a transgender woman and member of the Trans Community Network, was killed in her apartment after receiving threats and hate messages. As of August the Attorney General’s Office reported five open investigations into excessive use of force by military or police against LGBTQI+ persons.
Transgender individuals cited barriers to public services when health-care providers or police officers refused to accept their government-issued identification. Some transgender individuals stated it was difficult to change their gender designation on national identity documents and that transgender individuals whose identity cards listed them as male were required to show proof they had performed mandatory military service or obtained the necessary waivers from that service.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes, and it prohibits antiunion discrimination. Members of associated workers’ cooperatives are not allowed to form unions, since the law recognizes members of a cooperative as owners. The law prohibits members of the armed forces and police from forming or joining unions. The law provides for automatic recognition of unions that obtain 25 signatures from potential members and that comply with a registration process. Public-sector employees have the right to bargain collectively. The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and collective bargaining in practice.
The law permits associated workers’ cooperatives (CTAs), collective pacts, and union contracts. Under collective pacts employers may negotiate accords on pay and labor conditions with workers in workplaces where no union is present or where a union represents less than one-third of employees. Law and regulations prohibit the use of CTAs and collective pacts to undermine the right to organize and bargain collectively, including by extending better conditions to nonunion workers through such pacts. Through a union contract, a company may contract a union, at times formed explicitly for this purpose, for a specific job or work; the union then in essence serves as an employer for its members. Workers who belong to a union that has a union contract with a company do not have a direct employment relationship with either the company or the union. Labor disputes for workers under a union contract may be decided through an arbitration panel versus labor courts if both parties agree.
The law does not permit members of the armed forces, police, and persons performing “essential public services” to strike. Before conducting a strike, unions must follow prescribed legal procedures, including entering a conversation period with the employer, presenting a list of demands, and gaining majority approval in the union for a strike. The law limits strikes to periods of contract negotiations or collective bargaining and allows employers to fire trade unionists who participate in strikes or work stoppages ruled illegal by the courts.
The government has the authority to fine labor rights violators. The law stipulates that offenders repeatedly misusing CTAs or other labor relationships shall receive the maximum penalty and may be subject to losing their legal status to operate. Employers who engage in antiunion practices may also be imprisoned for up to five years, although government officials acknowledged a fine was more likely than imprisonment. Prohibited practices include impeding workers’ right to strike, meet, or otherwise associate, and extending better conditions to members of collective pacts than to union members. The penalties under the law, which are commensurate with those prescribed for other violations regarding denials of civil rights, such as discrimination, would be sufficient to deter violations but were not levied consistently.
Government enforcement of applicable laws was inconsistent. Despite steps by the Ministry of Labor to strengthen its labor law inspection system, the government did not establish a consistent, robust national strategy to protect the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The government did not fully implement, but continued to pilot test, a new system to replace traditional fine collection to ensure timely and regular collection of fines related to these protections. Structural challenges adversely affected prosecutions, which resulted in a continued high rate of impunity for violators of these rights, including in cases of threats and violence against unionists.
The Ministry of Labor’s Special Investigations Unit, which is part of the labor inspectorate, has the authority to investigate and impose sanctions in any jurisdiction. Under normal circumstances the vice minister of labor relations and inspections decides on a case-by-case basis whether to assign the unit or the regional inspectors to investigate a particular worksite or review a particular case. The unit was reportedly overburdened with cases, resulting in delays in union requests for review.
As part of its commitments under the 2011 labor action plan, the government continued to take steps to protect internationally recognized labor rights. Inspections by the Ministry of Labor for abusive subcontracting in the five priority sectors of palm oil, sugar, ports, mines, and cut flowers were, however, infrequent. Critics claimed inspections lacked necessary rigor, assessed fines were not collected, and abusive subcontracting continued. It was unclear whether there were any new fines assessed for abusive subcontracting or for abuse of freedom of association in any of the five priority sectors. The government continued to engage in regular meetings with unions and civil society groups on these and related issues.
The Ministry of Labor, in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (ILO), continued to train labor inspectors through a virtual training campus to prepare labor inspectors to identify abusive subcontracting and antiunion conduct, among other violations. It also implemented methods, including contract and process maps, as strategic planning tools to prioritize interventions. The ministry continued to employ a telephone- and internet-based complaint mechanism to report alleged labor violations. Union members complained that the systems did not allow citizens to register anonymous complaints and noted that complaints registered through the telephone and internet systems did not result in action.
The Ministry of Labor leads a tripartite Interinstitutional Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights of Workers, with participation by the government, organized labor groups, and the business community. As of July the commission met once during the year in a virtual session.
Judicial police, the Technical Investigation Body, and prosecutors investigating criminal cases of threats and killings are required to determine during the initial phase of an investigation whether a victim is an active or retired union member or is actively engaged in union formation and organization, but it was unclear whether they did so. It could take several months to transfer cases from regional field offices of the Attorney General’s Office to the Attorney General’s Human Rights Directorate, and cases are transferred only with the approval of the attorney general in response to direct requests, instead of automatically.
The government continued to include in its protection program labor activists engaged in efforts to form a union, as well as former unionists under threat because of their past activities. As of July the NPU was providing protection to 290 trade union leaders or members. The NPU reported it did not maintain information on the budget dedicated to unionist protections. Between January 1 and June 30, the NPU processed 174 risk assessments of union leaders or members; 91 of those individuals were assessed as facing an “extraordinary threat,” and the NPU provided them protection measures. The NPU reported that the average time needed to implement protection measures upon completion of a risk analysis was 60 days in regular cases or five days for emergency cases. NGOs complained that this length of time left threatened unionists in jeopardy.
The protection and relocation of teachers falls under the Ministry of National Education and the departmental education secretaries, but the NPU retains some responsibilities for the risk analysis and protection of family members. According to the Attorney General’s Office, through July 31, four teachers were registered as victims of homicide.
In cases of unionist killings from previous years, the pace of investigations and convictions remained slow, and high rates of impunity continued, although progress was made in the rate of case resolution. The Attorney General’s Office reported receiving 232 cases of homicides of unionists between January 2011 and January 2021. The Attorney General’s Office reported advancements in 43 percent of these cases: 65 sentences against defendants had been handed down in 43 cases; 38 cases had reached the trial phase; seven cases had charges filed; and nine cases had warrants for arrest, while 116 cases remained under preliminary investigation. Labor groups stated more needed to be done to address impunity for perpetrators of violence against trade unionists and the large number of threat cases.
The Attorney General’s Office reported the killing of five trade unionists through July. In 2020 the Attorney General’s Office reported 14 trade unionists killed, down from 19 in 2019. The National Union School (ENS), a labor rights NGO and think tank, reported six trade unionists were killed through August. The ENS and other labor groups stated that focusing on killings alone masked the true nature and scope of the violence against labor activists. Labor groups noted that in some regions, nonlethal violations continued to increase. Through August the ENS reported 51 death threats, three nonlethal attacks, two cases of forced displacement, and 25 cases of harassment.
Violence, threats, harassment, and other practices against trade unionists continued to affect the exercise of the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Unions cited multiple instances in which companies fired employees who formed or sought to form new unions. Some employers continued to use temporary contracts, service agencies, and other forms of subcontracting, including cooperatives, to limit worker rights and protections. Fines assessed by the government did little to dissuade violators because fines were often not collected. The government continued to reach formalization agreements with firms engaged in abusive subcontracting or that had labor conflict during the year. Through June 30, the Vice Ministry of Labor Relations and Inspections reported 130 workers benefited from eight formalization agreements that the Ministry of Labor reached with employers in key sectors, including commerce, agriculture, health, and transport. During this time, however, there was only one formalization agreement reached in the labor action plan’s five priority sectors. Labor rights groups expressed concern that previously signed formalization agreements were not sufficiently monitored by the ministry.
Labor confederations and NGOs reported that business owners in several sectors used “simplified stock corporations” (SAS), union contracts, foundations, or temporary-service agencies in attempts to circumvent legal restrictions on cooperatives. While in theory SAS workers may exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively with SAS management, it appeared that in some cases the SAS had little or no control over the conditions of employment. The Ministry of Labor stated that a SAS, like any corporate structure, may be fined for labor violations. Labor confederations and NGOs reported these enforcement actions did not address the scope of abusive subcontracting and illegal labor intermediation in the country.
The port workers’ labor union reported Buenaventura port operators engaged in abusive subcontracting through SAS and that Ministry of Labor inspections and adjudication of cases at the Buenaventura port were ineffective in safeguarding the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government did not effectively enforce the law in all cases, and there were reports that such practices occurred. The law prescribes punishments sufficient to deter violations. The ILO noted the law permits military conscripts to be compelled to undertake work beyond that of a military nature, such as activities designed to protect the environment or natural resources.
There were reports ELN guerrillas, FARC dissidents, and organized-crime gangs used forced labor, including forced child labor, in coca cultivation and illegal mining in areas outside government control as well as forced criminality, such as extortion, in urban areas. The ICBF indicated that between November 16, 1999, and June 30, 2021, a total of 7,023 children and adolescents had demobilized from armed groups, of whom 12 percent were indigenous and 8 percent Afro-Colombian.
Forced labor in other sectors, including organized panhandling, mining, agriculture (especially near the coffee belt), cattle herding, crop harvesting, forced recruitment by armed actors, and domestic service, remained a serious problem. Afro-Colombians, indigenous persons, Venezuelan migrants, and inhabitants of marginalized urban areas were at the highest risk of forced labor, domestic servitude, forced begging, and forced recruitment. Authorities did not make efforts to investigate cases or increase inspections of forced labor. In July the Ministry of Labor and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime published a manual and protocol to help labor inspectors identify and refer possible cases of labor trafficking in the formal economy to judicial authorities for criminal investigation and prosecution. Impunity nevertheless remained for forced labor, and unidentified victims remained without protection in critical sectors, such as floriculture, coffee production, and extractive industries.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law sets the minimum age for employment at 15 and for hazardous work at 18. Children ages 15 and 16 years may work no more than 30 hours per week, and children age 17 may work no more than 40 hours per week. Children younger than 15 may work in arts, sports, or recreational or cultural activities for a maximum of 14 hours per week. In all these cases, working children and adolescents must have signed documentation filed by their parents and be approved by a labor inspector or other local authority.
The law prohibits child workers from working at night or where there is a risk of bodily harm or exposure to excessive heat, cold, or noise. The law authorizes inspectors to issue fines that would be sufficient to deter violations, but the government did not enforce the law effectively in all cases. A violation deemed to endanger a child’s life or threaten moral values may be punished by temporary or permanent closure of the establishment. Nationwide, labor inspectors are responsible for enforcing child labor laws and supervising the formal sector through periodic inspections. An estimated 80 percent of all child labor, however, occurred in the informal sector of the economy. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce the law effectively.
Government agencies carried out several activities to eradicate and prevent exploitative child labor. Through June 30, the Ministry of Labor conducted 86 worksite inspections to ensure that adolescent workers were employed with proper authorization and received proper protections. Through these inspections, 10 authorizations were revoked for noncompliance. During this time the ministry granted 179 permits for adolescent work. With ILO assistance the government continued to improve cooperation among national, regional, and municipal governments on child labor problems. It also updated an information system to register working children that permits public and private entities to provide information. The government also sought to reduce demand for child labor through public awareness and training efforts, often working with international and civil society organizations.
The government, through the Ministry of Labor, followed the National Policy to Prevent and Eliminate Child Labor and Protect the Young Worker. It also continued its roundtable discussion group, which included government representatives, members of the three largest labor confederations, and civil society.
The government, including through a cooperative agreement between the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the ICBF, continued to combat illegal mining and formalize artisanal mining production, with goals including the elimination of child labor and forced labor. Regional ICBF offices led efforts to combat child labor in mining at the local level, working with the Ministry of Labor and other government agencies to coordinate responses. The Department for Social Prosperity continued to implement the More Families in Action Program to combat poverty through conditional cash transfers, which included a specific focus on addressing child labor. In interagency child labor meetings, the Ministry of Labor reported that whichever government presence was available in the area – whether police, the ICBF, teachers, or the Administrative Department for Social Prosperity – attended to children found working in illegal mining operations. While all agencies had directives on how to handle and report child labor cases, it was unclear whether all cases were referred to the ICBF.
