Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1986

Colombia is a multiparty democracy in which elected
governments have ruled for all but 4 years (1953-57) of this
century. While Colombia's two traditional political parties,
the Liberals and the Conservatives, have dominated the
political arena since the mid-19th century, smaller parties
have fielded candidates at all levels and are usually
represented in Congress, state assemblies and city councils.
Governors and mayors traditionally have been appointed by the
President under a constitutional provision requiring "adequate
and equitable" representation of the major party not holding
the presidency. However, Liberal President Virgilio Barco
announced a "party government" after his overwhelming
electoral victory May 25, 1986. The Conservative Party has
declined to accept any political or technical positions in the
Barco Government and has declared itself in "reflexive
opposition. "
Colombia has a mixed economy in which private enterprise plays
an active role. The coffee industry, which accounts for one
half of the country's export earnings, is in private hands, as
are most entities engaged in manufacturing, agriculture, and
provision of services. There is a relatively large informal
economy. State enterprises control domestic participation in
major export industries such as oil and coal and play a
deciding role in the electrical and communication industries.
Notwithstanding its long tradition of electoral democracy,
Colombia continues to experience high levels of both political
and criminal violence. For most of the past 35 years, the
country has lived under a constitutionally authorized state of
siege to deal with civil disturbances, insurgent movements,
and, most recently, organized crime. The state of siege
lifted in 1982 was reimposed in 1984, following the
assassination of the Minister of Justice by narcotics
traffickers, and remained in effect through 1986. Except for
transferring terrorist cases from civilian to military courts,
the current state of siege has left most civil liberties
largely unaffected.
In 1986 various guerrilla groups and drug traffickers, at
times working in alliance, escalated the already high level of
violence in Colombia, directly challenging the Government's
ability to maintain order and preserve democratic institutions.
Their particular target was the judicial branch.
Under President Betancur (1982-1986), the Colombian Government
negotiated cease-fire agreements with half a dozen guerrilla
organizations then active in the country. Although they
pledged to cease hostilities for 1 year, most insurgent forces
by mid-1985 had withdrawn from the peace process and returned
to armed conflict, alleging that the Government was not
complying with the peace accords. The Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group in
Colombia, continues to honor the ceasefire agreement with the
military. In 1985 FARC established a political party, the
Patriotic Union (UP), and participated in the 1986
congre.ssional and presidential elections, fielding candidates
at all levels.
The 1986 election resulted in a landslide victory for Barco,
the Liberal candidate, who took office August 7, 1986. During
the campaign, Barco announced a 6-point peace plan to help end
Colombia's 20 years of guerrilla violence. The plan calls for
guarantees for the peaceful exercise of political activity;
implementation of an agrarian reform; verifiable agreements to
incorporate rebels who lay down their arms and abandon
terrorist actions into civil life; government maintenance of
public order, with strict respect for human and civil rights;
state mediation in social conflicts, and rehabilitation of
basic public services, particularly in regions afflicted by
violence .
Shortly after assuming office. President Barco named a Special
Advisor for Rehabilitation, Normalization, and Reconciliation,
Carlos Ossa Escobar, who immediately met with FARC and UP
leaders to outline the President's plan. The FARC reacted
with demands for political and economic reforms;
"purification" of the armed forces; lifting the state of
siege; and an end to "death squads." Although Ossa has since
criticized the FARC for truce-breaking, this first meeting
opened negotiations between the Barco Government and the
insurgents. At the end of 1986, prospects for participation
by the remaining guerrilla groups in the peace process were
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including
Freedom from:
a. Political Killing
Violence in Colombia has many sources, including guerrilla
assaults and the response by government forces, political
assassinations, narcotics traffickers' intimidation, and
common criminal activity. Victims of political killings
during 1986 have included political activists, city
councilmen, labor leaders, and legislators. Political
violence related to party affiliation in the modern era has
affected all of Colombia's parties regardless of size or
power. While the Communist-supported UP party has been a
principal target of such violence — 28 of its activists and
office holders were killed in 1986 — the Liberal and
Conservative parties have not been immune, suffering the loss
of 26 Conservative and 15 Liberal activists during the year.
These murders are under investigation but few persons have
been arrested or charged. Guerrilla groups are among the
suspects in politically motivated murders, including those of
UP politicians; they have also killed many people in rural
areas to intimidate others to support their activities. There
have also been allegations that members of the military or
paramilitary groups were responsible for some of the
killings .
The most serious current threat to Colombian human and
political rights is the campaign of intimidation and murder
waged by the narcotics traffickers against any and all
elements opposed to them. Murders attributed to narcotics
traffickers during 1986 include several judges, among them a
Supreme Court magistrate, over 100 police officers, a senior
customs official, an editor of the oldest and second largest
newspaper in the country, and a number of private sector
leaders. An October assassination attempt against a
congressman opposing legislation favored by the illegal drug
trade signaled an expansion of the violent campaign to targets
in the legislative branch.
