Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

UNHCR CDR Background Paper on Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Colombia

Publisher UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Author Centre for Documentation and Research
Publication Date 1 March 1998
Cite as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR CDR Background Paper on Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Colombia, 1 March 1998, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
Comments This information paper was prepared in the Country Research and Analysis Unit of UNHCR's Centre for Documentation and Research on the basis of publicly available information, analysis and comment, in collaboration with Regional Bureau Responsible for Somalia and the UNHCR Statistical Unit. All sources are cited. This paper is not, and does not, purport to be, fully exhaustive with regard to conditions in the country surveyed, or conclusive as to the merits of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Colombia has been an important source country of refugees and asylum-seekers over a number of years. This paper seeks to define the scope, destination, and causes of their flight.

In the first part, the paper provides a statistical overview of Colombian refugees and asylum-seekers in the main European asylum countries, describing current trends in the number and origin of asylum requests as well as the results of their status determination. The data are derived from government statistics made available to UNHCR and are compiled by its Statistical Unit.

The second part of the paper contains information regarding the conditions in the country of origin, which are often invoked by asylum-seekers when submitting their claim for refugee status. The Country Information Unit of UNHCR's Centre for Documentation and Research (CDR) conducts its work on the basis of publicly available information, analysis and comment, with all sources cited.

1. Colombian Asylum Seekers in Europe - Trends in Applications and Decisions *[1] Asylum applications

Approximately 1,800 Colombian nationals applied for asylum in Europe in 1997, an increase of about 30 per cent over 1996, when nearly 1,300 Colombians applied for asylum (see top of page 1 of the Tables). During 1997 the United Kingdom received three out of four Colombian asylum applications in Europe, about the same percentage as in 1996. During 1990-1991 Colombians applied for asylum mostly in France, then in in Spain during 1993 and 1994, and in the United Kingdom in 1992 and in 1995-1997 (see bottom of page 1 of the Tables). For 1997, the number of Colombian asylum applications (1,800) constituted one per cent of the total number of applications submitted in Europe (see top of page 6 of the Tables).

1951 UN Convention status recognitions

About 80 Colombian asylum seekers were granted 1951 UN Convention refugee status during 1997, an increase from 50 during 1996 and the highest number since 1991 (see top of page 2 of the Tables). In 1997, Switzerland granted Convention status recognition to 30 Colombian asylum seekers, and the United Kingdom to nearly 20. This represents a change from the early 1990s, when France was the leading country granting asylum to Colombians (see bottom of page 2 of the Tables). Thus, the number of Convention status recognitions granted to Colombians (80) was less than one per cent of the total number of Convention status recognitions (38,000) during 1997.

Humanitarian status

The number of humanitarian status recognitions granted to Colombians (70) in 1997 was similar to the levels in 1995 (50) and 1996 (50) (see top of page 4 of the Tables). The total number of persons granted humanitarian status recognition in Europe in 1997 was approximately 19,000.

Recognition rates

In 1997, the UN Convention recognition rate for Colombian refugees was 11 per cent, an increase from 1994-1996 (see top of page 5 of the Tables), but still lower than the 1997 European average for all nationalities (15 per cent ). The rate was the highest in Switzerland (60 percent in 1997, and 75 per cent during 1990-1997), but relatively low in the United Kingdom, the largest destination country of Colombian asylum applicants (around 5 per cent). The total recognition rate (including both Convention and humanitarian status recognitions) for Colombians was 21 per cent (see bottom of page 5 of the Tables). In other words, of all positive and negative decisions taken on Colombian asylum applications in Europe during 1997, two out of ten ended in either Convention or humanitarian status recognition (mostly first instance decisions only). This was very close to the total recognition rate for all nationalities (23 per cent) in 1997.

Applications and decisions in North America

A table is included at the end with relevant statistics on Colombians asylum applications in the United States and Canada. The United States receives the largest share of Colombian asylum applicants in North America. A peak in the number of Colombian applications was recorded in 1993 and 1994, with nearly 1,300 submissions in the U.S. in each of those years. The U.S. registered a slight increase in the number of Colombian asylum applications, from 890 in 1996 to 960 in 1997. The 1990-1997 recognition rate for Colombian asylum seekers was about 39 per cent in Canada and 26 per cent in the United States.

2. Profile of the Situation in Colombia

The Republic of Colombia is situated in the northwest of South America, with coasts on the Caribbean sea in the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west, surrounded in the east by Venezuela and Brazil and in the south by Peru and Ecuador, and with Panama, to its west, providing a link with Central America (Europa World Yearbook, 1991, 931). It has a diversified climate system, with tropical rain forest in the coastal areas, temperate zones in the plateaux, and permanent snow on its Andean peaks (Ibid.). The official language is Spanish. Catholics make up about 95 per cent of its population, and there are small Protestant and Jewish minorities (Ibid.). In 1996 its population was 39.5 million, of whom 60 per cent are of mixed race (Mestizos), followed by minorities of European (20 per cent) and African (18 per cent) origin, and a variety of indigenous groups (2 per cent) (Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Profile 1997-98, 19; Encyclopedia of the Third World, 1992, 391).

Executive power is vested in the President, who is elected by popular suffrage for a four-year term and is constitutionally forbidden to seek a consecutive term. The President appoints his Cabinet and the Council of State. Legislative power rests with Congress, which consists of a Senate and a Chamber of Representatives, and judiciary power rests with the Supreme Court (Ibid.). There is a strict separation of powers between the three (EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 6).