The ICBF continued to implement several initiatives aimed at preventing child labor, including producing an extensive section of its website designed specifically for young audiences to educate children on child labor, their rights, and how to report child labor. The Ministry of Labor continued its work with the Network against Child Labor in which the ministry operated alongside member businesses that pledged to work within the network to prevent and eradicate child labor.
Child labor remained a problem in the informal and illicit sectors. The National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) collected and published information on the economic activities of children between the ages of five and 17 through a module in its Comprehensive Household Economic Survey during the fourth quarter of each calendar year. According to DANE’s survey published in April, 4.9 percent of children were working, with 44 percent of those engaged in agriculture, livestock raising, fishing, and hunting, and 32 percent in commerce, hotels, and restaurant work. To a lesser extent, children were engaged in the manufacturing and transport sectors. Children also routinely performed domestic work, where they cared for children, prepared meals, tended gardens, and carried out shopping duties. DANE reported that 45 percent of children who were engaged in an employment relationship did not receive remuneration.
Significant rates of child labor occurred in the production of clay bricks, coal, coffee, emeralds, gold, grapes, coca, pome and stone fruits, pornography, and sugarcane. Forced child labor was prevalent in the production of coca. Children were also engaged in street vending, domestic work, begging, and garbage scavenging. There were reports that children engaged in child labor in agriculture, including coffee production and small family production centers in the unrefined brown sugar market. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children). Penalties for crimes related to the worst forms of child labor were commensurate with penalties in law for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
Prohibitions against children working in mining and construction were reportedly largely ignored. Some educational institutions modify schedules during harvest seasons so that children may help on the family farm. Children worked in the artisanal mining of coal, clay, emeralds, and gold under dangerous conditions and in many instances with the approval or insistence of their parents. The government’s efforts to assist children working in illegal mining focused on the departments of Amazonas, Antioquia, Bolivar, Boyaca, Caldas, Cauca, Cesar, Choco, Cordoba, Cundinamarca, La Guajira, Narino, Norte de Santander, and Valle del Cauca.
There continued to be instances of child trafficking with the purpose of forced labor in informal mines and quarries, and in private homes. According to government officials and international organizations, illegal drug traders and other illicit actors recruited children, sometimes forcibly, to work in their illegal activities. The ELN and organized crime gangs forced children into sexual servitude or criminality to serve as combatants or to harvest coca (see section 1.g.). Children working in the informal sector, including as street vendors, were also vulnerable to forced labor. The ICBF identified children and adolescents who qualified for and received social services.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment or occupation based on race, ethnicity, sex, religion, political preference, national origin or citizenship, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or infection with other communicable diseases, or social status. Complaints of quid pro quo sexual harassment are filed not with the Ministry of Labor but with the criminal courts. There are legal restrictions against women being in employed in the construction sector. The government did not effectively enforce the law in all cases. Penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.
Unemployment disproportionately affected women, who faced hiring discrimination and received salaries that generally were not commensurate with their education and experience. Media reported that on average women earned 12 percent less than men for the same work. In a previous year, a senior government official estimated that 85 percent of persons with disabilities were unemployed. Afro-Colombian labor unions reported discrimination in the port sector.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The legal minimum monthly wage is approximately twice the amount of the poverty line; however, almost one-half of the total workforce earned less than the minimum wage.
The law provides for a regular workweek of 48 hours and a minimum rest period of eight hours within the week. Exceptions to this may be granted by the Ministry of Labor and were frequently granted in the mining sector. The law stipulates that workers receive premium compensation for nighttime work, hours worked in excess of 48 per week, and work performed on Sundays. The law permits compulsory overtime only in exceptional cases where the work is considered essential for the company’s functioning.
Occupational Safety and Health: The law provides for workers’ occupational safety and health (OSH) in the formal sector. The legal standards were generally up to date and appropriate for the main formal industries. The government did not effectively enforce OSH laws in all cases. The law does not cover informal-sector workers, including many mining and agricultural workers. In general the law protects workers’ rights to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, although some violations of this right were reported during the year. In cases of formal grievances, authorities generally protected employees in this situation.
The Ministry of Labor is required to enforce labor laws in the formal sector, including OSH regulations, through periodic inspections by labor inspectors. Inspectors have the authority to perform unannounced inspections and may also initiate sanction procedures, including after opening investigations. The number of inspectors during the year was approximately the same as in 2020 and was insufficient to enforce the law effectively. The Ministry of Labor reported that as of March, more than one-fourth (227) of the inspectors were in provisional status. Individual labor violations can result in penalties insufficient to deter violations. Unionists stated that more fines needed to be collected to impact occupational safety and health problems.
Nonunion workers, particularly those in the agricultural and port sectors, reportedly worked under hazardous conditions because they feared losing their jobs through subcontracting mechanisms or informal arrangements if they reported abuses. Some unionized workers who alleged they suffered on-the-job injuries complained that companies illegally fired them in retaliation for filing workers compensation claims. Only the courts may order reinstatement, and workers complained the courts were backlogged, slow, and corrupt. The Ministry of Labor may sanction a company found to have broken the law in this way, but it may offer no other guarantees to workers.
According to the National Mining Agency, through July 16, a total of 87 workers died as a result of accidents in the mines, the majority due to explosions, poisoned atmosphere, cave-ins, and floods. The National Mining Agency reported this number was on par with deaths as of this date in 2020.
Security forces reported that armed actors, including FARC dissidents, the ELN, and organized-crime groups, engaged in illegal mining of gold, coal, coltan, nickel, copper, and other minerals. Illegal mines, which lacked safety precautions, were particularly common in the departments of Antioquia, Boyaca, Choco, Cundinamarca, and Valle del Cauca.
Informal Sector: While the government’s labor inspectors undertook administrative actions to enforce the minimum wage in the formal sector, the government did not effectively enforce the law in the informal sector. The government continued to promote formal employment generation. Eligibility to enroll and pay into the traditional social security system, which includes health and pension plans, is conditioned on earning the legal minimum monthly wage. The government developed plans to implement National Development Plan provisions that allow those who earn less than the legal minimum monthly wage, often because of part-time, informal, or own-account work, to contribute to a new, parallel “social protection floor” system that includes a subsidized health plan and retirement savings plan. As of August these provisions were under legal review by the Constitutional Court. While employer abuse of this new system is prohibited, labor unions complained it opens the door for employers to move full-time workers into part-time positions to take advantage of the new system.
DANE reported that for the second trimester, 50.3 percent of workers employed in 13 principal cities and metropolitan areas were paying into the pension system. The proportion of informal workers in 23 cities and metropolitan areas surveyed was 48.5 percent, according to DANE. In June, DANE reported the national unemployment rate was 14.4 percent, down from 21.4 percent at the height of the economic impact from COVID-19 in May 2019. The government continued to support complementary social security programs to increase the employability of extremely poor individuals, displaced persons, and the elderly.
The Ministry of Labor reported continued problems addressing high numbers of labor complaints related to the labor and employment impacts of COVID-19. Labor unions, NGOs, and workers’ organizations alleged a range of labor abuses related to the fulfillment of labor contracts during the pandemic, including employers forcing workers to sign unpaid leaves of absence in lieu of authorized furloughs, dismissals without severance pay, salary reductions under threats of dismissal, and the imposition of part-time, temporary, or hourly work with negative consequences for workers’ entitlement to social security benefits.
While Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, the authoritarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro usurped control over all branches of government: executive, judicial, legislative, the offices of the prosecutor general and ombudsman, and the electoral institutions. In December 2020 the Maduro regime organized parliamentary elections that were rigged in favor of the regime, and approximately 60 countries and international bodies publicly declared the elections were neither free nor fair.
Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces continued to decline and was deeply politicized. Increasingly unpopular with citizens, the Maduro regime depended on civilian and military intelligence services, and to a lesser extent, progovernment armed gangs known as colectivos, to neutralize political opposition and subdue the population. The Bolivarian National Guard – a branch of the military that reports to the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace – is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the National Scientific Criminal, and Investigative Corps, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, which collects intelligence within the country and abroad and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The Bolivarian National Police report to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. The national police largely focused on policing Caracas’ Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The national armed forces patrolled other areas of the country. There were credible reports that members of security forces committed numerous abuses, and a 2020 United Nations report concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe that Maduro regime authorities and security forces committed crimes against humanity.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by regime forces; forced disappearances by the regime; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with independence of the judiciary; unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; serious restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting indigenous persons and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor.
The Maduro regime took no effective action to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the Maduro regime committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Although the regime did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and regime-supported colectivos, carried out hundreds of such killings during the year. In September the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela also noted, for the second consecutive year, concern regarding “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detentions, and torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence.” The FFM report stated “real and perceived opponents or critics” of the Maduro regime increasingly included individuals and organizations that documented, denounced, or attempted to address human rights or social and economic problems in the country. The FFM concluded that it had reasonable grounds to believe the justice system had played a significant role in the state’s repression of government opponents.
The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office for Protection of Human Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials. There was, however, no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced to prison for involvement in extrajudicial killings, which, in the case of killings committed by police, were often classified as “resistance to authority.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported a reduction in the rate of killings in the context of security operations or protests, yet the number remained high. No official data was available, but the NGO Monitor de Victimas reported 87 extrajudicial killings by the National Scientific, Criminal, and Investigative Corps (CICPC), Special Action Forces (FAES), Bolivarian National Guard, and Bolivarian National Police in greater Caracas from June 2020 to March 2021. The NGOs Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights (PROVEA) and Fundacion Gumilla documented 825 extrajudicial killings in the context of security operations or protests in the first half of the year.
According to the OHCHR, there were fewer allegations of extrajudicial killings attributed to FAES since September 2020 but more attributed to other forces, including state and municipal police forces and the CICPC.
On January 8-9, members of FAES, the Bolivarian National Police, and other security forces killed at least 24 persons, including two minors, in a police operation in Caracas’ La Vega parish. Investigations by human rights NGOs determined that at least 14 deaths constituted extrajudicial killings. Families of victims refuted the argument that the deaths stemmed from “resistance to authority,” the charges alleged by the Maduro regime to justify killings committed by security forces. The families reported security forces entered their homes without a warrant, robbed and killed the victims, and altered the crime scene to suggest a violent confrontation. Although human rights NGOs and international organizations demanded an investigation, the Maduro regime attorney general and human rights ombudsman did not issue a statement responding to the allegations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and other international organizations demanded the regime investigate and convict the security forces responsible for the violence. No arrests had been made as of November regarding any of these killings.
The Maduro regime attorney general reported that from 2017 through February, 1,019 officers were accused of homicide, torture, or inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment, but only 177 were convicted for such crimes, with no reference to arbitrary killings. The regime did not release details on officer convictions or other investigations of security officers involved in killings. The OHCHR found that investigations of human rights violations committed by regime security forces were hampered by the regime’s refusal to cooperate, tampering with evidence, judicial delays, and harassment of relatives of victims. According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal. In many cases the regime appeared to be scapegoating low-level functionaries while allowing high-level officials who issued the illegal orders to continue in their positions.
On March 21, the armed forces launched a military operation against a group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia dissidents (FARC-D) in Apure State. NGOs denounced serious human rights violations committed by Maduro regime security forces during the operation. PROVEA reported that members of the notoriously violent FAES kidnapped a family of five in El Ripial, executed them, and dressed the bodies with uniforms and weapons to suggest an affiliation with FARC-D. Local residents reported intense fear of members of the armed forces and noted that FAES officers seized cell phones to monitor communications.
Maduro regime defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez criticized coverage of the violence by media outlets and NGOs as the propagation of “falsehoods and terror.” The attorney general designated a special commission to investigate human rights violations committed during the conflict, but as of October the investigation had not resulted in charges.
The NGO Foro Penal confirmed incidents of forced disappearances continued and said the forced disappearances were deployed by the state to control and intimidate opponents. This practice also extended to family members to coerce them to turn in relatives. In 2019 Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) officials arrested Hugo Marino Salas, a civilian who had worked as a military contractor, but authorities did not respond to habeas corpus petitions filed by his relatives, and his whereabouts remained unknown as of November, according to OHCHR documentation. Foro Penal documented 33 disappearances through the end of May, with 14 persons still missing as of November.
The Maduro regime continued to deny requests by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to visit the country to conduct an investigation. On September 21, the Working Group requested the regime clarify the status of 20 disappearance cases in a report it presented to the UN Human Rights Council.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were credible reports that Maduro-aligned security forces regularly tortured and abused detainees. As of November the Maduro regime had not revealed information regarding individuals convicted or accused of torturing or abusing detainees.
