Freedom in the World 2000 - 2001


Government control appeared to be eroding through much of Colombia in 2000, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's main guerrilla group, went through the motions of seeking a settlement of a civil war whose main casualty continued to be a conflict-weary public. Plan Colombia, the government's $7.5 billion program to destroy coca (cocaine) and poppy (heroin) crops, which in turn would dry up resources for illegal armed groups, appeared an uncertain bet to achieve either goal. President Andrés Pastrana did achieve some success in severing notorious ties between the armed forces and paramilitary death squads, whose members several times were reported to have danced and drank as they executed their victims. However, the breadth of collaboration seemed to suggest the greatest work at tie cutting yet lay ahead. 

The guerrillas, who by some accounts now control more than half the national territory, kept up their armed offensives despite the ongoing talks and despite the growing number of civilian casualties their actions have created. Colombia's most notorious death squad leader admitted what has long been an open secret—not only do the paramilitaries make big money from the drug trade (as do the guerrillas), but they are also financed by local and foreign private enterprise. In a two-year period—1998 to 2000—the paramilitary forces have nearly doubled their numbers, even as the government has taken some steps to curb their might. One big loser in 2000 was the country's national police force, whose personnel is highly exposed to guerrilla violence as a result of their being deployed around the country in undermanned and underprotected commissaries. In March, a multimillion dollar graft scandal in congress resulted in the resignation of the speaker of the house and served to underscore the venality of much of Colombia's traditional ruling elite. Meanwhile, Colombia's neighbors continued to be alarmed at the spillover effects—assassinations, armed incursions and a flood of refugees—of the worsening civil war.

Following independence from Spain in 1819, and after a long period of federal government with what are now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, the Republic of Colombia was established in 1886. Politics have since been dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties, whose leadership has largely been drawn from the traditional elite. Under President César Gaviria (1990-1994) of the Liberal Party a new constitution was approved; it limits presidents to a single four-year term and provides for an elected bicameral congress, with a 102-member senate and a 161-member chamber of representatives.

Modern Colombia has been marked by the corrupt machine politics of the Liberals and Conservatives; left-wing guerrilla insurgencies; right-wing paramilitary violence, the emergence of vicious drug cartels; and gross human rights violations committed by all sides.

In the 1994 legislative elections, the Liberals retained a majority in both houses of congress. Ernesto Samper, a former economic development minister, won the Liberal presidential nomination. The Conservative candidate was Pastrana, a former mayor of Bogotá and the son of a former Colombian president. Both candidates pledged to continue Gaviria’s free-market reforms.

Samper won in a June 1994 runoff election, with 50.4 percent, besting Pastrana by 1.8 percent. With strong U.S. encouragement, Samper presided over the dismantling of the Cali drug cartel, most of whose leaders were captured in 1995. The arrests, however, netted persuasive evidence that the cartel had given $6 million to the president’s campaign, with Samper’s approval.  In February 1996 the country’s prosecutor-general formally charged Samper with illegal enrichment, fraud, falsifying documents, and covering up his campaign financing. In June the house, dominated by Samper’s Liberals, voted 111 to 43 to clear Samper on grounds of insufficient evidence.

The murder of journalists and human rights workers, repeated humiliation of the military by leftist insurgents, a continued upswing in paramilitary violence linked to the military, and army claims of the subversive intent of unarmed groups dominated much of the news from Colombia in 1997. In the June 21, 1998, election, Pastrana won the presidency of Latin America’s third most populous country in an impressive victory over the Liberal Party candidate, interior minister Horacio Serpa.  In an effort to consolidate the peace process, in November Pastrana oversaw the regrouping by FARC guerrillas in, and the withdrawal by a dispirited military from, a so-called demilitarized zone of five southern districts.  The move, strongly resisted by the military, gave the guerrillas de facto control over a territory the size of Switzerland.