2.1 Background to the Current Conflict

For more than a century, Colombia has been ruled by two political parties, the Liberals (Partido Liberal) and the Conservatives (Partido Conservador). These two parties, which differed little in their political ideology, apart from the role of the Catholic Church (the Liberals were associated with anti-clericalism, federalism and free trade, while the Conservatives favoured a strong central government, protectionism and a close alliance with the Church), were composed of groups of large landowners (caciques) together with urban elites, who were able to mobilize the peasant population in the areas they controlled (Europa World Yearbook, 1991, 931; Encyclopedia of the Third World, 1992, 395; Costello, P., Writenet, August 1996). When peaceful competition between them failed, however, violent confrontation erupted: the nineteenth century saw six civil wars, including the 1899-1902 War of a Thousand Days, "fought between all (or part) of one party against the other", which resulted in a culture of strong party identification (EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 4; Costello, P., August 1996).

The traditional party structures began to be challenged in the 1930s when the economy began to modernize, and the coffee boom stimulated the construction of infrastructure, the start of industrial development in the cities and a larger export-oriented agriculture (Ibid.). These events "generated both rural-urban migration, but also movement outwards from the Andean areas to the agricultural frontier by peasants in search of land", thus giving greater power to peasant organizations and trade unions who began to voice their demands (Ibid.). Efforts to break with the traditional party elites in order to build support among the new social groups were brought to an end on 9 April 1948, with the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a popular Liberal Party politician who called for the overthrow of the bipartisan elite (Ibid.). This event triggered a ten-year period of mostly rural violence (La Violencia), in which an estimated 200,000-300,000 people died (South America, Central America and the Caribbean, 1997, 202; Costello, P., August 1996; EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 3). Initially party-organized "with Conservative-led government troops fighting against Liberal landowners who created peasant-guerrilla armies" (Costello, P., August 1996), some of the new guerrilla groups began to distance themselves from the landowners and ranchers who had armed them, leading to the creation in many areas of "a kind of banditry in which local feuds and land struggles were resolved under the cover of party violence" (Ibid.). An estimated two million peasants fled their lands, either to the towns or new agricultural areas (UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1995/50/Add.1, 3 October 1994) .

Thus, La Violencia set the stage for the conflict which continues today: the nucleus of today's guerrilla movements was formed by Liberal guerrillas who refused to disarm (Ibid.), and the army more than doubled in size, evolving into a modern professional force during the military government (1953-57) of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (Pearce, J., 1990). The bipartisan elite, however, emerged unchanged, and in 1958 established a system of power-sharing known as the National Front (Frente Nacional), alternating the presidency between the two parties and guaranteeing the other side a share of government jobs (EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 3). Although the National Front pact ended formally in 1974 when a fully competitive electoral system was introduced, most heads of state continue to offer cabinet positions to the opposition (Ibid.).

In the 1970s a new force came into play: the drug economy. The institutional weakness of the Government, plus the existence of large expanses of agricultural land in hard-to-reach areas of the country, created a favourable environment for the introduction of new crops like marihuana in the 1970s, followed by coca in the 1980s and by poppy in the 1990s (Comisión Andina de Juristas, 1990). Drug traffickers provided financial support to peasants and indigenous people to set up coca plantations; they also became financially involved with regional politics as they supported local politicians and lobbyists on local concerns, in many cases financing their campaigns in exchange for their support of proposals benefitting the drug industry (de Roux, F.J., in "The Culture of Violence", 1994). The guerrillas then hired out their protection services to the coca growers until tensions between the two groups arose over territorial control, which led the drug traffickers to join forces with the landowners' private armies (Ibid.). The army saw this as an opportunity to combat the guerrillas and joined forces with the drug traffickers and their private armies, leading to the creation of paramilitary groups (Ibid.). These short-term alliances of the armed forces and the guerrillas with other partners such as the drug traffickers led to endless local conflicts, revealing the inability of the State to keep an exclusive hold on the use of force and thus leading to the decentralization of the exercise of violence (Labrousse, A., in "Economie des guerres civiles", 1996).

2.2 Recent Political Developments Political Violence

Since 1995, the problems of political violence, human rights violations and internal armed conflict have worsened dramatically in Colombia, affecting the civilian population and causing internal displacement on a scale previously unknown (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Colombia, Derechos Humanos y Derecho Humanitario: 1996, 1997). The armed conflict has spread and intensified during the government of Ernesto Samper, elected president in 1994, and it escalated significantly in 1995, following the breakdown of the Government's proposals for peace negotiations with the main armed opposition groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL) (Amnesty International, October 1994).

The breakdown in public order in many rural areas, resulting from the continuing conflicts among guerrilla and narcotics trafficking organizations, economic interests, and the police and the armed forces, has caused the internal displacement of more than 525,000 citizens during the years 1995 to 1997 (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). Moreover, civilian participation in the conflict has grown, prompted in part by the guerrillas' increasing strength and presence in a greater number of municipalities, and in part by the Government's failure to ensure security throughout the country (Ibid.). Colombia also has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, averaging 76 murders per 100,000 inhabitants between the years 1988 and 1995 (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, 1997). In the political arena, there is a crisis of government brought about by the infiltration of drug-traffickers' money into the electoral campaign of President Samper, which seriously imperiled the development of institutional policies (Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos, Abril 1997). In August 1997 a large majority in Congress, including formerly friendly leaders of his Liberal Party, requested President Ernesto Samper to resign in light of his failure to govern the country and bring about public order in Colombia (Latin America Weekly Report, 19 August 1997). Congressional elections were held on 8 March 1998, resulting in an overwhelming victory for candidates of the Liberal Party, which got 50 per cent of the 102 seats in the Senate and won over the main opposition Conservative Party by "more than two-to-one in the race for the 161-member House of Representatives", with the remainder of the seats distributed among various independent and coalition groups (Reuters, 9 March 1998). Presidential elections are scheduled for May 1998, to be followed by the handover of power three months later, in August 1998 (Ibid.).Peace initiatives