The Maduro regime-aligned Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Human rights groups and the FFM reported the regime continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. The FFM also found that at times judges ordered pretrial detention in Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) or DGCIM facilities, despite the risk or commission of torture, even when detainees in court rooms denounced, or displayed signs consistent with, torture. No official data were available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because victims feared reprisal. The OHCHR found that in some cases doctors issued false or inaccurate medical reports intended to cover up signs of torture.
Media and NGOs reported that beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military controlled by the Maduro regime. Cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were also reported during the year. Regime-aligned authorities reportedly subjected detainees to asphyxiation, electric shock, broken bones, being hung by their limbs, and being forced to spend hours on their knees. Detainees were also subjected to cold temperatures, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation; remained handcuffed for extended periods of time; and received death threats to themselves and their relatives. Detainees reported regime-aligned security forces moved them from detention centers to houses and other clandestine locations where abuse took place. Cruel treatment frequently involved Maduro regime authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs detailed reports from detainees who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence by security units. The OHCHR noted instances of detainees telling judges they had been tortured or mistreated but then returned to the custody of those allegedly responsible for the reported mistreatment. In some cases the alleged perpetrators were called to testify against the victims in the criminal processes against them. The OHCHR continued to receive allegations of such cases, with no precautionary measures taken by judges or prosecutors to protect the alleged victims or address related due process concerns.
The Casla Institute for the Study of Latin America continued to denounce the construction of new places of torture utilized by FAES and colectivos. NGOs reported new torture patterns employed by military authorities, including the use of continuous loud noise, metallic spikes applied to the face, cells without ventilation or light, and exposure to the point of hypothermia.
Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in Maduro regime custody, including political prisoners who died in custody. As of October Foro Penal reported that 50 of the 260 individuals detained on politically motivated grounds were in a critical health situation. The health reports detailed muscle problems, severe fractures, hernias, and high blood pressure. Foro Penal also noted instances in which regime authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, they were interrogated by security officials.
The NGO Una Ventana por la Libertad (UVL) denounced the shooting and killing of Daniela Figueredo by a police officer while in custody in Zamora, Miranda State, on March 13. The officer was allegedly attempting to sexually assault the victim. The NGO also denounced that seven other prisoners in the cell were sexually assaulted and raped by police officers.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Despite continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force, the Maduro regime took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses. Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. NGOs noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other regime authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in police.
On November 3, International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Karim Khan announced a formal investigation into crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela under the Maduro regime and signed a memorandum of understanding “to facilitate cooperation and mutual assistance to advance accountability for atrocity crimes.”
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, systemic violence, and poor infrastructure.
Physical Conditions: According to the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP), prison capacity was approximately 21,200, while the estimated population was 37,500 inmates as of October. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails. Overcrowding was 177 percent on average across detention facilities, exacerbated by the excessive use of pretrial detention. Generally unsanitary conditions placed prisoners at increased risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 and tuberculosis, which had become the main cause of death among inmates. Lack of water and cleaning supplies, inadequate access to recreation and sunlight, and insufficient food also increased the risk of respiratory diseases. The OVP reported that deaths from malnutrition rose during the year.
Male and female inmates were held together in most prisons. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks; however, a local NGO reported that male and female prisoners intermingled. Maduro regime security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, although separate facilities existed. Because institutions were filled beyond capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers, where they were reportedly crowded into small, unsanitary cells.
The CICPC and SEBIN detention facilities, police station jails, and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Long delays in court proceedings and prison transfers created a parallel system that held prisoners in police station jails, in some cases for years, although these facilities were designed to hold individuals only for 48 hours. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A UVL study of 111 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 311 percent overcrowding. These centers had a designed capacity of 3,702 persons; as of April they housed 11,527 detainees. The UVL also found that only 9 percent of facilities provided medical services, one in 26 detention centers had potable water, 16 percent had running water, 22 percent did not have regular trash collection, 63 percent lacked proper restrooms, and 35 percent lacked electricity. None of the centers had proper infrastructure for persons with disabilities.
The Bolivarian National Guard and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The Maduro regime failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with one guard for every 100 inmates instead of one for every 10, as recommended by international standards. Armed gangs, known as pranes, exercised de facto control within some prisons and used these bases to operate criminal networks on the outside.
According to the OVP, between January and June, 170 prisoners died in prisons and pretrial detention centers. Some deaths resulted from detention center riots and unsafe prison conditions. On February 7, a grenade exploded in the Monagas Police Coordination Center, killing two prisoners killed and injuring 26. Official reports claimed the deaths resulted from a riot, but media reported one of the inmates was handling a grenade, indicating the lax security controls inside prisons.
There are no gender-oriented policies that address female-specific prison needs. According to the OVP, the female population was 2,327 inmates (6.6 percent of the total population), with only one prison dedicated exclusively to women. That facility, the Feminine Orientation Institute, with a designed capacity of 350, was overcrowded with 533 women. Pregnant or lactating women lacked proper facilities, medical assistance, prenatal supplements, and basic hygiene goods. Women were also victims of sexual violence, abuse, and torture, and they were frequently asked for sexual favors in exchange for food or water. NGOs reported guards knew and tolerated these abuses and sometimes were also accomplices.
The OVP reported inmate deaths were due to generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons, with 73 percent the result of tuberculosis and malnutrition. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates. The UVL and OVP reported that in 98 percent of detention facilities, prisoners depended upon family visits to supply them with food, water, and medicine. Media reported prison guards regularly stole food that families purchased for inmates and extorted families attempting to bring food into prisons. The NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces.” The OVP reported a generalized lack of medical care, drugs, equipment, and physicians for prisoners. Inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms, and pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for medical attention.
On January 3, indigenous political prisoner Salvador Franco died in regime custody after he was denied court-ordered medical attention due to his declining health. Franco and 12 other members of the Pemon indigenous community had been in the custody of the Maduro regime since 2019 for their alleged participation in an uprising against the regime. Human rights NGOs denounced the arbitrary arrest, torture, and violations of due process during the detention of the Pemon political prisoners. On February 12, the regime released the 12 surviving political prisoners, although they remained subject to restrictions of movement and other unspecified court orders. (See section 6, Indigenous Peoples for more.)
On August 29, military officer Gabriel Medina died in La Pica Prison, in Monagas State, after being held for three months for allegedly attempting to kidnap regime vice president Diosdado Cabello. Medina died due to respiratory arrest after requesting but not receiving medical attention for more than 30 days.
Administration: The Maduro regime’s Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding credible allegations of mistreatment or investigations of the harsh conditions that led to hunger strikes, violent uprisings, and massacres.
Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, every other week until the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to visit restrictions. In some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. For political prisoners, prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits by family and legal representation. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.
Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers experienced lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. More than 300 lay members from the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church volunteered in 40 prisons. Although prohibited from formally entering prisons, Catholic laity visited prisoners on family visitation days. The OHCHR conducted visits of eight detention centers, and the Red Cross was allowed access to three.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits the arrest or detention of an individual without a judicial order and provides for the accused to remain free while being tried, but judges and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions. NGOs such as Foro Penal, the Committee for the Families of Victims of February-March 1989, the Institute for Press and Society, Espacio Publico, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions; however, Maduro regime authorities rarely granted detainees the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detentions in court, even though the right to petition is stipulated under law. Regime authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
While a warrant is required for an arrest, detention is permitted without an arrest warrant when an individual is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or to secure a suspect or witness during an investigation. Police often detained individuals and raided their homes without a warrant. The OHCHR found that in several cases the Maduro regime issued warrants retroactively or forged the warrant’s date of issuance. Foro Penal maintained that detentions were often conducted without a warrant, which were provided retroactively by complicit prosecutors and judges. Detainees were presented without proper defense before a court days after being disappeared; public defenders were imposed in violation of detainees’ right to choose their own lawyers.
The law mandates that detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 12 hours and before a judge within 48 hours to determine the legality of the detention. The law also requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. The regime routinely ignored these requirements.
Although the law provides for bail, release on bail is not afforded to persons charged with certain crimes. Bail also may be denied if a person is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or if a judge determines the accused may flee or impede the investigation. The law allows detainees access to counsel and family members, but that requirement was often not met, particularly for political prisoners. The constitution also provides any detained individual the right to immediate communication with family members and lawyers who, in turn, have the right to know a detainee’s whereabouts. A person accused of a crime may not be detained for longer than the possible minimum sentence for that crime or for longer than two years, whichever is shorter, except in certain circumstances, such as when the defendant is responsible for the delay in the proceedings. The regime routinely ignored these requirements.
Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 266 cases of arbitrary detention between January 1 and August 16. More than 10 cases were referred to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, but the cases received no response from the regime.
On January 12, five members of the UNAIDS-affiliated HIV-prevention NGO Azul Positivo were detained in Zulia State by military police without explanation. They were released on February 10, but the charges they faced, relating to terrorism, terrorism financing, and money laundering, were not dropped.
The Maduro regime arbitrarily detained 15 journalists from January to July, according to a report from the NGO Un Mundo Sin Mordaza.
On July 2, SEBIN officers arrested Javier Tarazona, director of the domestic human rights NGO Fundaredes, two days after he held a news conference alleging links between members of the Maduro regime and illegal armed groups accused of human rights abuses (see section 5). He and two other Fundaredes workers were detained in Falcon State. As of November, two had been released, but Tarazona remained in custody without trial and in need of medical treatment (see section 5).
In November 2020 unionized oil worker Guillermo Zarraga was detained in Coro, Falcon State, without a warrant. He was later transferred to a military facility, the DGCIM headquarters in Caracas, with no contact with family or lawyers through October.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the Maduro regime attorney general, there were 22,759 persons in pretrial detention in December 2020, representing more than two-thirds of the total prison population. According to the UVL, approximately 70 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges. The OHCHR also observed the routine use of pretrial detention without due consideration of alternative measures to detention, even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The FFM found that judges ordered pretrial detention as routine, rather than an exceptional measure, and without providing sufficient or appropriate justification.
Despite constitutional protections that provide for timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events that led to the detention. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend. Prisoners reported to NGOs that a lack of transportation and disorganization in the prison system reduced their access to the courts and contributed to trial delays.
On June 12, Rodney Alvarez, a Ferrominera (state-owned industrial iron firm) union leader, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after waiting in pretrial detention for 10 years.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detained individuals may challenge the grounds for their detention, but proceedings were often delayed and hearings postponed, stretching trials for years. Courts frequently disregarded defendants’ presumption of innocence. Maduro regime authorities often failed to allow detainees to consult with counsel or access their case records when filing challenges. Some detainees remained on probation or under house arrest indefinitely.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary lacked independence and generally judged in favor of the Maduro regime at all levels. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to the International Commission of Jurists, 85 percent of judges had provisional appointments and were subject to removal at will by the Supreme Court (TSJ) Judicial Committee. The IACHR also reported the judiciary operated with opacity, which obfuscated whether judges were appointed according to established procedures or political imperatives. Provisional and temporary judges, who legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges, allegedly were subjected to political influence to make proregime determinations. The OHCHR reported that lower courts received instructions from the TSJ on cases, especially those of a political nature, and observed that TSJ decisions related to the legitimate National Assembly were inconsistent and raised concerns regarding politicization. Low salaries for judges at all levels increased the risk of corruption.
There was a general lack of transparency and stability in the assignments of district attorneys to cases and a lack of technical criteria for assigning district attorneys to criminal investigations. These deficiencies hindered the possibility of bringing offenders to justice and resulted in a 90 percent impunity rate for common crimes and a higher percentage of impunity for cases of alleged human rights abuses.
NGOs reported the lack of independence of the judiciary impeded the normal functioning of investigations and judicial processes and highlighted the fragility of norms and procedures.
The September FFM report noted judges interviewed by the OHCHR experienced regular threats of dismissal, or pressure to resign or seek early retirement. The judges alleged the presidents of the criminal judicial circuits were responsible for many such threats for retaliatory or coercive purposes. Former judges and prosecutors reported they and their family members had been subjected to threats and intimidation, including phone tapping, surveillance, and monitoring.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with oral proceedings for all individuals. By law defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. These requirements were often ignored, according to human rights organizations. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, there were approximately 1,300 state and municipal public defenders, but indigent defendants’ right to free counsel was often not respected due to attorney shortages. Free interpretation was often not available to defendants. Some NGOs provided pro bono counsel to defendants.