In this period of active insurgency, statistics on killings
and disappearances are unreliable and subject to differing
interpretations. While the Permanent Committee for the
Defense of Human Rights, the major human rights organization
in Colombia, does maintain statistics, its 1986 report had not
been issued as of December 31. The Committee's data are based
on press reports, personal testimony, and complaints filed by
relatives and friends of alleged victims. The Committee does
not investigate incidents but conveys the information it
gathers to the Attorney General's office. Statistics issued
by Colombian military intelligence for the period January 1
through October 17, 1986, report the deaths of 131 policemen,
160 members of the armed forces, 450 guerrillas, and 639
civilians due to conflicts with the insurgency.
During the last year, there have been charges that military
repression exists in Colombia, In July 1986, Amnesty
International accused the Colombian armed forces of carrying
out a "dirty war" in Colombia. The organization claimed that
600 Colombians had been seized and killed in the first 6
months of 1986 by troops, police, and gunmen working with
them. Amnesty International alleged that the victims included
students, teachers, lawyers who defend political prisoners,
trade unionists, supporters of left-wing opposition parties,
Indian community leaders, and human rights activists. Amnesty
International quoted security force spokesmen that many
assassinations are committed by private "death squads."
Amnesty International added that death squads, sometimes in
uniform, use army vehicles, cross army roadblocks without
being detained, and park in army and police installations.
The organization asked then-President Belisario Betancur to
"act urgently to put an end to the assassinations."
The Government reacted swiftly and strongly to deny the
charges made by Amnesty International The Ministers of
Defense and Foreign Affairs stated that Colombia had the
mechanisms to investigate and punish those responsible for
violations .
In September 1986, Americas Watch updated a report published
earlier in the year claiming that Colombia's armed forces were
responsible for summary executions, torture, and
"disappearances" in actions against leftist guerrillas.
Americas Watch said it has no evidence "establishing high
command complicity in authorizing abuses," but it blamed the
high command for failing to put a stop to such practices.
The Attorney General is legally empowered to investigate and
prosecute members of the security forces for human rights
abuses. Cases of alleged abuse by a member of the armed
forces are investigated and, if substantiated, the persons
responsible are prosecuted. As an example, on October 30 the
Government announced that Captain Tomas Ignacio Monroy and
Sergeant Marco Aurelio Mendoza Mena were convicted following a
military court martial for responsibility in the murder of six
peasants near Medellin.
b. Disappearance
The Attorney General's office received and investigated
reports of 181 disappearances between September 1985 and
September 1986, compared with 344 disappearances in the first
11 months of 1985. Of those reported in 1986, 11 were found
alive, one was found dead, and the remaining 169 are still
missing. Military intelligence reported 139 kidnapings
through the first 10 months of 1986. It attributed 25
kidnapings to the FARC, 12 to The National Liberation Army
 (ELN) , 9 to The April 19th Movement (M-19), 5 to The Popular
Liberation Army (EPL), and 88 to persons unknown. Of these,
40 victims were freed, 17 were killed, 19 were rescued, and 63
were still being held. Colombian authorities have a
commendable record in investigating these crimes and in
rescuing many victims unharmed.
No United States citizens were kidnaped in Colombia in 1986.
However, one of the two kidnaped by the EPL in December 1985
was released June 3, 1986; the other died May 17 while in
c. Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or
The Attorney General investigated 50 cases of alleged torture
of individuals between September 1985 and September 1986, but
results of these inquiries had not been made public as of
December 1986. The results of investigations into incidents
of torture involving 27 police and armed forces officers in
1985 had also not been made public by the end of 1986.
Colombian prisons are notoriously overcrowded and understaffed
due to the practice of preventive detention and inadequate
budgets. In most prisons, inmates receive a subsistence diet
which they must supplement with purchases from prison stores.
Prisoners with financial resources live better than there
without means. Family members and friends are allowed to
visit regularly and to bring food and clothes. Consular
officers are given regular access to foreign prisoners. Most
prisoners accused of crimes in connection with guerrilla
activities are incarcerated in regular prisons, although
segregated from common criminals.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The Constitution provides the right to a judicial
determination of the legality of detention. A person may be
arrested if an order of capture (not an arrest warrant) has
been issued or if caught in the act of committing a crime.