Serious attempts at negotiating with the guerrilla movements began in 1982, during the presidency of Belisario Betancur (1982-86) who declared a broad amnesty for guerrillas and reconvened the Peace Commission that had been established in 1981 (EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 4; Europa World Yearbook, 1991, 931). Although a cease-fire agreement had been reached with the FARC, the Government remained the target of attacks by the ELN and the M-19, which was then operating as an urban guerrilla group and in 1985 staged the dramatic siege of the Palace of Justice that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, including 41 guerrillas and 11 judges (Europa World Yearbook, 1991, 931). The cease-fire agreement with the FARC broke down during the presidency of Virgilio Barco (1986-90), when the Government failed to respond effectively to a 1985-87 campaign of assassinations directed by right-wing paramilitary groups against members of the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica), the political party composed of demobilized members of the FARC, which resulted in nearly 450 deaths (Ibid., 1991, 931). In 1989, however, M-19 was persuaded to abandon the armed struggle and to enter the democratic political process: its leader and candidate for the 1990 presidential elections, Carlos Pizarro, was killed, and his successor, Antonio Navarro Wolff, came third in the elections (EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 4).

In 1991, the Government of President César Gaviria developed a ‘National Strategy' against violence, which was to serve as a basis for initiating peace dialogues with the guerrillas and for instituting measures to reintegrate drug traffickers and others outside the legal order through a "subjection to justice" policy (UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1995/50/Add.1, 3 October 1994). During the course of 1990-91 three smaller guerrilla groups, the EPL, the PRT (Revolutionary Workers Party) and the Quintin Lame Front demobilized under special agreements with the Government of President Gaviria, leaving the ELN and the FARC, and a dissident faction of the EPL, in the field (EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 4; Revolutionary and Dissident Movements, 1991, 54). However, an escalation of guerrilla activity during 1992 prompted the Government to intensify anti-insurgency measures and to exclude the possibility of further peace negotiations with the rebel groups (Europa World Yearbook, 1991, 933).

In 1995 the Government of President Samper offered the FARC an opportunity to participate in the legislative and consultative processes in exchange for their surrender of arms, which the FARC conditioned on the Government's successful withdrawal of its troops in the northeastern region of La Uribe (Europa World Yearbook, 1991, 933). Similar offers were made to the ELN and dissident groups of the EPL and the M-19, but all negotiations were severely undermined by renewed offensives by the FARC and the ELN, as well as an escalation of violent clashes between guerrilla forces and paramilitary groups in the northwestern region of Urabá (Ibid.). In 1997 President Ernesto Samper appointed two prominent officials to ‘explore' the possibility of opening peace talks with the guerrillas (LAWR, 29 July 1997). Their recommendations for starting peace negotiations appeared in a September 1997 report, which was dismissed by the guerrillas as being "too vague to be of much use" (LAWR, 16 September 1997).

The ELN reportedly seeks international involvement both by non-governmental organizations and the member countries of the Esquipulas II peace accords (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Venezuela, Holland, Sweden, France and Spain). A letter signed by imprisoned ELN leaders Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres called on the group of ‘friendly countries' to become more assertive in their mediation efforts (LAWR, 12 August 1997). The FARC's proposals for peace are said to include a demand for 50 per cent of the national budget to be spent on social welfare projects and ten per cent on scientific research, demands which are believed to be designed to rule out real negotiations (LAWR, 12 August 1997).

At a peace plebiscite held simultaneously with local elections on 26 October 1997, Colombians pledged to commit themselves to "helping with the construction of peace and justice, to protecting life and to rejecting all violent acts", calling on the state, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries to (i) resolve the armed conflict by peaceful means; (ii) not involve children of less than 18 years in the war; (iii) not kidnap citizens; (iv) not ‘disappear' citizens; (v) not force people to leave their homes, and (vi) not arm civilians or involve them in any way in the war (LAWR, 12 August 1997).

Effect on the economy

The political violence and instability have affected the economy negatively, and during the first three months of 1997 Colombia's GDP dropped 1.3 percent while unemployment reached a ten-year high of 13.6 per cent (LAWR, 19 August 1997). Guerrilla attacks against the oil pipeline from Caño Limón, in the department of Arauca, to Coveñas, on the Caribbean coast, have caused a loss of US$50 million to the national oil company Ecopetrol (Empresa Colombiana de Petróleos) (Ibid.). A report from the National Association of Financial Institutions (Asociación Nacional de Instituciones Financieras), warns that foreign direct investment could drop from US$3.9 billion in 1997 to US$1.7 billion by the year 2000 if the government does not adopt more effective counter-insurgency measures (LAWR, 26 August 1997(b)).