Defendants may request no fewer than 30 days and no more than 45 days to prepare their defense. Defendants have the right to question adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses. By law defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and plaintiffs have the right of appeal.
The FFM and OHCHR reports concluded that authorities frequently violated the rights to a fair trial without undue delay and to legal counsel. Lack of judicial independence allowed authorities to use the judiciary to arbitrarily prosecute opponents and led to rampant impunity of rights violations.
The OHCHR documented cases in which the Maduro regime prevented lawyers from meeting with defendants and denied them confidentiality or access to case files. The OHCHR also identified that in the context of COVID-19, restrictions were placed on lawyers’ visits to detention places and at times used as an additional tool of the state to manipulate trial procedures. The excessive application of these restrictions impeded the right of prisoners to effectively access legal assistance, communicate freely and privately with counsel, and prepare an adequate defense.
Trial delays were common. Trials in absentia were permitted in certain circumstances, although opponents of the procedure claimed the constitution prohibits such trials. The law also states that, in the absence of the defense attorney, a trial may proceed with a public defender whom the court designates. The law gives judges the discretion to hold trials behind closed doors if a public trial could “disturb the normal development of the trial.”
In eight cases documented by the OHCHR, public defenders were appointed against the defendants’ express will, preventing access to legal counsel of their choice. For example, two foreign citizens who did not speak Spanish were represented, without understanding the proceedings, by a public defender. The UVL reported that, with the intention of lowering overcrowding in detention centers, 29 prisoners were pressured to accept charges to be released.
The law mandates that municipal courts handle “less serious” crimes, i.e., those carrying maximum penalties of imprisonment of fewer than eight years. Municipal courts may levy penalties that include three to eight months of community service. Besides diverting some “less serious” crimes to the municipal courts, this diversion also permits individuals accused of “lesser crimes” to ask the courts to suspend their trials conditionally in exchange for their admission of responsibility, commitment to provide restitution “in a material or symbolic form,” such as community service or any other condition imposed by the court.
The law provides that trials for military personnel charged with human rights abuses after 1999 be held in civilian rather than military courts. In addition, under the organic code of military justice, an individual may be tried in the military justice system for “insulting, offending, or disparaging the national armed forces or any related entities.” NGOs and the IACHR expressed concern regarding the Maduro regime’s practice of trying civilians under the military justice system for protests and other actions not under military jurisdiction. According to Foro Penal, since 2014 military courts had processed 872 civilians.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The Maduro regime used the judiciary to intimidate and prosecute individuals critical of regime policies or actions. Foro Penal reported 260 political prisoners in regime custody as of October, 50 of whom were in a critical state of health. Since 2014, a total of 15,761 persons had been detained for political reasons, many without knowing the charges against them or having access to legal defense. Foro Penal recorded more than 9,400 persons remained subject to arbitrary criminal proceedings for political reasons under precautionary measures. The regime routinely held political prisoners in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in civilian detention facilities.
According to Foro Penal, the state security forces that detained the most political prisoners were DGCIM, FAES, municipal police, the Bolivarian National Guard, and CICPC.
On February 25, legitimate National Assembly deputy Gilberto Sojo was arbitrarily imprisoned by FAES agents without a warrant or an evident excuse. Sojo, previously a victim of the Maduro regime’s arbitrary detentions, was released on September 3.
In July legitimate National Assembly deputy Freddy Guevara livestreamed his detention without a warrant by SEBIN officers on one of the main highways in eastern Caracas. Regime attorney general Tarek William Saab publicly accused Guevara of maintaining links with Colombian paramilitary groups and announced without providing evidence that Guevara was to be prosecuted for terrorism, assault on the constitutional order, treason against the homeland, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Guevara’s lawyers were not allowed access to him, in violation of Guevara’s right to defense and due process. Guevara remained imprisoned in the SEBIN headquarters of El Helicoide in Caracas until August 15, when he was released with the condition of reporting to a court every 30 days.
As of November political leader and journalist Roland Carreno, arrested in October 2020, remained arbitrarily detained on grounds of conspiracy, weapons smuggling, and terrorism financing, despite facing serious health problems.
The six executives of the state-owned petroleum company’s (PDVSA) U.S.-based CITGO remained in prison, serving eight- to 13-year sentences delivered in a November 2020 trial marred by a lack of legal due process and based on politically motivated charges. Since their arrest in 2017, they had been granted house arrest twice but subsequently reimprisoned each time, most recently in October. Family members expressed concern regarding the deteriorating health of some of the men and the potential for contracting COVID-19 in prison.
Political prisoner and former Chavez defense minister Raul Isaias Baduel died in regime custody on October 12, the third political prisoner death of the year and 10th since 2014. Regime attorney general Tarek William Saab tweeted that Baduel died of complications from COVID, but Baduel’s family denied he was ill and claimed he was killed. Baduel, also a former general in the Venezuelan Armed Forces, was jailed from 2009 to 2015 on politically motivated charges after he broke with Chavez and again from 2017 until his death. A lawyer for the family told press that Baduel’s son, also detained by the regime, was threatened with torture in an attempt to force him to declare that his father had died of COVID. Other family members and the lawyer were also threatened. The OHCHR called for an independent investigation to determine the cause of death.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports that the Maduro regime attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools, including Interpol Red Notices, for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On May 11, the TSJ issued an extradition request for Leopoldo Lopez, former political prisoner and opposition leader. The regime sentenced Lopez in absentia to 14 years’ imprisonment for allegedly instigating violence during protests in 2014.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and personal privacy, but the Maduro regime generally failed to respect these prohibitions. In many cases, particularly regarding the political opposition, regime-aligned authorities searched homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seized property without due process, and interfered in personal communications. FAES and other security forces regularly conducted both politically motivated and indiscriminate household raids. Throughout the year media reports documented raids by security forces on the homes of opposition party politicians, their relatives, and members of independent media. NGO offices were also subject to arbitrary raids and their work equipment seized.
State surveillance remained rampant, including through the assistance of telecom regulator the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) and state-run telecommunications provider CANTV. Furthermore, telecommunications companies reportedly assisted the regime in monitoring communications of political opponents. Technical attacks against media outlets appeared to be linked to the armed forces.
China, through its telecommunications corporation ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation), provided the Maduro regime with technology to monitor citizens’ social, political, and economic behavior through an identity card called carnet de la patria (homeland card). To force citizens to comply, the regime made it obligatory to present the card to obtain social services, including pensions, medicine, food baskets, subsidized fuel, and in some instances COVID vaccinations. Citizens essentially had no choice but to obtain and use the card despite the known tracking methods. Chinese companies such as Huawei and the China National Electronics Import-Export Company also supported, financially and technologically, these surveillance methods.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Maduro regime restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. A 2015 public decree regulates the right to assembly and grants the armed forces authority to control public order. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allows the Maduro regime to criminalize organizations and persons critical of it. Protests and marches require advance authorization from the regime and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” In addition NGOs and opposition deputies expressed concern that the illegitimate Maduro regime used quarantine restrictions as a form of social control to criminalize protests and silence critics.
Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, electricity, and access to vaccines. Workers also periodically demonstrated to demand a living wage. Some political parties and candidates staged small-scale demonstrations to protest moves to deny their registration for November’s regional elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict documented 3,393 protests in the first six months of the year, 59 of which were repressed by regime-aligned security forces and armed groups. The observatory documented 25 detentions, seven injured, and one death during protests as of September.
In at least three cases documented by the OHCHR, armed colectivos participated in the repression of demonstrations. The OHCHR also documented the killing of an 18-year-old fisherman from Toas Island, Zulia State, who was allegedly shot by Coast Guard officers on July 16 in a protest regarding access to fuel.
The OHCHR documented the detention of 34 persons in the context of protests and was informed of dozens of protesters who went into hiding or left the country due to fear of reprisals.
On July 21, Ada Macuare and Jhoana Paredes, nurses at the Ali Romero Hospital, were detained by police officers in Barcelona, Anzoategui State, after protesting for better working conditions, wages, and COVID-19 precautions. Paredes was released, but the state brought charges of terrorism and incitement to hatred against Macuare. Macuare was released in August without charges but with a requirement to report to court every 30 days.
On October 4, two members of the Tachira state police were sentenced to 27 and 21 years in prison, respectively, for the 2019 shooting of protester Rufo Chacon, blinding Chacon as he demonstrated in the city of San Cristobal for access to cooking gas.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the Maduro regime did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.
According to Aula Abierta, 73 percent of university teacher association group boards had expired, but registration obstacles imposed by proregime actors at the CNE prevented them from electing new board members.
The Maduro regime created the Association of Bolivarian Rectors to supplant the Venezuelan Association of University Rectors to exercise greater control over nonautonomous universities. Likewise, in the student sphere, the regime promoted the National Federation of Students as a parallel creation to the Federation of University Centers, and in the administrative sphere, the regime developed the Federation of University Workers of Venezuela to supplant the Federation of Teachers Associations University.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the Maduro regime did not respect these rights.
In-country Movement: The Maduro regime restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on regime-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.
The “state of alarm,” declared by Maduro in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, restricted freedom of movement and suspended social and business activities, and it was extended several times during the year. The decree authorized regime-aligned security forces broad latitude and discretion to enforce the decree and conduct investigations. Media reported the Maduro regime employed the armed forces, FAES, and armed colectivos to enforce quarantine measures. PROVEA documented an excessive use of force in implementing the lockdown, including arbitrary detentions, beatings, torture, and humiliating treatment for individuals allegedly failing to comply with quarantine measures. NGOs documented police and military forces utilizing the movement restrictions as a premise to solicit bribes from citizens at checkpoints. In November 2020 the Maduro regime reopened airports for limited international travel, beginning with travel to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Turkey, and Iran and later expanding in June to Russia, Bolivia, and Panama.
Due to continued border closures through much of the year, Venezuelans traveling into and out of the country had no choice but to use informal border crossings that largely were controlled by illegal armed groups. While no official statistics were available, activists and NGOs reported that citizens utilizing the crossings faced significant risks, such as gender-based violence and human trafficking, including forced labor, sexual servitude, and the forced recruitment of children into armed conflict at the hands of criminal groups. Human traffickers used sea routes to transport victims to nearby countries, and migrant smugglers also sent refugees and migrants on dangerous sea journeys. On April 21, at least 10 intending migrants were killed when their boat sank on its way to Trinidad and Tobago in the Boca de Serpiente sector, Delta Amacuro State; another 12 individuals survived and seven were missing.
Individuals were often subjected to debt bondage or forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing to illegal armed groups, increasing the vulnerability of migrants to labor exploitation, harassment, sexual violence, and human trafficking, including forced labor and sex trafficking. Many were vulnerable to recruitment, sometimes forced, into drug trafficking rings or illegal and other armed groups.
See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking in-persons-report/.
Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport remained difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and in some instances did not receive passports after years of delays. The regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and National Assembly deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The NGOs PROVEA and COFAVIC documented cases of internal displacement of families fleeing violent gang clashes in the communities of La Vega and La Cota 905 in western Caracas. Clashes between military forces and nonstate armed groups in Apure caused hundreds of civilians to be displaced to neighboring states and municipalities.
f. Protection of Refugees
The Maduro regime did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and there is an established system for providing protection to refugees, although delays in the system allowed for abuse at the hands of private individuals and representatives of the state.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission’s headquarters, particularly vulnerable groups, including women with young children, older persons, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by regime authorities at checkpoints and other locations.
Employment: Refugees without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to education and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant difficulties in achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Maduro regime authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. In 2019 CONARE announced the creation of a border migration control card for refugees present in the country, similar to the carnet de la patria.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The 1999 constitution provides citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections, but Maduro regime interference, electoral irregularities, unconstitutional appointments of electors, and harassment and manipulation of voters and candidates restricted the exercise of this right in the 2018 presidential and municipal elections, the 2020 legislative elections, and the November 21 regional elections for governor, mayor, and state and local officials. The regime continued to arbitrarily ban key opposition figures from participating, maintained hundreds of political prisoners, utilized judicial processes to steal the legal personages of political parties, and denied opposition political representatives equal access to media coverage and freedom of movement in the country.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Nicolas Maduro’s illegitimate second term as president began on January 10, 2019, following flawed presidential elections in 2018, which were widely condemned by the political opposition and international observers as fraudulent and constitutionally invalid. On January 23, 2019, legitimate National Assembly president Juan Guaido invoked Article 233 of the constitution, which calls on the National Assembly president to assume the role of interim president in the event of presidential vacancy.