In 1999, talks with the FARC sputtered along, burdened by the sweeping political, social, and economic reforms being demanded by the rebels, and by the government’s inability to reign in the paramilitaries.  They were also hampered by military reluctance to grant the FARC concessions beyond the de facto partitioning of the country.  (Guerrilla groups now control some 40 percent of the national territory.) The governments of neighboring Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil also expressed concern about the deadly violence spilling over into their countries.  Colombia resumed extradition of its nationals after a nine-year hiatus, handing over two top drug suspects to U.S. authorities.

In 2000, the FARC guerrillas appeared to be trying to consolidate their control of as much as 40 percent of the country, issuing laws and setting up judicial institutions, in a clear bid to negotiate with the government from a position of strength. In March, Standard & Poor's downgraded once-prosperous Colombia, making it more expensive for the government to raise foreign and domestic capital. In July police seized more than 3,270 pounds of pure cocaine with a street value of $53 million that was meant to bankroll the activities of top paramilitary chieftain Carlos Castaño. That same month, the attorney general charged four generals and a colonel—three of whom were still on active duty—with aiding paramilitaries who massacred 18 people in May 1998. A month later, after Colombia's chief prosecutor said he had a list of businessmen who financed the paramilitaries, Castaño acknowledged private enterprise support. 

In August, President Bill Clinton traveled to Cartegena to show support for the beleaguered Pastrana, whose government was to receive $1.3 billion in aid approved by the U.S. Congress the month before.  In the run-up to October municipal elections, critical to the government's antidrug and antiviolence strategies, both guerrillas and paramilitaries prevented citizens from registering to vote. Election Day turnout, however, was strong, with Independents winning in mayoral races in four of Colombia's five largest cities—including in Bogotá, the capital—in what was seen as a challenge to the dominance of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. In October, although under battlefield pressure from the guerrillas, the military purged 89 mostly lower-ranking officers and 299 rank-and-file soldiers, after Pastrana granted the armed forces the right to fire members for misconduct. In November, Castano admitted eight members of congress had been kidnapped as a way of protesting the government's "gradual handover" of the country to the guerrillas.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government through elections. The 1991 constitution provides for broader participation in the system, including two reserved seats in the congress for the country’s small Indian minority.  Political violence, and a generalized belief that corruption renders elections meaningless, have helped to limit voter participation, although an impressive 60 percent voted in the 1998 presidential contest. In 1998, Pastrana proposed a broad reform of the political system designed to combat corruption and promote greater public participation in decision making.  He also offered the guerrillas a presidential pardon and guarantees for their post-peace participation in legal political activities. In 2000, hundreds of candidates for municipal office, a keystone to carrying out Colombia's antidrug program, were pressured for allegiance by contending armed groups, with 21 mayoral candidates murdered in the run-up to the vote. On the day of the vote, however, voter turnout was heavy amid peaceful conditions. In the period 1997-2000, 34 mayors have been assassinated and 100 others—10 percent of the total—were kidnapped.

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Colombia produced 520 tons of cocaine in 1999, with illegal drug plantations increasing 20 percent. The country has been ranked by Transparency International as one of the 20 most corrupt nations in the world.  The March 2000 congressional graft scandal, which included $49,119 for a new toilet and $50,000 for toilet paper and soap, dealt a body blow to Pastrana's claim that his ruling coalition would clean up a hotbed of corruption that Colombians see as reflective of their country's moral decay. 

The justice system remains slow and compromised by corruption and extortion. The civilian-led Ministry of Defense is responsible for internal security and oversees both the armed forces and the national police; civilian management of the armed forces, however, is limited. The country’s national police force, once a focal point of official corruption, has been reorganized and is now Colombia’s most respected security institution. In 2000 the FARC began to routinely execute policemen it captured after attacking police outposts; human rights monitors point out that many officers are not involved in the government's anti-guerrilla operations. In mid-July General Rosso José Serrano, the highly respected director of the national police who oversaw the sacking of 8,000 corrupt cops, stepped down from his post, saying that he could not face going to more policemen's funerals. Colombia’s 165 prisons, which were built for 32,000 people but hold more than 47,000, are frequent sites of murders and riots.