2.3 Profiles of Political Parties

Liberal Party (Partido Liberal - PL)

Founded in the 1840s, its orientation is centrist, favouring free enterprise and privatization of state companies. The PL has been the dominant party in Colombia since the 1930s and currently holds a majority of seats in both houses of Congress. The party is presently divided over the issue of drug-money financing of President Samper's 1994 campaign, and at least ten other Liberal members of Congress have been indicted for links to the Cali cartel. Nevertheless, the majority of its members have remained loyal to President Samper and have ensured his acquittal by the two investigating panels (Political Parties of the Americas and the Caribbean, 1992, 95; EIU Country Profile, 1997-98, 7).

Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador - PSC)

Founded in 1849, its orientation is conservative, and until recently advocated talks with the Medellín drug cartel and opposed the extradition to the USA of the drug barons. At present the PSC is divided into several factions: the main one, which supports President Samper and has helped to keep him in office, the National Salvation Movement and the New Democratic Force (Ibid.).

National Salvation Movement (Movimiento de Salvación Nacional - MSN)

Founded in 1990 and led by Alvaro Gómez Hurtado until his assassination in 1995. Its orientation is said to be right-wing traditionalist (EIU Country Profile, 1997-98, 7).

New Democratic Force (Nueva Fuerza Democrática - NFD)

This party's orientation is described as "middle-of-the-road social conservative". It is led by Andrés Pastrana, who lost the 1994 presidential election to Ernesto Samper (Ibid.).

Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica - UP)

Founded in 1985 by the Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista de Colombia - PCC) and other left-wing groups and trade unions as a way to integrate the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) guerrilla group into Colombia's political system following former President Belisario Betancur's peace initiatives in the early 1980s. Described as left-wing and Marxist, the UP exposed international drug traffickers, and consequently thousands of its members have been killed, allegedly by "right-wing" paramilitary groups (South America, Central America and the Caribbean, 1997, 218; Political Parties of the Americas and the Caribbean, 1992, 97). The victims have included two presidential candidates, around twenty congressmen, dozens of mayors and deputies and around 2,500 of its leaders and members (Pérez Casas, L.G., June 1995).

Corriente de Renovación Socialista (CRS)

Formed in 1994 after the demobilization of a breakaway faction of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). The party withdrew its candidates for the October 1997 local elections in the Caribbean coast region after two of them were killed and others were threatened by paramilitary groups (LAWR, 5 August 1997).

2.4 Contending Armed Groups

The Military

The Colombian armed forces are said to consist of 146,300 soldiers, of whom 121,000 are in the Army, 27,000 in the Navy, and 7,300 in the Air Force (EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 10). To counter guerrilla offensives in different parts of the country, the Army has created three specialized counter-insurgency brigades, known as the Mobile Brigades (Brigadas Móviles). Mobile Brigade No. 1 is tasked with protecting the department of Cundinamarca (capital: Santa Fé de Bogotá) against guerrilla advances from other parts of the country. Mobile Brigade No. 2 is regarded as one of the most effective, not only in combating guerrillas but also in the antinarcotics war; it has conducted successful offensives against drug cartels operating in the eastern plains of Guaviare and Caquetá. Mobile Brigade No. 3, consisting of 1,500 elite professional soldiers and including a fleet of helicopters and combat planes, was created in October 1997 as a special counter-insurgency brigade to tackle the numerous setbacks incurred in the last two years by the Army at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the south of the country (El Tiempo, 5 de marzo de 1998(a)). On 3 March 1998, Mobile Brigade No. 3 was ambushed by FARC guerrillas, as it conducted an offensive operation in the region of Caguán, in the department of Caquetá. Approximately 100 elite troops were killed in what was reported to be the worst military defeat in the ten-year armed conflict (El Tiempo, 5 de marzo de 1998, (a),(b),(c)).

CONVIVIR (Cooperativas de Vigilancia y Seguridad Rural)

The formation of these ‘Rural Watch Cooperatives' was approved by Decree 356 of 1994, ostensibly to act as civilian intelligence and information support groups for the armed forces (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998; Alternativa, Número 8, 1997). In addition to intelligence gathering activities, the Convivir groups have reportedly joined military manoeuvres and use weapons banned for private ownership, such as machine guns, mortars, grenades and assault rifles (HRW World Report 1998, 101). Over 400 groups are said to be legally authorized, and another 300 are believed to be operating as such, but without due authorization (Amnesty International, January 1998). Despite their official licensing, the identities of members of Convivir associations "remain anonymous even to local authorities" (HRW World Report 1998, 101). Human rights organizations regard them as little more than paramilitary groups (LAWR, 29 July 1997). For example, Human Rights Watch claims to have received reports during 1997 that Convivir groups in the Middle Magdalena and southern César regions "were led by known paramilitaries and had threatened and killed Colombians deemed sympathetic to guerrillas who refused to join" (World Report 1998, 101). In November 1997 the Constitutional Court reiterated the constitutionality of the Convivir groups, but warned that they should not be permitted to act as "death squads" or to violate human rights. They were therefore ordered to relinquish their weapons, which had been issued to them by the armed forces. Furthermore, the Government announced modifications whereby one-half of the groups would be transformed into Special Service Groups (Servicios Especiales) and one-half into Community Service Groups (Servicios Comunitarios) (LAWR, 29 July 1997).