In December 2020 the Maduro regime conducted fraudulent legislative elections that failed to meet any minimum standard of credibility. The regime usurped the TSJ’s legislative powers and illegally appointed members to the CNE; hijacked political parties through the theft of their brand name, assets, and ballot logos, including those from the left that challenged the regime’s control of Chavez’s political legacy; prohibited many political opponents of the regime from running for office and stripped them of their political rights; kidnapped, exiled, and tortured opposition politicians; suppressed indigenous political representation; and arbitrarily increased the number of seats in the National Assembly from 167 to 277. Consequently, electoral and constitutional experts, most independent political parties, and civil society organizations rejected the process. Despite international nonrecognition of the electoral results, the new assembly was sworn in on January 5, and Jorge Rodriguez elected president of the body.
The interim government utilized a provision in the constitution to hold a public referendum, the Consulta Popular, in December 2020. The referendum questions focused on rejecting the Maduro regime’s December 6 farce election and restoring democracy through free and fair presidential and legislative elections. Participation was open to both citizens in the country and abroad, who could vote via a secure online platform. In-person voting was also available within the country.
Additionally, the National Assembly elected in 2015 (AN-2015) reformed the Statute for the Transition to allow a smaller body called the Delegate Commission to assume the legislative competences beyond the expiration of its constitutional period in January 2021. A group of opposition deputies from different political parties did not support the decision and ended their mandate on January 5. The Delegate Commission continued to hold Ordinary Session throughout the year, led by Interim President Juan Guaido.
On February 9, the illegitimate National Assembly elected the members of the Nominations Committee, starting the process stipulated in the constitution to elect CNE members. After three months the process resulted in the appointment of 15 new rectors (council members) – five main rectors and 10 assistants. With participation of the civil society group Foro Civico, which engaged in discussions with members of the Maduro regime, the illegitimate assembly appointed five opposition-linked rectors. Of those, two were main and the other three assistant. The reconstituted CNE returned the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) ticket, barred in 2018, to the opposition, paving the way for the opposition to run under the MUD ticket in the November 21 regional elections. Although the appointment of two of the five principal rectors to opposition-linked candidates helped provide greater balance in the CNE, major electoral problems remained. Control of party and candidate registration remained outside the hands of legitimate political party leaders and in the hands of regime representatives, hundreds of opposition figures remained barred from running for elections, and the electoral registry remained out of date and incomplete.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition political parties and PSUV dissidents operated in an increasingly restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and very limited mainstream media access.
The Maduro regime regularly targeted National Assembly deputies, interim government staffers, and other opposition politicians and their relatives through violence or threats of violence, arbitrary arrest, politically motivated prosecution, violation of privacy, and restrictions on movement. Multiple opposition politicians fled the country or sought refuge in diplomatic missions to avoid arbitrary detention and the possibility of torture. On February 25, FAES detained AN-2015 Popular Will (VP) deputy Gilberto Sojo, violating legal procedures for detention and holding him incommunicado for more than 96 hours. Sojo was detained until September 3 for allegedly violating the previous terms of his arrest in 2016 when he was held for two years on spurious terrorism charges. On July 12, VP deputy Freddy Guevara was detained by Maduro regime forces on false accusations of terrorism and treason related to violent clashes in the neighborhood of La Cota 905 in western Caracas. The detention was recorded live by Guevara himself. Guevara was freed one month later without judicial charge. On the same day, Interim President Juan Guaido was harassed in the parking lot of his residence by SEBIN agents. On July 13, the regime attorney general alerted that capture orders were issued against VP militants Luis Somaza, Emilio Grateron, Gilber Caro, and Hasler Iglesias. Grateron sought refuge in the Chilean embassy where he remained as of November, while Caro fled the country on August 31.
According to a March 23 OHCHR report, the Maduro regime attorney general announced 25 investigations had been opened against members of the opposition for the alleged seizure of national assets abroad. The attorney general indicated they were under investigation for crimes of usurpation of functions, corruption, aggravated embezzlement, fraudulent use of public funds, conspiracy with foreign governments, terrorism, rebellion, trafficking in weapons of war, treason, and criminal conspiracy.
In negotiations held in Mexico between the regime and political opposition figures in August-September regarding the crisis in Venezuela, the regime granted apparent flexibility to some opposition party members who were competing in or supporting the November 21 regional elections. Social Christian Party leader Roberto Enriquez, who had taken refuge in the Chilean embassy in 2017, joined the negotiations on August 12, ending his asylum. Freddy Guevara also joined the negotiations weeks after his release. Other opposition figures in exile returned to the country as well, including AN-2015 deputies Americo De Grazia (former Radical Cause member) and Justice First party members Jose Manuel Olivares and Tomas Guanipa, all running for office. Other exiled returnees included Enzo Scarano (Clean Accounts) and Ramon Martinez.
Despite these changes, the Maduro regime continued to hold hundreds of individuals in prison on politically motivated charges and prevented hundreds of opposition candidates from exercising their full rights to run for office. On September 26, Bolivarian National Guard forces temporarily detained Caroni (Bolivar State) mayoral candidate Carlos Chancellor as he was campaigning; they released him three hours later without explanation or charges.
In November the regime allowed some political opponents to participate in the elections for governors, mayors, and regional and local officials, but it did not allow for conditions that would permit free and fair conditions for true competition. Civil society organizations noted the elections were marred by credible reports of election irregularities and violations of election law and that the regime had stifled the possibility of a fair competition through pre-election manipulation to include arbitrary arrests and harassment of political and civil society actors, criminalization of opposition parties’ activities, bans on candidates across the political spectrum, manipulation of voter registration rolls, and persistent media censorship.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.
On July 29, the CNE published the Norms on Gender Parity for Alternative Nominations for political parties during regional and municipal elections. According to the norms, the political parties must present a list of candidates with a 50-50 percent gender parity both in their principal candidates’ nominations and their alternates.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the Maduro regime did not implement the law effectively. Several officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The regime frequently investigated, prosecuted, and detained political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them. According to Transparency International, among the main reasons for the country’s widespread corruption were impunity, systematic institutional weakening, and a lack of transparency in the management of government resources.
Corruption: According to Maduro regime attorney general Tarek William Saab, during 2020, 802 persons were convicted for corruption, with a total of 2,274 convicted since August 2017, although observers claimed regime statistics were unreliable. From January to June, 269 public prosecutors were charged and 24 convicted of corruption. Between February and July, 51 senior managers at companies and state-owned institutions were prosecuted on corruption grounds.
Corruption was a major problem in all security and armed forces, whose members were generally poorly paid and minimally trained. No data were publicly available on the number of cases involving police and military officials during the year, although the Public Ministry publicized several individual cases against police officers for soliciting bribes and other corrupt activities.
The NGO Transparencia Venezuela reported an increase of corruption in the country amid the pandemic crisis, highlighting the opacity of the vaccination plan and the purchase of medical equipment from the governments of Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran. NGOs also documented an increase in bribes requested by military and police during the quarantine periods in exchange for allowing citizens to move freely throughout the country.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with restrictions from the Maduro regime. Major domestic human rights NGOs conducted investigations and published their findings on human rights cases. Regime officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their requests. Domestic NGOs reported fear the regime would use the 2017 law against hate to justify widespread repression of their activities, jailing of the participants and organizers, and threats against family members. Some domestic NGOs reported threats against and harassment of their leaders, staff, and organizations, in addition to raids and detentions, but they were able to publish dozens of reports during the year. Some human rights activists reported regime authorities barred them from traveling abroad or that they feared not being able to return to the country if they traveled. NGOs played a significant role in informing citizens and the international community regarding alleged abuses and key human rights cases.
On March 30, the regime promulgated a decree that obligates NGOs to register in the unified registry of the Office Against Organized Crime and Terrorism Financing in the Ministry of Interior and Justice. Human rights watchdogs assessed the decree as a mechanism that would allow the Maduro regime to force civil society organizations to provide information with the intent of supervising and controlling their activities. Among the registration requirements were a list of international donors from whom they receive contributions, a list of the overseas headquarters of the organizations, and a list of all beneficiaries. Critics said the legal instrument criminalizes international cooperation and prequalifies the NGOs as terrorists. These new requirements and conditions were lightened in an amendment introduced on May 3, but it included four other mandatory registries for NGOs, raising concerns regarding the right to freedom of association.
NGOs noted the Maduro regime created a dangerous atmosphere for them to operate. The regime continued to implement increasingly stringent legal means aimed at controlling and supervising the actions of human rights and humanitarian organizations, including additional oversight of the banking operations of NGOs, resulting in raids, arrest warrants, and attempted prosecutions against members of organizations such as Azul Positivo, Accion Solidaria, Prepara Familia, Convite, Alimenta la Solidaridad, and Caracas Mi Convive.
Human rights organizations claimed they were subject to frequent internet hacking attacks and attempts to violate their email privacy. The regime targeted multiple humanitarian NGOs by issuing politically motivated arrest warrants against their staff and directors, raiding their facilities, and stealing their computers and other electronic devices.
The Maduro regime attempted to discredit and threaten NGOs with criminal investigations for allegedly illegally accepting foreign funds. Various regime officials accused human rights organizations on national television and other media of breaking the law by receiving funding from international donors.
The NGO Center for Defenders and Justice published a report that recorded 374 attacks and security incidents against human rights defenders and civil society organizations in the first half of the year, a 243 percent increase compared with the same period in 2020. In April alone there were at least 115 incidents. The NGO remarked that one of the mechanisms used by the Maduro regime to subdue human rights defenders was the Unified Registry of Obligated Subjects of the Office of Organized Crime and Terrorism Financing. The regime used the registry to seek information on external sources of support to civil society under the premise of terrorism or crimes against the state.
In February a draft law on international cooperation that threatened to restrict funding for NGOs was once more placed on the agenda of the illegal National Assembly. Although the law did not pass, the revival of the draft created a climate of fear among human rights NGOs and a hesitancy to seek international assistance.
In addition to the restrictions placed on fund raising, domestic NGOs also faced regulatory limitations on their ability to perform their missions. The law includes provisions eliminating the right of human rights NGOs to represent victims of human rights abuses in legal proceedings. The law provides that only the public defender and private individuals may file complaints in court or represent victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by public employees or members of security forces.
The OHCHR recorded 97 incidents related to human rights defenders, including journalists, union leaders, human rights activists, and civil society organizations. They included two killings, six acts of violence, 62 instances of criminalization, 17 accounts of threats and intimidation, and 10 cases of stigmatization. At least 16 members of the opposition were arbitrarily arrested; most were released shortly their detention.
On July 1, the OHCHR gave an update on the human rights situation, indicating it continued to receive credible reports of torture, new cases of forced disappearance, and other forms of Maduro regime-authorized violence and intimidation. The report also focused on the deteriorated condition of the country’s prisons and detention centers and discussed the regime’s pattern of voter intimidation and coercion.
On January 14, five human rights defenders and humanitarian workers of Azul Positivo – Johan Leon Reyes, Yordy Bermudez, Layners Gutierrez Diaz, Alejandro Gomez Di Maggio, and Luis Ferrebuz – were indicted on charges of “fraudulent handling of smart cards, money laundering, and criminal association.” On February 11, they were released on probation and subsequently required to report to court every 30 days.
On July 2, Javier Tarazona, director of the human rights NGO Fundaredes, was detained by SEBIN officers. Tarazona had gone to the Public Ministry to report the persecution he was suffering in Falcon State by police officers and unidentified individuals. He was arbitrarily detained along with Omar de Dios Garcia and Jose Rafael Tarazona, also human rights defenders. Regime attorney general Tarek William Saab accused Fundaredes members of issuing public accusations that incited hatred and compromised the peace of the country after Tarazona demanded an investigation into the alleged links of the country with Colombian guerrilla groups. As of November Tarazona remained in custody without trial and in need of medical treatment, but the other two had been released.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The Maduro regime was generally hostile toward international human rights bodies and continued to refuse to permit a visit by the IACHR, which last visited the country in 2002. In 2019 the regime and the OHCHR signed a memorandum of understanding that provided for the presence of two UN human rights officers, and in October the UN Human Rights Council voted to extend the mandate of the OHCHR until 2022. In 2019 the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish a one-year FFM to investigate “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment committed in Venezuela since 2014.” The FFM was extended again in 2020 until 2022.