Constitutional rights regarding free expression and the freedom to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions are severely restricted by political and drug-related violence and the government’s inability to guarantee the security of its citizens. Colombia is one of the most violent countries in the world.  In 1999 alone there were nearly 3,000 kidnappings—eight per day for political and nonpolitical purposes—as well as 25,000 murders that were unrelated to the rebel insurgency; in 2000, the number of those reported kidnapped rose seven percent, to 3,162.  Political violence in Colombia continues to take more lives than in any other country in the western hemisphere, and civilians are prime victims. In the past decade an estimated 35,000 have died and about 1.5 million have been displaced from their homes, 308,000 in 1998 alone.  More than 90 percent of violent crimes go unsolved. The paramilitaries, who in March 2000 began a "charm offensive" designed to make them appear respectable, are believed to have committed about 61 percent of all rights violations during the period September 1998-March 2000. In November 2000, paramilitary forces massacred 37 fisherman in a village in northern Colombia. During the year, dozens of children have been killed by the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and the army.

Human rights violations have soared to unprecedented highs, with atrocities being committed by all sides in the conflict.  Human rights workers in Colombia are frequently murdered by an underfunded military often lacking in personal and tactical discipline, and by rightist paramilitary forces.  The growth of the paramilitary groups, in the pay of narcotics traffickers and large landowners and protected by a military who share a common enemy—the guerrillas—is out of control. Athough, since taking office, Pastrana has sacked four generals accused of paramilitary ties, government efforts to sever ties to the right-wing militia remain tepid, and these groups operate freely at the local level. 

In May 1999, police shut down a huge paramilitary drug laboratory.  Left-wing guerrillas, some of whom also protect narcotics production facilities and drug traffickers, also systematically violate human rights, with victims including Sunday churchgoers and airline passengers.  The FARC guerrillas also regularly extort payments from hundreds of businessmen throughout the country.  In March 2000 seven top military commanders were cashiered for collaborating with rightist paramilitary groups, and more than a dozen paramilitaries have been killed by government forces.  However, in 2000 Human Rights Watch has credibly reported that in half of Colombia's 18 army brigades, the military shared intelligence with the paramilitary forces, while providing them with weapons and coordinating with them on a daily basis.  All sides operate with a high degree of impunity.

Journalists are frequently the victims of political and revenge violence.  In 2000, 11 reporters were killed; in 1999, 6 were murdered and at least 13 fled the country after receiving death threats.  More than 120 journalists have been murdered in the past decade, and many were killed for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption.  Another category of killings is known as “social cleansing”—the elimination of drug addicts, street children, and other marginal citizens by vigilante groups often linked to police.

There are approximately 80 distinct ethnic groups among Colombia’s 800,000-plus indigenous inhabitants.  These Native Americans are frequently the targets of violence despite their seeking to remain neutral in the armed conflict. In 1999, FARC guerrillas kidnapped three U.S. Native American rights activists and killed them.  Indian claims to land and resources are under challenge from government ministries and multinational corporations. In 2000, members of the U'wa tribe were violently repressed by the police as they protested a U.S. oil company's plans to drill on lands the tribe considered sacred. In September, heavily armed gunmen—believed to be paramilitaries—murdered four members of the Embera-Katio indigenous communities. The attack came after an April 2000 agreement that the government would grant the Embera lands to replace those flooded by a dam project, as well as protect them from paramilitary violence.

The murder of trade union activists continued, as Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for organized labor.  More than 2,500 trade union activists and leaders have been killed in little more than a decade. Labor leaders are targets of attacks by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, narcotics traffickers, and other union rivals.  According to the United Nations, some 948,000 Colombian children under the age of 14 work in “unacceptable” conditions.

2001 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)