Paramilitary groups

According to Amnesty International, army-backed paramilitary groups have terrorized rural Colombia for more than ten years, "torturing, killing and ‘disappearing' with virtual impunity" (August 1995). Initially recruited, armed and trained by the Army brigade commanders and intelligence units attached to brigades and batallions in the conflict zones, these ‘self-defense' squads were subsequently given economic support by large landowners, industrialists, regional politicians and, later, drug traffickers (Ibid.). The U.S. Department of State refers to a September 1997 report by the Presidential Exploratory Peace Commission which noted a clear relationship between local political and economic elites in some parts of the country and the self-defense groups, both in their financing and in the direction of their activities (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). Moreover, in 1996, HRW/Americas and HRW Arms Project reported on the partnership between the Colombian Military and paramilitary organizations (November 1996). Amnesty International further states that During the 1980s the paramilitary phenomenon grew rapidly. From the mid-1980s the ‘self-defence' groups increasingly merged with private armies of gunmen formed by drug-traffickers who had bought vast tracts of rich farmland in areas with a guerrilla presence. A community of interests developed between drug-traffickers and local army commanders in that both sought to eliminate members of rural communities who might sympathize with or support armed insurgents, and to deprive guerrilla groups of their social base. From small local groups intended to augment the military's capacity to protect private farms and rural communities from guerrilla attack, by 1988 the paramilitary organizations had become powerful military structures capable of coordinated action throughout the country (Ibid.).

This diverse collection of regional-based paramilitary groups has assumed a dominant role in the country's armed conflict: their activities escalated not only in areas that have long endured the concentration of violence such as Meta, Urabá, Córdoba and César, but they are now present in parts of Antioquia beyond Urabá, the Middle Magdalena region and the departments of Sucre, Guaviare, Caquetá and Putumayo, resulting in a considerable expansion of their political and military influence into a number of areas previously dominated by the guerrillas (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). Paramilitary groups were said to be responsible for 69 per cent of all politically motivated extrajudicial executions committed during the first nine months of 1997 (Ibid.). They are diverse in their motivations, structure, leadership and ideology, and their victims are usually unarmed non-combatant civilians, such as teachers, labour leaders, community activists, mayors of towns and villages, town councilmen, some members of indigenous communities and, above all, peasants whom they either kill or forcibly displace for their perceived ties to the guerrillas (Ibid.).

The Peasant Self-Defense Group of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá - ACCU)

- Led by Carlos Castaño, whose landholdings reportedly extend through the departments of Córdoba, Antioquia and Chocó (Alternativa, Número 13 [Internet: accessed 21 February 1998]). Their position was published in 1997: "we respect all persons who are outside the conflict, but we do not so consider guerrillas camouflaged as peasants engaged in espionage" (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). ACCU is reported to hold the worst record of human rights abuses in 1997, having committed at least 22 of the massacres in the first eight months of the year, including the five-day attack in July in the town of Maripirán, in the department of Meta, which left nearly 40 people dead (HRW World Report 1998, 1997). ACCU has expanded its area of operations, moving south from the Caribbean coast into the departments of Bolívar, Magdalena, Santander, Sucre, and César, with massacres, killings, death threats, and forced displacement marking its advance" (Ibid.). Since October 1996 ACCU forces have reportedly entered Panamá repeatedly and killed or threatened local villagers accused of providing guerrillas with food and medicine (Ibid.).

United Self-Defense Groups (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) - is a national umbrella organization established in April 1997 by the largest illegal paramilitary groups from Córdoba, Urabá, the Middle Magdalena and the eastern plains of the country (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).

Colombia Without Guerrillas - (Colombia sin guerrillas - COLSINGUE)

This group reportedly appeared around 1993-94. In its public communications, it has allegedly used information from trials which was available only to members of the armed forces and the judiciary (Oficina Internacional de Derechos Humanos-Acción Colombia, February 1996)

Death to Communists and Guerrillas - (Muerte a Comunistas y Guerrilleros - MACOGUE) - A group which operates in the region of Segovia, in the northeast of the department of Antioquia, who claim to love the motherland, to support the army and to want to expel the guerrillas from Segovia (Amnesty International, November 1996).

Death to Kidnappers - (Muerte a Secuestradores - MAS)

The group emerged in 1982 in the city of Medellín, in the department of Antioquia. It claimed to be against groups which carried out abductions to finance their operations, and it targeted suspected guerrillas, trade unionists and peasants. MAS is believed to be responsible for the 1982 deaths of M-19 leader Camilo Restrepo and the amnestied leader of the ELN, Henry Castro, and for the 1984 death of Fr. Alvaro Orcue, the only Roman Catholic Indian priest in Colombia and campaigner for peasant rights (Revolutionary and Dissident Movements, 1991, 52). A 1983 investigation revealed links between the MAS paramilitaries and the military, and MAS is also believed to be "linked from its formation to the drug trade and to have received financial backing from drug dealers" (Ibid.). In 1989 the MAS reportedly killed Communist Party and Patriotic Union leader José Antequera and wounded then-Liberal Party leader and now President Ernesto Samper, ostensibly under orders from one of the drug cartels (Political Parties of the Americas and the Caribbean, 1992, 100).

The Black Serpent (La Serpiente Negra) -

This is said to be a private army of more than 2,000 men set up by Colombia's "emerald king", Victor Carranza (Reuters, 25 February 1998(a)). Human rights groups allege that, during the six-year war for control of the emerald industry during the 1980s, Black Serpent militiamen "killed hundreds of left-wing activists and drove peasants off resource-rich land in the emerald region of central Boyacá province and the oil-rich eastern plains" (Ibid.). Victor Carranza's wealth is said to include vast land holdings, cattle raising, drug trafficking and money laundering (Reuters, 25 February 1998(b)). On 24 February 1998, he was arrested and charged with financing and sponsoring right-wing paramilitary death squads (Washington Post, 26 February 1998; Reuters, 25 February 1998(a), (b)).