In September the FFM issued its second report demonstrating the Maduro regime had systematically deployed the judicial system since 2014 as a tool to attack and repress members of independent civil society and political opponents.
In November Chief International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan visited the country, culminating in the announcement of the opening of an investigation into crimes committed under the Maduro regime.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Throughout the year the Maduro regime gave its 2016-19 human rights plan minimal attention, with no announcements to renew or update the plan.
The TSJ continued to hold the National Assembly in “contempt” status, which diminished the purview and operational effectiveness of the assembly’s subcommission on human rights. The regime’s human rights ombudsman failed to advocate for citizen victims of human rights neutrally and objectively, especially in the most emblematic of cases. In September regime attorney general Tarek William Saab announced the formation of a new Office to Attend to Victims of Human Rights Abuses; the office showed limited public progress by year’s end.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, making it punishable by a prison term of eight to 14 years. A man may legally avoid punishment by marrying (before he is sentenced) the person he raped. The law allows authorities to consider alternative forms of punishment, including work release, for those convicted of various crimes, including rape, if they have completed three-quarters of their sentence. The law was not consistently enforced.
The law criminalizes physical, sexual, and psychological violence in the home or community and at work, with increased penalties for intimate partner violence. The law punishes perpetrators of domestic violence with penalties for conviction ranging from six to 27 months in prison. The law requires police to report domestic violence to judicial authorities and obligates hospital personnel to notify authorities when admitting patients who are victims of domestic abuse. Police generally were reluctant to intervene to prevent domestic violence and were not properly trained to handle such cases. The law also establishes women’s bureaus at local police headquarters and tribunals specializing in gender-based violence, and two-thirds of states had specialized courts. The Public Ministry’s ’s Defense Department employed a team of lawyers, psychiatrists, and other experts who dealt exclusively with cases of femicide, gender-related violence, and other crimes against women. The law was often not followed or enforced.
The Maduro regime did not publish statistics on gender-based violence. The OHCHR reported a lack of due diligence in investigations of gender-based violence cases. According to NGOs, government efforts to protect victims of gender-based violence were ineffective or nonexistent. Enforcement of laws and access to justice were limited, as victims of gender-based violence reported a lack of progress and inability to follow up on cases after filing reports with authorities.
Many advocates observed there was a lack of public awareness among women regarding resources and support available to prevent and combat domestic violence. There were four shelters for victims of gender-based violence, one each in Aragua, Cojedes, Sucre, and Trujillo States, but only two remained open; the remaining two struggled to operate effectively due to a lack of government support. NGOs provided most domestic abuse support services.
NGOs and media reported an increase of domestic abuse and gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The NGO Center for Justice and Peace reported 207 femicides between January and September 30.
On February 21 and 22, Eduarlys Falcon and Eliannys Martinez Ronoz were killed in Turen, Portuguesa State. The two young women were missing for more 24 hours and were later found with signs indicating they were tortured and sexually assaulted before being strangled to death. On February 28, the regime attorney general declared the alleged murderer had been arrested. In his annual report before the illegitimate National Assembly, the attorney general stated since 2017 there had been 610 femicide cases, of which 50 percent had been resolved.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal and punishable by fines and a prison sentence of one to three years. Although allegedly common in the workplace, sexual harassment cases were rarely reported. Several cases of harassment at the hands of security forces – both police and military – were reported during the year.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of the Maduro regime. The regime restricted access to sexual and reproductive health services for sexual violence survivors, including emergency contraception for the clinical management of rape.
The regime’s economic mismanagement and neglect of the country’s health-care infrastructure severely restricted access to resources for menstrual health and hygiene as well as to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. Media reported access to methods of contraception and emergency contraception were limited. When available, birth control pills cost almost 10 times the monthly minimum wage, and an intrauterine device cost 25 times the monthly minimum wage. A pack of condoms cost three times the monthly minimum wage. According to NGOs, the COVID-19 pandemic further reduced access to contraception and the ability to see doctors and pharmacies. A 2020 study by the Venezuelan Association for Alternative Sex Education (AVESA) found that fewer than 50 percent of women of reproductive age had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods.
The IACHR found that many young women who were pregnant or had young children migrated to other countries to gain access to prenatal care and health and reproductive services. The IACHR also reported that women seeking neonatal or obstetric care had to provide their own surgical and personal protective equipment. Pregnant women frequently did not receive prenatal care or take prenatal supplements containing iron or folic acid needed for correct child formation, which affected child development and caused possible malnutrition and diseases. The precarious economic situation limited access to food to the entire population, which had a direct negative impact on pregnant women and their unborn children.
Hospitals lacked qualified health-care professionals, medicine, and necessities such as water, electricity, and cleaning supplies. The country’s health-care crisis, including the inability to attend to maternal health, was compounded by the pandemic as hospitals prioritized COVID-19 cases over other health services. AVESA also studied the impact the COVID-19 pandemic on the sexual and reproductive health of women in reproductive age in the Capital District and Miranda State. A report released during the year showed that between October and December 2020, there was a reduction of 18 percent in health assistance centers with family planning services, with no increase of the numbers of centers for assistance regarding sexually transmitted infections. Media reported sexually transmitted infections, including those passed onto children, were on the rise and citizens had limited access to resources to address them.
Women, children, and teenagers lacked the conditions and information to safely make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and also lacked access to services and contraceptive methods in a timely manner and in terms of quality. The pandemic’s mobility restrictions and closure of services aggravated the situation.
The Maduro regime claimed in its report to the UN ’s Women’s Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination towards Women that maternal mortality had dropped, which experts doubted. According to the Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology of Venezuela, the maternal death rate in 2019 was 112 per 100,000 live births, with postpartum hemorrhages, sepsis, and pregnancy-induced hypertension cited as the leading causes of maternal mortality. Doctors stated these were “predictable and treatable” conditions but were often fatal due to hospitals’ lack of adequate beds, medical resources, and medicine. Statistics were unreliable due to the compounded crisis in the country, and experts believed the numbers could potentially be higher. An increasing number of births took place at home due to faltering medical services.
According to the UN Population Fund, the adolescent birth rate in 2019 was 95 births for every 1,000 adolescents ages 15 to 19.
In October 2020 Vanesa Rosales, a human rights defender from the city of Merida, was arrested on accusations of providing information and medications for the voluntary termination of pregnancy for a 13-year-old adolescent who became pregnant as a result of rape. Rosales was charged with conspiracy, conspiracy to commit a crime, and abortion induced by a third party, exposing her to severe penalties. She was detained without due process and was released in May.
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men under the constitution. Women and men are legally equal in marriage, and the law provides for gender equality in exercising the right to work. The law specifies that employers must not discriminate against women regarding pay or working conditions. According to the Ministry of Labor and the Confederation of Workers, regulations protecting women’s labor rights were enforced in the formal sector, although according to the World Economic Forum, women earned 36 percent less on average than men doing comparable jobs. Gender disparities persisted despite guarantees provided by law.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race. The law prohibits all forms of racial discrimination and provides for a maximum of three years’ imprisonment for acts of racial discrimination. As mandated by law, signage existed outside commercial and recreational establishments announcing the prohibition against acts of racial discrimination. Beyond signage, the Maduro regime did little to enforce laws against discrimination or prosecute cases of discrimination.
The law prohibits discrimination based on ethnic origin. The constitution provides for three seats in the National Assembly for deputies of indigenous origin to “protect indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation,” but some indigenous communities continued without representation due to the TSJ’s annulment of the 2015 election of Amazonas State’s indigenous representatives.
NGOs and the press reported local political authorities seldom took account of indigenous interests when making decisions affecting indigenous lands, cultures, traditions, or allocation of natural resources. Indigenous groups continued to call for faster implementation of the demarcation process.
Indigenous groups and NGOs expressed concern regarding mining in the expanding Arco Minero, an area between the states of Bolivar, Amazonas, and Delta Amacuro. Indigenous communities reported the Maduro regime developed and expanded mining zones without consulting those native to the region, resulting in a rise in environmental degradation, water contamination, and malaria. Illegal armed groups, including the National Liberation Army and FARC-D, had a considerable presence in the area, increasing the level of violence and insecurity in the communities. There was also an unprecedented influx of disease; drugs; human trafficking, including commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor; and other illegal activities in the mining areas, putting indigenous communities at risk.
Indigenous groups regularly reported violent conflicts with miners and cattle ranchers regarding land rights. There were reports of harassment, attacks, and forced evictions against indigenous persons living in areas included as part of Maduro regime mining concessions. Indigenous persons reported a lack of consultation by the regime on the social and environmental impact of mining activity in indigenous and protected areas.
Border disputes with Colombia affected indigenous groups living in border regions. There were many reported cases in which movements of indigenous groups were restricted, including from border closures. After more than 18 months, these regions continued to suffer severe restrictions that impeded tourism and forced indigenous communities of Santa Elena de Uairen, Bolivar State, to practice mining. The tourism chamber affirmed that approximately 28 indigenous communities stopped working in tourism due to the closure of the country’s borders and gasoline shortages, which made them depend on illegal mining for 60 percent of their income.
NGOs stated that quarantine measures imposed by the Maduro regime unduly affected indigenous communities, preventing transit to and through territories and making it impossible for indigenous persons to obtain sufficient food, water, and access to medical care, which was already difficult due to gasoline shortages in the area. PROVEA alerted that the migration of indigenous communities from Amazonas State to Colombia had increased in the past five years due to the worsening of the political-economic crisis and the increase in mining activity and invasion of indigenous territories. Colombian authorities estimated 3,900 Venezuelans had registered in 25 indigenous and nonindigenous settlements in Puerto Carreno as migrants or displaced persons.
In January there was concern for the 12 indigenous members of the Pemon community detained in the Rodeo II prison, due to the poor detention conditions. All were detained on allegations of having assaulted the 513 Jungle Infantry Battalion Mariano Montilla in 2019. Foro Penal called on authorities to grant them priority medical assistance, since they had tuberculosis due to poor sanitary conditions and lack of adequate food and water. Their lawyers affirmed in their case that due process was not guaranteed and that they had been subject to cruel and inhuman treatment. Advocacy groups decried that they should have been tried in an indigenous jurisdiction to respect indigenous rights. The National Observatory for Human Rights demanded the detainees be transferred to another facility closer to their community where they could have access to family and community. They also requested as a minimum condition to receive medical assistance according to their indigenous practices. They were released on February 13.
On February 21, an assembly of indigenous leaders in Bolivar State denounced the continued presence of illegal armed groups engaged in illegal mining activities on indigenous lands and declared a state of emergency in the community of San Luis de Morichal. The National Assembly denounced environmental degradation, instability, human rights violations, and the closure of schools. Leaders condemned the inaction and complicity of the Maduro regime and called on the regime to enforce protections for indigenous communities as enshrined in the constitution.
On June 21, Fundaredes in Apure State reported FARC dissidents killed six indigenous individuals in the Macanilla sector, located in the Pedro Camejo municipality. According to the NGO, the deaths occurred on June 15 after the indigenous individuals allegedly looted a food truck that was moving from San Juan de Payara to a church in Puerto Paez, in the Codazzi parish. Fundaredes also said the indigenous communities were unprotected by the state and suffered from malnutrition, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and displacement by irregular armed groups.
Also in June the OHCHR expressed concern regarding the death of indigenous Pemon leader Salvador Franco while he was in detention and called on authorities to conduct an immediate and independent investigation and to protect the rights of the detainees, especially their right to receive medical assistance. As of November neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the human rights ombudsman had made a statement regarding the case.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory. The children’s rights NGO Cecodap reported that families struggled to register births due to quarantine measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Child Abuse: According to UNICEF and NGOs working with children and women, child abuse, including incest, occurred but was rarely reported. The Maduro regime made efforts to detain and prosecute some perpetrators of child abuse. Although the judicial system acted to remove children from abusive households, the press reported public facilities for such children were inadequate. According to NGOs, in many cases children were returned to their homes without proper reintegration measures or follow-up. An investigation by Cecodap documented the lack of information from official sources regarding the violation of child and adolescents’ rights, noting that only 23 percent of the monitored news came from official sources.