The police must place the detained person at the order of a
judge within 24 hours. The judge must hold a preliminary
hearing, where an unsworn statement is giv-en by the suspect,
within 48 hours. During or after the preliminary hearing, if
the judge finds that there is enough evidence to pursue the
case, he issues an arrest warrant or an order of preventive
arrest. Preventive arrest is an order to keep the person
incarcerated until trial. Colombian law stipulates specific
terms within which a trial must be hold or the person is
released. Colombian law also provides for the granting of
bail, parole, and probation.
There are no legal provisions for exile. Forced or compulsory
labor is legally prohibited, and the prohibition is respected.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The judiciary is independent of the executive and legislative
branches of government. The rights of public trial and due
process are guaranteed by the Constitution. Prisoners have
the right to representation by counsel. If a prisoner does
not have an attorney, the court will appoint one. However,
due to the overburdened and underfunded judicial system, the
widespread practice of preventive detention, and the
traditional reluctance to grant bail in serious cases, most
prisoners incarcerated for common crimes never come to trial
but are simply released after serving the minimum sentence
applicable to the crimes alleged. In October 1986, there were
approximately 27,000 persons in prison, of whom 8,000 had been
tried and sentenced.
The existence of a large and powerful narcotics subculture is
a serious threat to the Colombian judicial system.
Magistrates, judges, and attorneys have been threatened or
killed because they were investigating, prosecuting, or trying
narcotics traffickers or their associates.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or
The Constitution requires a court order before authorities can
enter a private home, except in the case of hot pursuit.
While Colombian human rights organizations allege widespread
violations in the more remote areas, government forces
generally respect the sanctity of the home and privacy in most
parts of the country. Persons from rural areas frequently
claim that they have been forced to leave their farms by
military counter insurgency operations, guerrilla conscription
and confiscation, and by paramilitary thugs hired by local
landowners .
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
These constitutionally guaranteed rights are respected as a
rule, and the press often vigorously criticizes the Government
and its leaders. The privately owned print media are under no
governmental restraints and publish a wide variety of
political views. Television channels are controlled by the
State, which leases time to private companies and imposes some
guidelines to insure equal time for political candidates.
During the 1986 congressional campaign, three leading
candidates appeared in a debate, and during the presidential
campaign, the Government insured that each of four announced
candidates received equal time for a series of national TV
appearances. A pending electoral reform bill in the Congress
would guarantee access to the electronic media for all
political parties.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of peaceful assembly and association is generally
respected. Public meetings and demonstrations are normally
held without interference. Under the state of siege, prior
permission is required for demonstrations and is usually
granted, except when there is a clear and imminent danger to
public order. During 1986 no marches or demonstrations by
major groups or parties were banned in the capital, Bogota.
Some demonstrations were restricted in outlying towns and
regions afflicted with guerrilla violence.
Colombian workers enjoy the right to organize and, in the
private sector, to bargain collectively and strike. Use of
strikebreakers is prohibited by law, and generous severance
benefits tend to discourage management from firing union
militants. However, many provisions of labor law are
effectively ignored by small and medium-sized enterprises.
Given a severe labor surplus, unions have limited bargaining
power and have been unsuccessful in organizing beyond the
largest firms and the public services. Only about 8 percent
of Colombia's economically active population is unionized,
according to the latest government census of trade unions.
The country's 880,000 union members are divided almost equally
between the traditional "confederated" labor sector and the
leftist "independent" sector. Of the four confederations, two
are affiliated with the International Confederation of Free
Trade Unions, one with the World Federation of Trade Unions,
and one with the World Confederation of Labor. Some of the
leftist independent unions are considering affiliation with a
new labor confederation, ostensibly nonideological but under
heavy Communist influence.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. According to
official statistics, 217 different religious sects are
registered in Colombia. Although an overwhelming majority of
Colombians are Roman Catholics, no legal discrimination exists
against any religious group. In practice, however,
evangelical Christians and other non-Catholic groups operating
in Colombia have found it difficult to obtain entry and
resident visas for additional or replacement mission workers.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign
Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Colombians are free to leave and return to the country. In
areas under government control where operations against rural
guerrilla groups are under way, traveling civilians require
"safe conduct" passes; guerrillas reportedly use a similar
means to restrict travel in areas under their control.
Colombians who have sought and been granted diplomatic asylum
in foreign embassies have always been allowed to depart the
country. Expatriates can, by law, repatriate.
Colombia in the past has accepted refugees; however, because
of high unemployment and underemployment, the Government is
increasingly reluctant to accept displaced persons. The
Government does not involuntarily repatriate asylum seekers.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
Colombia has a democratic system of government, and elections
are conducted fairly and openly. Persons are enfranchised by
the Constitution at age 18. Those convicted of certain crimes
may be disenfranchised. Public employees are forbidden by law
to participate in political campaigns but, with the exception
of military personnel, can vote. Colombian politics are
dominated by two major parties, the Liberal and the
Conservative, and each includes elements with widely divergent
political views, however, all parties are free to raise
funds, field candidates, hold public meetings, have access to
the media, and publish their own newspapers. The Patriotic
Union, participating in national elections for the first time
in 1986, won 3 seats in the Senate and 5 in the House of
Representatives in the congressional elections rnd 4.5 percent
of the vote in the presidential election, the best showing by
a third party in recent history.