Los Tangueros

One of the many groups responsible for the violence in the Urabá region, it was organized by Fidel Castaño Gil (brother of ACCU leader Carlos Castaño). The group is named after his farm "Las Tangas", which serves as their base. The group forms part of the advance forces used to attack and displace guerrillas and their social base (Grupo de Apoyo, June 1995).

Death to Revolutionaries of the Northeast (Muerte a Revolucionarios del Nordeste - MRN) / The Realists (Los Realistas)

This group is believed to have issued death threats against residents of the city of Segovia, in the northeast of Antioquia, prior to the 11 November 1988 massacre which left 43 people dead (Amnesty International, November 1996).

Other, less well-known paramilitary groups include the "Mochacabezas", so called because they decapitate their victims, and reportedly operate mainly in the department of Chocó (Alternativa, No. 10, 1997 [Internet]); the "Masetos", accused of numerous killings, operating mainly in the oil-producing region of Casanare (Ibid.); Dignidad por Antioquia (Dignity for Antioquia) and Resistencia Campesina (Peasant Resistance), also believed to be operating in the northeast of the department of Antioquia (Amnesty International, November 1996).

Guerrilla groups

According to the U.S. Department of State, there are three distinct communist rebel armies -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL) -- which reportedly command from 10,000 to 15,000 full-time guerrillas, operating on more than 100 fronts in an estimated 30 of the nation's 32 departments (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). Tied loosely into the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Group (Coordinadora Nacional Guerrillera Simón Bolívar), they are said to exercise considerable influence in 57 per cent of the nation's 1,071 municipalities (Ibid.). Their tactics are said to be similar to those of the paramilitary groups: extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, torture, targeting of civilian populations and installations, and the forced recruitment of children under the age of 15 (Ibid.). In August 1997, a local observer noted that the guerrillas have become Colombia's "great power", not only for their military might but also for their economic capacity, which has enabled them to maintain a powerful propaganda and political negotiating apparatus, mainly in Europe and other Latin American countries such as México (Semana, 18-25 de Agosto de 1997 [Internet]).

By the middle of 1997 evidence began to surface that guerrilla groups were coordinating their actions. For example, the early July 1997 there was a succession of attacks, first by the ELN and then by the FARC, against the hydroelectric dam installations at Guatape, east of Medellín (LAWR, 8 July 1997), as well as a series of attacks against the 780-kilometre Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline, believed to have been coordinated by the two groups (LAWR, 22 July 1997). Also evident was the guerrillas' ability to deploy larger units in simultaneous operations in different parts of the country, with analysts predicting that in one year they would be able to double the number of fighters they had in the field at that time (LAWR, 8 July 1997). In August 1997 the two groups were said to be working in conjunction in the departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander, and military intelligence speculated that they might be discussing the establishment of a single command structure (LAWR, 5 August 1997).

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - Popular Army

(Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Ejército Popular - FARC-EP)

Founded in 1966 by Manuel Marulanda Vélez, alias "Tirofijo" (Sure Shot), and other members of the Communist Party's central committee, it is Latin America's oldest and largest guerrilla army (Revolutionary and Dissident Movements, 1991, 52; Reuters, 24 February 1998; LAWR, 29 July 1997). A short-lived truce with the Government resulted in the formation in 1985 of the political party Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica), whose members were former FARC guerrillas (Revolutionary and Dissident Movements, 1991, 52). However, the lack of progress towards a final peace settlement became evident after the new Liberal administration took over in 1986, which gradually led to a renewal of hostilities between FARC guerrillas, Government troops and paramilitary units (Ibid.). At present the FARC, like the ELN, calls for a revision of development policies for Colombia's oil industry (LAWR, 17 June 1997). In July 1997 the group claimed to have killed 26 of the men accused of the massacre of 35 residents of Mariripán, in the department of Meta, on the grounds that the gunmen were not paramilitaries but "counter-insurgency troops of the army's IV division, masquerading as civilian militiamen" (LAWR, 12 August 1997).

In December 1997 members of the 9th Front, located in the department of Antioquia, detained four journalists and six elected mayors for several days in protest at the increased activity by paramilitary forces throughout the country (El Espectador, 20 December 1997(a), [Internet]). FARC guerrillas in the eastern department of Santander also kidnapped nine officials of the three palm growing companies in the region, threatening further kidnappings if the ransom demanded for them was not paid (El Espectador, 20 December 1997(b)). The FARC reportedly has a strong presence in the southern and central departments of Huila, Caquetá, Putumayo, Guaviare, Meta and Nariño (El Tiempo, 5 de marzo de 1998(a)). However, it is the FARC's southern block, with traditional power bases in the Putumayo province, the leading cocaine-producing area of the country, which is considered to be the best organized militarily (Reuters, 5 March 1998, 14 February 1998; El Tiempo, 5 de marzo de 1998(a) [Internet]). Composed of 11 fronts plus a guerrilla group known as Teófilo Forero, totalling at least 1,500 armed men, the southern block has dealt severe blows to the Colombian military in the last two years (El Tiempo, 5 de marzo de 1998(a)(b) [Internet]; The Economist, 10 January 1998). The most recent of these occurred in the first week of March 1998 in the department of Caquetá, where an attack against an elite mobile brigade, consisting of approximately 120 professional soldiers, is believed to have left a death toll of 70 to 100 soldiers (Reuters, 5 March 1995(c)).