During the first quarter of the year, Cecodap identified 209 violent episodes involving child and adolescents and said they were the victims in 86 percent of the cases. Cecodap reported that 30 percent of episodes monitored involved sexual abuse and most victims were between seven and 12 years old.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 for women and men, but with parental consent the minimum age is 16.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: By law conviction for having sexual relations with a minor younger than 13, with an “especially vulnerable” person, or with a minor younger than 16 when the perpetrator is a relative or guardian is punishable with a mandatory sentence of 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits the forced commercial sexual exploitation and the corruption of minors. Penalties range from 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment in cases of forced labor and some forms of sex trafficking of women and girls. The law requires a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute child sex trafficking. The law prohibits the production and sale of child pornography and establishes penalties of 16 to 20 years’ imprisonment.
Displaced Children: Children’s rights advocates and media reported an increase in the number of abandoned children living on the street. State-run facilities, already filled to capacity, were unable to support the influx. Cecodap estimated that as many as one million minors had been left behind with family members when their parents fled the country’s economic crisis, many of whom also struggled with the country’s economic downturn. These children resided in limbo, since their parents who left were unable legally to transfer guardianship to a third party. Private institutions denounced the Maduro regime’s refusal to provide subsidized food benefits to support the country’s population.
NGOs noted young girls constituted almost one-half of the children living on the streets. This shift posed particular challenges for shelters, which historically housed predominantly male populations. With institutions filled to capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions, such as curfew violations, were confined in inadequate juvenile detention centers.
The Human Rights Center of the Catholic University Andres Bello documented that between October 2020 and February, at least 430 children and adolescents permanently left the country alone or accompanied by other minors. An additional 51,250 minors were recorded as regularly crossing the border between Venezuela and Colombia.
Save The Children affirmed that 70 percent of children and adolescents left the country to find their parents and to achieve a family reunion; the remainder fled domestic violence. Many of these children were motivated by deceptive job offers. NGOs confirmed cases of unaccompanied Venezuelan girls who were victims of sex trafficking in Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru.
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://www.travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Confederation of Israelite Associations in Venezuela estimated there were 10,000 Jews in the country. Jewish community leaders expressed concern regarding anti-Semitic pieces in regime-aligned media outlets. They stated regime-owned or -associated media and supporters of the Maduro regime promoted Zionist conspiracy theories. There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, including anti-Semitism.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities, but the Maduro regime did not implement the law, inform the public of it, or combat societal prejudice against persons with disabilities. The law requires that all newly constructed or renovated public parks and buildings provide access, but persons with disabilities had minimal access to public transportation, and ramps were almost nonexistent. Many persons with disabilities expressed concern that public transportation workers often were unwilling to transport them and forced them to find taxis, which were often unaffordable and frequently not equipped to support patrons with disabilities. NGOs reported hospitals lacked infrastructure to accommodate persons with mobility problems and staff to communicate with deaf persons. Parents of children with disabilities also complained they were forced to wait in long lines for services rather than receive preference as afforded by law. Online resources and access to information were generally available to persons with disabilities, although access to closed-captioned or audio-described online videos for persons with sight and hearing disabilities was limited. Leading advocates for persons with hearing disabilities lamented difficult access to public services due to a lack of interpreters in public courts, health-care facilities, and legal services, as well as a lack of other public accommodations.
The National Council for Persons with Disabilities, an independent agency, advocated for the rights of persons with disabilities and provided medical, legal, occupational, and cultural programs. All forms of organization, whether public or private, are required by law to incorporate no less than 5 percent of persons with disabilities in their work area, according to their condition, their abilities, their skills, and their specialties with the aim of seek job placement. There was no available information regarding the number of persons registered with regime health programs who were fully employed. The law was generally not followed or enforced.
Some children with disabilities attended separate schools, while others were in mainstream schools with their peers without disabilities. Media reported that schools for children with disabilities suffered from underfunding, decaying infrastructure, and little consideration for the specific needs of individual disabilities. Parents of children with disabilities reported significant difficulties in school enrollment, which prevented their children from receiving formal education. NGOs reported that in the shift to online classes due to COVID-19, children with disabilities had limited access to educational materials, and the Ministry of Education did not adapt curricula for children with disabilities.
The NGOs Cecodap and Deaf Confederation of Venezuela reported three legal cases where the accused were individuals with cognitive disabilities who were arbitrarily detained and deprived of liberty. In each case the court omitted information about the defendant’s mental disability, even when the disability was reflected and endorsed by medical reports from each of the accused. The most recent case was in December 2020, regarding a 15-year-old adolescent in Yaracuy State who allegedly was involved in crimes of extortion and kidnapping. He was linked to the crime by a cell phone that was used by his mother, who went missing at that time.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The law provides for the equal rights of persons with HIV or AIDS and their families. Nevertheless, leading advocates alleged discrimination occurred against such persons. Media and NGOs denounced that during the pandemic more than one thousand persons died due to lack of antiretroviral treatment, as well as poor care in public hospitals. Since 2016 the regime had not purchased antiretroviral medicine, which also affected a great number of children with HIV. The NGO Citizen Action Against AIDS reported there was permanent discrimination in public hospitals and refusal of medical attention against persons with HIV and mistreatment of pregnant women with HIV at the time of delivery.
The number of persons with HIV in treatment increased in the last two years from 24 percent to 54 percent in December 2020, according to UNAIDS. On January 12, DGCIM arbitrarily detained six members of NGO Azul Positivo that provided humanitarian aid to the HIV-positive population of Zulia State, raided the NGO’s offices, and seized equipment.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Local police and private security forces allegedly prevented lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons from entering malls, public parks, and recreational areas. NGOs reported the Maduro regime systematically denied legal recognition to transgender and intersex persons by preventing them from obtaining identity documents required for accessing education, employment, housing, and health care. This vulnerability often led transgender and intersex persons to become victims of human trafficking.
The armed forces criminalize homosexual relations in the military justice code, punishing members of the LGBTQI+ community with prison from one to three years and fines.
NGOs reported incidents of bias-motivated violence against LGBTQI+ persons. Reported incidents were most prevalent against transgender individuals. Leading advocates noted that law enforcement authorities often did not properly investigate to determine whether crimes were bias motivated.
In June media reported at least seven hate crimes against LGBTQI+ persons. These cases should have been processed by the Special Ombudsman’s Office for the Protection of Persons of Sexual Diversity (an entity created in December 2020 and attached to the Ombudsman’s Office), but NGOs affirmed the office was ineffective and that most related hate crimes were not investigated.
The constitution provides for equality before the law of all persons and prohibits discrimination based on “sex or social condition,” but it does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a TSJ ruling, no individual may be subjected to discrimination because of sexual orientation, but the ruling was rarely enforced.
The law establishes the principle of no discrimination for sexual orientation as well as no discrimination in the workplace for sexual preferences; however, there were no mechanisms to denounce violations of the law.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides that all private- and public-sector workers (except members of the armed forces) have the right to form and join unions of their choice, and it provides for collective bargaining and the right to strike. The law, however, places several restrictions on these rights, and the Maduro regime deployed a variety of mechanisms to undercut the rights of independent workers and unions. Minimum membership requirements for unions differed based on the type of union. Forming a company union requires a minimum of 20 workers; forming a professional, industrial, or sectoral union in one jurisdiction requires 40 workers in the same field; and forming a regional or national union requires 150 workers. Ten persons may form an employee association, a parallel type of representation the Maduro regime endorsed and openly supported.
The law prohibits “any act of discrimination or interference contrary to the exercise” of workers’ right to unionize. The law requires all unions to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster that includes the full name, home address, telephone number, and national identification number for each union member. The ministry reviews the registration and determines whether the union fulfilled all requirements. Unions must submit their registration application by December 31 of the year the union forms; if not received by the ministry or if the ministry considers the registration unsatisfactory, the union is denied the ability to exist legally. The law also requires the presence of labor inspectors to witness and legitimize unions’ decisions before the Ministry of Labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) raised concerns regarding the ministry’s refusal to register trade union organizations.
By law employers may negotiate a collective contract only with unions that represent most of their workers. Minority organizations may not jointly negotiate in cases where no union represents an absolute majority. The law also restricts unions’ ability to administer their activities. For example, the CNE has the authority to administer internal elections of labor unions, federations, and confederations. By law elections must be held at least every three years. If CNE-administered and -certified elections are not held within this period, the law prohibits union leaders from representing workers in negotiations or engaging in anything beyond administrative tasks. The ILO repeatedly found cases of interference by the CNE in trade union elections and since 1999 called for delinking the CNE from the union election process.
The law recognizes the right of all public- and private-sector workers to strike, subject to conditions established by law. Workers participating in legal strikes receive immunity from prosecution, and their time in service may not be reduced by the time engaged in a strike, but this was not enacted in practice. The law requires that employers reincorporate striking workers and provides for prison terms sufficient to deter violations for employers who fail to do so. This law also was not enforced. Replacement workers are not permitted during legal strikes. The law prohibits striking workers from paralyzing the production or provision of essential public goods and services, but it defines “essential services” more broadly than ILO standards. The ILO called for the law to be amended to exclude from the definition of “essential services” activities “that are not essential in the strict sense of the term…so that in no event may criminal sanctions be imposed in cases of peaceful strikes.”
The minister of labor may order public- or private-sector strikers back to work and submit their disputes to arbitration if a strike “puts in immediate danger the lives or security of all or part of the population.” Other legal provisions establish criminal penalties for exercising the right to strike in certain circumstances. For example, anyone who “organizes, supports, or instigates the realization of activities within security zones that are intended to disturb or affect the organization and functioning of military installations, public services, industries and basic (i.e., mining) enterprises, or the socioeconomic life of the country” could be punished with five to 10 years in prison. The law also provides for prison terms sufficient to deter violations by those who restrict the distribution of goods and “those…who develop or carry out actions or omissions that impede, either directly or indirectly, the production, manufacture, import, storing, transport, distribution, and commercialization of goods.”
The organic code of military justice establishes arrest sentences between six months and one year for expressing outrage to a sentry, a public official, or the armed forces. This type of criminal offense was used against indigenous leaders and workers unconstitutionally subjected to military jurisdiction.
The Maduro regime restricted the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining through administrative and legal mechanisms. The regime did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denial of civil rights, such as discrimination.
The ILO raised concerns regarding violence against trade union members and intimidation of the Associations of Commerce and Production of Venezuela by the Maduro regime. In 2018 ILO member countries voted to establish an ILO Commission of Inquiry (COI) for Venezuela to investigate long-standing complaints first filed in 2015 of labor rights violations of ILO Conventions Nos. 26, 87, and 144, which pertain to minimum-wage fixing, freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, and tripartite consultation, respectively. In 2019 the commission submitted its report to the ILO director general, noting the regime had repeatedly committed violations of international conventions on minimum wage, freedom of association and the right to organize, and labor standards. The report also called for “the immediate release of any employer or trade unionist who may be in prison as a result of carrying out the legitimate activities of their workers’ or employers’ organization.”
On March 27, the ILO Governing Body agreed to increase the pressure on the Maduro regime to comply with the COI recommendations that requested “the immediate halt of all violent acts, threats, persecution, stigmatization, harassment, and aggression” against organization of workers and employers not affiliated with the Maduro regime and the adoption of measures to guarantee such acts would not be repeated in the future. The ILO COI also requested a tripartite social dialogue. The regime categorically rejected the COI recommendations and continued to detain individuals because of their union activities in cases where the activities were perceived as counter to the interests of the Maduro regime.
Organized labor activists continued to report that the annual requirement to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster was onerous and infringed on freedom of association. They alleged the ministry removed member names from the rosters for political purposes, particularly if members were not registered voters on the CNE’s rolls. Labor leaders also criticized the laborious and costly administrative process of requesting CNE approval for elections and subsequent delays in the CNE’s recognition of such union processes. In addition there reportedly was a high turnover of ministry contractors, resulting in a lack of timely follow-through on union processes. Labor unions in both the private and public sectors noted long delays in obtaining CNE concurrence to hold elections and in receiving certification of the election results, which hindered unions’ ability to bargain collectively.