Legislation providing for direct election of mayors beginning
in March 1988 was signed into law by President Betancur
January 1, 1986. Under consideration by the Congress is
legislation to expand "popular consultation" — popular
referendums and recall of elected officials. In October the
Government proposed a constitutional reform that would provide
up to six new congressional seats specifically for small
parties on a national, rather than departmental, basis. The
draft reform would also increase the number of congressional
seats for the sparsely settled eastern plains, and would
permit public financing of election expenses.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
of Human Rights
Colombia, an active participant in international and regional
human rights bodies, currently chairs the United Nations Human
Rights Commission, and has welcomed nongovernmental human
rights organizations. The Human Rights Commission established
by the Attorney General in 1985 continues to operate.
Although it rarely meets as a whole, the assistant Attorney
General for human rights, a member of the Commission, receives
and investigates complaints of violations. The Permanent
Committee for the Defense of Human Rights is the most active
Colombian human rights organization. Its 94 members include
members of Congress — a UP senator is the Executive
Secretary — journalists, labor leaders, and persons in the
arts, including Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez . The
Committee compiles statistics based on press reports and
personal testimonies, which it turns over to the Government
for investigation and possible prosecution. It has no staff
or budget to verify such reports by conducting its own
inquiries. The Committee's statistics have been used
extensively by international organizations such as Amnesty
International, Americas Watch, and the Washington Office on
Latin America. The Committee also sponsors periodic human
rights forums in Colombia.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Language, or Social Status
Women have equal civil and property rights by law. Their
economic situation is inferior, however, especially in rural
areas. Women comprise just over 25 percent of the country's
economically active population but are concentrated in
low-productivity, low-income sectors. Historically, the
unemployment rate for women has been higher than for men, but
this difference has decreased in recent years. Although
women, legally entitled to pay equal to that of their male
counterparts, are normally paid equal salaries when employed
by the Government, such is not generally the case in private
industry. As more Colombian women graduate from universities
and participate in the work force, they are increasingly
active at all levels of society. A growing number of women
are receiving higher education. Currently 40 percent of the
university population, women also serve as legislators,
judges, governors of departments (states), political party
leaders, government officials, and diplomats.
Colombian Indians legally enjoy all rights and privileges of
full citizenship. However, Indian rights groups protest that
they- suffer a variety of abuses and are seeking to promote
local improvements through community action, public education,
and legal aid. Their most common complaint is that they are
forced off contested land by paramilitary thugs hired by large
landowners. When the Indians retaliate, the landowners
allegedly call on local police and military forces for
protection. One Indian group has organized a guerrilla band.
the Quintin Lame, reportedly allied with other guerrilla
groups against the Government.
The upsurge of land occupation by Indian groups that began in
mid-1984 continued unabated into 1986. Some landowners
attribute this to leftist political activists; other observers
consider it a natural result of the rural land situation,
perhaps exacerbated by current politicking over land reform.
Whatever the cause, the trend of increased invasions continues
to generate concern in government and among landowners.
The law prohibits the employment of children in most jobs
before the age of 14, particularly where such employment might
interfere with schooling. These provisions are respected in
the larger enterprises and larger cities. However, the
unofficial sector of very small businesses — workers employed
by relatives, self-employed workers, and street vendors — is
effectively outside government control. Approximately 2.5
million children under 15 work for low pay under poor
conditions with little protection from the labor code in the
unofficial sector. The labor code regulates the hours of
labor and other work conditions. The 8-hour day is standard
in larger companies, but the workweek generally exceeds 40
hours; a standard week of 5 8-hour days remains an important
long-term goal of Colombian trade unions.
The Government annually sets a national minimum wago which
serves as an important benchmark for wage bargaining.
Workers' occupational safety and health are extensively
regulated, including use of protective clothing and
ventilation, first aid and firefighting equipment at the job
site, sanitary facilities and potable water for workers, and
compensation for injuries. These regulations apply to the
larger agricultural enterprises as well as industry and
mining. However, exemptions for small companies, the frequent
use of workers as "subcontractors" rather than employees, and
general enforcement difficulties leave very large numbers of
workers outside the protection of the law. The Government is
endeavoring to improve regulatory enforcement, and improved
work conditions are a priority goal of the trade unions.