National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN)

The ELN was established in January 1965 under the leadership of Fabio Vasquez Castaño and with support of a (Maoist) Workers', Students' and Peasants' Movement (MOEC). Initially it operated in the department of Santander, but it has spread to other parts of the country. Its most famous member was the priest Camilo Torres, who advocated a ‘Christian revolution' to overthrow the existing social order, and who was killed in a clash between the ELN and an army unit in 1966 (Revolutionary and Dissident Movements, 1991, 54). The group is currently led by Manuel Pérez. Two other senior commanders, Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres, are in prison (LAWR, 29 July 1997). The ELN, like the FARC, calls for a revision of Colombia's oil industry development policies: in 1985 it declared the oil sector a military target, in protest against the oil exploration contracts signed by the national petroleum company, Ecopetrol, with foreign companies, which it felt undermined national sovereignty (LAWR, 17 June 1997). It has mostly targeted the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline as well as military installations and personnel: on 6 July 1997 ELN guerrillas shot down a military helicopter, killing 29 soldiers as they rushed to the scene of another act of sabotage (the 35th in 1997) against a stretch of the oil pipeline in the eastern plains, in the department of Arauca (LAWR, 8 July 1997). The ELN is divided into numerous fronts, such as the Frente Bolcheviques del Líbano, believed to be responsible for the 15 February 1998 kidnappings of two Liberal party candidates of the municipality of Líbano in the department of Tolima (El Tiempo, 22 February 1998); the Frente Camilo Torres; the Frente Carlos Alirio Buitrago; the Frente José David Suárez, which in June 1997 declared that all personnel and installations of the Cupiaga oil field, in the eastern department of Casanare, were to be considered as ‘military targets' (LAWR, 17 June 1997); the Frente María Cano, which is active in the department of Antioquia, where, together with the FARC, it has "conduct[ed] a systematic campaign of kidnapping town mayors" (LAWR, 1 July 1997). The ELN was responsible for a large number of kidnappings of elected officials and candidates in the run-up to the October 1997 municipal elections (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).People's Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL)

Formed in 1968 by the (Maoiste) Colombian Communist Party -- Marxist-Leninist, which had broken away from the (Marxist-Leninist) Colombian Communist Party in 1965. It initially conducted its activities in the department of Córdoba. In 1980 the party reportedly consisted of 60 fronts, and by 1983 it was considered to be the third largest guerrilla group in Colombia. In 1987 the EPL joined the Simón Bolívar Coordinating Group (Coordinadora Nacional Guerrillera Simón Bolívar), and in January 1991 it signed a peace agreement with the Government of then-President César Gaviria, in exchange for two seats in the Constituent Assembly and its members' reintegration into civilian life. By March 1991 2,000 EPL members had handed over their weapons. The group subsequently joined the political mainstream as the Hope, Peace and Liberty party (Esperanza, Paz y Libertad - EPL) (South America, Central America and the Caribbean 1997, 218; Revolutionary and Dissident Movements of the World, 1991, 54). One dissident faction, however, remained within the "Coordinadora Simón Bolivar" retaining the original name of the group, and was reported to have been responsible, together with the FARC and the ELN, for extrajudicial killings in 1997 (Amnesty International, January 1998; U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).

Simón Bolívar National Coordinating Group (Coordinadora Nacional Guerrillera Simón Bolívar) - This group was organized in 1987 as a central unified command for six Colombian guerrilla factions: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); the National Liberation Army (ELN); the People's Liberation Army (EPL); the Workers' Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario de Trabajadores - PRT), and the Quintin Lame Front. When many of these groups reached peace agreements with the Government in 1991, only the FARC and the ELN remained in the "Coordinadora Simón Bolivar". In 1992 it also included a dissident faction of the EPL (Revolutionary and Dissident Movements, 1991, 54).

3. Human Rights Situation

3.1 International and National Legal Framework

Colombia has ratified the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (10 October 1961) and its Protocol (4 March 1980); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocol (29 October 1969); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (29 October 1969); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (2 September 1981); the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (8 December 1987); the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (27 October 1959); the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (19 January 1982); the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (19 January 1982); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (28 January 1991); the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (24 May 1995), and the Agreement Establishing the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (9 May 1995).

Constitution of 1991

In July 1991 President Gaviria presented the nation with a new Constitution, which aimed, inter alia, to encourage greater political participation by opening up the system to minority groups and interests; to protect a comprehensive list of civil liberties, including the right of every citizen to social welfare, education and recreational facilities and the right to equality of women and young people, as well as to restructure the judiciary through modernization and streamlining (Europa World Yearbook, 1991, 932; EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 7). The 1991 Constitution banned the extradition of Colombian nationals, and presidential re-election, but it called for the popular election of regional governors, who had previously been appointed by the president (Ibid., EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 7). The inclusion of extensive references to human rights and the creation of a number of mechanisms for their protection, such as the post of Defensor del Pueblo, was seen as one of the most important measures for the protection of human rights in Colombia (UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1995/50/Add.1, 3 October 1994). However, the Defensor del Pueblo was not invested with the power to investigate human rights abuses, and his office appeared to be underfunded and not represented in the whole of the country (Ibid.).

The 1991 Constitution, therefore, is said to work better in theory than in practice: it has failed to break the stranglehold on power of the two traditional political parties; the courts continue to be overloaded and inefficient, and it severely restricts the Government's ability to react to problems of internal order (EIU Country Profile 1997-98, 7). Moreover, clauses relating to the armed forces were said to have remained mainly unchanged, and provisions recognizing the democratic rights of indigenous groups did not extend to their territorial claims (Europa World Yearbook, 1991, 932).