The Maduro regime continued to support “parallel” unions, which sought to dilute the membership and effectiveness of traditional independent unions. The regime excluded from consideration other, independent union federations, including the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, General Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, Confederation of Autonomous Unions of Venezuela, and National Union of Workers.
The Maduro regime continued to refuse to adjudicate or otherwise resolve the cases of thousands of PDVSA employees who were dismissed during and after the 2002-03 strike. The Ministry of Labor continued to deny registration to the National Union of Oil, Gas, Petrochemical, and Refinery Workers.
The concept of striking, demonized since the 2002 national security law, was used periodically as a political tool to accuse regime opponents of coup plotting or other destabilizing activities. Some companies, especially in the public sector, had multiple unions with varying degrees of allegiance to the ruling party’s version of the “socialist revolution,” which could trigger interunion conflict and strife.
The crimes of association to commit a crime, instigation to commit a crime, obstruction of the public way, violation of the security zone, crimes against freedom of work, and terrorism were frequently used against union leaders who demanded labor rights.
The OHCHR documented at least three union leaders were arrested on charges of terrorism or terrorism financing in 2020.
NGOs reported the Maduro regime continued harassment of unions by prosecuting union members in military courts.
The Venezuelan Observatory of Union Liberty reported in February that between September 2019 and November 2020, there were 28 new cases of union leaders targeted with judicial proceedings, at least five workers deprived of liberty, and more than 100 on probation.
On January 15, the Venezuelan Teachers Union went on strike to demand better salaries, benefits, and infrastructure. As a result of the protest, the Ministry of Education dismissed 200 educators and suspended their salaries without explanation.
On July 26, a member of the College of Nurses of the State of Anzoategui, Ada Macuare, was arrested in the city of Barcelona after a WhatsApp note was circulated among medical professionals indicating Macuare’s attempt to call for a strike due to personal protective equipment and COVID-19 vaccine shortages. The nurse appeared before a judge on July 27 and faced charges of instigating hatred and terrorism. On August 5, Macuare was released and ordered to appear before a judge every 30 days.
On September 25, military intelligence officials from the DGCIM detained seven workers from the PDVSA-owned Paraguana refining complex in Falcon State on terrorism-related charges. The officials alleged the workers were involved in sabotaging the oil company. On October 4, human rights NGOs and family members of the detainees told media the workers had not been granted access to lawyers since the time of their arrest.
In November 2020 Eudis Felipe Girot, a PDVSA plant operator and executive director of the Unitary Federation of Oil Workers, was detained by the DGCIM at his residence, in the Diego Bautista Urbaneja municipality of Anzoategui State, for exercising union obligations and denouncing mismanagement of PDVSA facilities, the lack of gasoline, and the violation of workers’ rights. In a June 10 preliminary hearing, the court sentenced Girot to house arrest.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits some forms of forced or compulsory labor but does not provide criminal penalties for certain forms of forced labor. The law on organized crime prohibits human trafficking by organized crime groups. It prescribes penalties sufficient to deter human trafficking of adults carried out by a member of an organized-crime group of three or more individuals. The organized-crime law, however, fails to prohibit trafficking by any individual not affiliated with such a group. Prosecutors may employ other statutes to prosecute such individuals. The law increases penalties for child trafficking with the purpose of forced labor. There was no comprehensive information available regarding the Maduro regime’s enforcement of the law. The labor group Autonomous Front in Defense of Employment, Wages, and Unions (FADESS) reported that public-sector worker agreements included provisions requiring service in the armed forces’ reserves. NGOs noted sex trafficking and forced labor in domestic service within the country increased in 2019 (see section 7.c.).
Some doctors participating in Cuba’s overseas medical program showed indicators of forced labor. According to FADESS, Cubans worked in the Maduro regime’s social programs, such as the Mission Inside the Barrio, in exchange for the regime’s provision of oil resources to the Cuban government. FADESS noted Cubans worked in the ministries of Education, Registrar, Notary, Telecommunications, and Security. FADESS also cited that the G-2 Cuban security unit was present in the armed forces and in state enterprises. Observers noted indications the Cuban government may have forced some Cubans to participate in its government-sponsored medical missions. Some Cuban medical personnel who participated in the social program Mission Inside the Barrio described indicators of forced labor, including underpayment of wages, mandatory long hours, limitations on movement, the use of “minders” to conduct surveillance of participants outside of work, forced political indoctrination, and threats of retaliatory actions against workers and their families if they left the program or did not return to Cuba as directed by government supervisors. The Cuban government acknowledged it withheld the passports of Cuban medical personnel in the country. Authorities did not investigate allegations of forced labor in Cuba’s overseas medical program. Additionally, doctors who deserted the program reported Cuban “minders” coerced them to indoctrinate the population into supporting the Maduro regime and to falsify records to bolster the number of individuals assisted.
The law does not criminalize all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
Illegal mining operations existed in some of the country’s most remote areas, including Bolivar State, where armed groups exploited girls in sex trafficking, forcibly recruited youth to join armed criminal groups, and forced children to work in gold mines under dangerous conditions.
Reliable reports indicated that forced labor occurred throughout the Orinoco Mining Arc, a swath of land in southern Bolivar state, where most of the country’s gold is concentrated. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 gold miners were in the country. Mines were largely run by armed and violent criminal groups, and research showed evidence that officials from the Maduro regime, including members of security forces and local authorities, colluded with and allowed members of nonstate armed groups to commit human rights violations and labor abuses. Miners experienced unsafe working conditions, unsafe and degrading living conditions, extortion and financial penalties, limited freedom of communication, and threats of violence and torture.
The Human Rights Center of the Catholic University Andres Bello also documented forced recruitment in the Mining Arc, where irregular armed groups controlled the mining activity through corruption and extortion networks that involved the military. These groups recruited men and children under threats of violence, death, and debt manipulation to gain control over the zone.
An estimated 3,500 women and girls, between ages 12 and 35, were subjected to forced labor in the illegal mines, forced into prostitution, or exploited as washerwomen and cooks.
In 2020 the OHCHR identified a pattern of labor exploitation, a sharp increase in sexual exploitation and trafficking in mining areas, including of adolescent girls, and reports that children as young as age seven were present in mining areas, often unaccompanied, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum employment age at 14. Children younger than 14 may work only if granted special permission by the National Institute for Minors or the Ministry of Labor. Such permission may not be granted to minors who are younger than the legal age for work in hazardous occupations that risk their life or health or could damage their intellectual or moral development. According to the ILO, the Maduro regime had not made publicly available the list of specific types of work considered hazardous. Children ages 14 to 18 may not work without permission of their legal guardians or in occupations expressly prohibited by law, and they may work no more than six hours per day or 30 hours per week. Minors younger than 18 may not work outside the normal workday.
Anyone employing children younger than eight is subject to time in prison. Employers must notify authorities if they hire a minor as a domestic worker. The Maduro regime did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
No information was available on whether or how many employers were sanctioned for violations. The regime continued to provide services to vulnerable children, including street children, working children, and children at risk of working. There was no independent accounting of the effectiveness of these and other regime-supported programs.
Child labor increased 20 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the most recent report by the NGO World Vision. Most children who worked did so in the agricultural sector, street vending, domestic service, or in small and medium-size businesses, most frequently in family-run operations. There continued to be isolated reports of children exploited in domestic servitude, mining, forced begging, sexual exploitation (see section 6), and human trafficking, including sex trafficking and forced criminality. Members of the Maduro regime supported the operations of the National Liberation Army and FARC-D by allowing the exploitation and human trafficking, including sex trafficking, forced labor, and forced recruitment of children for armed conflict.
Fundaredes reported that nonstate armed groups in the border states of Tachira and Apure forcibly recruited children, invaded property, charged for public services, and threatened communities.
A study by Cecodap found that child laborers constituted up to 45 percent of those working in mines. Media reported children as young as nine years old worked in mines. Underfunded schools and high rates of student dropouts pushed children into labor situations.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution prohibits employment discrimination of every citizen. The law prohibits discrimination based on age, race, sex, social condition, creed, marital status, union affiliation, political views, nationality, disability, or any condition that could be used to lessen the principle of equality before the law. No law specifically prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV/AIDS status. Media and NGOs, such as PROVEA and the Human Rights Center of the Catholic University Andres Bello, reported the Maduro regime did not effectively enforce applicable law, and penalties were not commensurate to those related to civil rights infractions, such as election interference.
NGOs reported public employees faced discrimination and harassment for their political beliefs or activities. According to Aula Abierta, 4,876 public servants were dismissed from their jobs for political reasons in 2018.
In March four Siderurgica del Orinoco Alfredo Maneiro union leaders – Jose Saracual, Cesar Soto, Carlos Ramirez, and Cruz Hernandez – had their salaries frozen and were banned from entry into the workplace after they demanded the board comply with the collective contract and improve salaries. Their names and faces were used in a campaign inside the enterprise to show others what would happen if they made such demands. They were also qualified as terrorists.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The national minimum wage remained below the poverty line. Labor experts noted the unilateral nature of the most recent regime decree to raise the minimum wage contravened ILO Convention No. 26, which requires the government to consult with employers and workers prior to enacting wage increases. Legislators noted the decree violated the law, since it supplanted collective bargaining agreements. Union leaders from the petroleum, health, telecommunications, and electricity sectors highlighted that the decree did not include wage adjustments to keep up with hyperinflation and thus remained insufficient to afford the basic food basket. The decree also violated the law by nullifying previously signed collective bargaining agreements, including wage tables that scaled salaries to account for seniority and merit pay.
The trade union of the industrial sector stated that in 2020, 88 industries ceased operations and that at the end of the year only 2,121 remained, an 83 percent reduction from the more than 12,000 entities in 1997.
The law sets the workweek at 40 hours (35 hours for a night shift). The law establishes separate limits for “shift workers,” who may not work more than an average of 42 hours per week during an eight-week period, with overtime capped at 100 hours annually. Managers are prohibited from obligating employees to work additional time, and workers have the right to two consecutive days off each week. Overtime is paid at a 50 percent surcharge if a labor inspector approves the overtime in advance and at a 100 percent surcharge if an inspector does not give advance permission. The law establishes that after completing one year with an employer, a worker has a right to 15 days of paid vacation annually. A worker has the right to an additional day for every additional year of service, for a maximum of 15 additional days annually.
Occupational Safety and Health: The law provides for secure, hygienic, and adequate working conditions. Workplaces must maintain “protection for the health and life of the workers against all dangerous working conditions.” The law obligates employers to pay workers specified amounts for workplace injuries or occupational illnesses, ranging from two times the daily salary for missed workdays to several years’ salary for permanent injuries. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. Occupational safety and health (OSH) standards were not appropriate for the main industries in the country, and workers were not able to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The Maduro regime did not effectively enforce OSH law. Penalties for OSH law violations were not commensurate with those for crimes, such as negligence.
The law covers all workers, including temporary, occasional, and domestic workers. There was reportedly some enforcement by the Ministry of Labor of minimum wage rates and hours of work provisions in the formal sector, but an estimated 40 percent of the population worked in the informal sector, where labor law and protections generally were not enforced. There was no publicly available information regarding the number of inspectors or the frequency of inspections to implement health and safety, minimum wage, or hours of work provisions. Ministry inspectors seldom closed unsafe job sites. Official statistics regarding workplace deaths and injuries were not publicly available.
Health workers were severely exposed to COVID-19 due to the lack of personal protective equipment. The Maduro regime cracked down on medical professionals who spoke about the realities they faced in their work. The NGO Medicos Unidos por Venezuela reported 736 health-worker deaths due to COVID-19 through August.
Nurses’ unions said that during the pandemic they were subjected to labor exploitation and persecution and could not reject or abandon these conditions due to threats, violence, coercion, deception, or abuse of power. Medical professionals lacked vaccines and biosafety equipment for individual protection, worked excessively long hours, and assumed the daily risk of infecting their family members.
NGOs and media reported hazardous conditions in mining areas, many of which operated illegally and exposed miners to injury, disease, and mercury poisoning.
The OHCHR documented high levels of violence and human rights violations linked to the control of and dispute over mines by organized criminal and armed groups. In some cases security forces were reportedly involved in some of the violent incidents.
NGOs reported the use of beatings, mutilation, disappearances, and killings by armed groups to enforce control in mining areas.
Informal Sector: Vast portions of the economy operated in the informal sector, where standardized labor protections did not exist, and labor violations occurred frequently. The regime made little effort to provide social protections in this area.