3.2 General Respect of Human Rights

The Constitution of 1991 introduced measures for the protection of human rights, such as the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman, the Department for Human Rights within the Office of the Public Prosecutor and the Division for Human Rights within the Office of the Attorney-General. The Office of the Public Prosecutor in turn set up permanent offices on human rights in the main cities of the country, and in 1997 an Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia was established (UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, CCPR/C/79/Add.76; Human Rights Watch, World Report 1998, 1997; UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1997/11, 24 January 1997, and E/CN.4/1995/50/Add.1, 3 October 1994). Other non-governmental human rights organizations active in the country include the Catholic Bishops Conference; the Colombian Commission of Jurists; the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace; the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights; the Center for Investigations and Popular Resarch; the Advisory Committee for Human Rights and Displacements; the Latin American Institute for Alternative Legal Services; the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners; the Association of Families of Detained and Disappeared Persons; the Reinsertion Foundation (for demobilized guerrillas), the Pais Libre Foundation (focused on the rights of kidnap victims), and the VIDA Foundation (dealing with the rights of victims of guerrilla violence) (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). The ICRC has expanded its operations, with offices in Bogotá and 11 other conflict zones. In collaboration with the presidential human rights adviser and the public security forces, it helped provide training programmes in international humanitarian law (Ibid.).

Nevertheless, the human rights crisis in Colombia continues to deteriorate due to the intensification and expansion into more areas of the country of the ten-year armed conflict, especially since the 1995 breakdown of the Government's proposals for holding peace talks with the main armed opposition groups, the FARC, the ELN and the EPL (Amnesty International, January 1998; HRW World Report 1998, 1997).

Extrajudicial executions, forcible disappearances and torture are said to be widespread, while arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as prolonged pre-trial detention, remain "fundamental problems" (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998; Amnesty International, January 1998; HRW World Report 1998, 1997).

The U.S. Department of State reports that during the first nine months of 1997 security forces committed 7.5 per cent of all politically motivated extrajudicial killings and were responsible for several instances of forced disappearance, and that police and soldiers tortured and beat a number of detainees (Ibid.). Amnesty International notes that a decrease in the past few years of abuses directly attributable to the military has had a corresponding increase in abuses committed by paramilitary groups "operating with their support or acquiescence" (January 1998). Human Rights Watch adds that despite the police and the military's incorporation of human rights into their public statements, and their meetings with human rights groups, there was no consistent action against paramilitaries, who "operated freely in heavily militarized areas and significantly expanded their operations" (HRW World Report 1998, 1997, p. 99).

Paramilitary groups allegedly committed 69 per cent of all politically motivated extrajudicial killings, and those groups which increasingly took the offensive against the guerrillas reportedly perpetrated targeted killings, massacres, and forced displacements of the guerrillas' perceived or alleged civilian support base; their active policy of depopulation was said to be the main cause of the growing problem of internal displacement in Colombia (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).

Armed opposition groups were also responsible for deliberate and arbitrary killings as well as for kidnapping and holding hostage hundreds of civilians (Amnesty International, January 1998). During the first nine months of 1997 they were responsible for 23.5 per cent of all politically motivated extrajudicial killings, as well as for disappearances, and for more than 50 per cent (867) of all formally reported kidnappings (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).

Only 30 per cent of political killings are said to occur during actual combat between the military, paramilitaries and guerrillas (National Catholic Reporter, 24 October 1997). According to Human Rights Watch, All parties routinely attacked perceived enemies within the civilian population, meaning that non-combatants -- among them farmers, elected officials, teachers, banana workers, merchants and children -- remained Colombia's most frequent victims of political violence (World Report 1998, 1997).

Amnesty International further illustrates the problem by providing the Procurator-General's analysis of the Government's counter-insurgency strategy:
The state of security and defence agencies are trained to persecute a collective enemy and generally consider that victims form part of that enemy. In a substantial number of cases they act on the premise that prevailed in the war in El Salvador of "removing the water from the fish", which means that they establish a direct link between, for example, the trade unions or peasant organizations, with the guerrilla forces and when they carry out counter-insurgency operations these passive subjects are not identified as "independent" victims but as part of the enemy. In effect, the state security and defence forces assault the human rights of independent passive subjects because they commit the mistake of considering them to be the enemy or allied to the enemy (August 1995).Extrajudicial execution

According to the U.S. Department of State, political and extrajudicial killings continue to be a serious problem, with more than 3,500 persons said to have died in such acts, committed by both state and non-state agents during 1997 (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos - CIDH) indicates that the internal armed conflict, involving acts committed by armed rebel groups, State agents, paramilitary groups, drug traffickers and organized crime, and the resulting violations to basic human rights and international humanitarian law, are the sources of a "lamentable" number of deaths, of which 3,000 are directly attributable to the political violence (Organization of American States, Press Release No. 20/97, 8 December 1997). Figures released by the Institute for Legal Medicine indicate a 1997 homicide rate of 66 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, 74 per cent of which are said to go unreported while approximately 98 per cent go unpunished ((U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). Human Rights Watch reports that it recorded 24 cases of extrajudicial executions attributable to the security forces during the first six months of 1997, citing the case of the Middle Magdalena region and southern César department, where "army units patrolled openly with groups of armed civilians, killing and threatening supposed guerrilla supporters" (World Report 1998, 1997). It adds, however, that the paramilitary group known as the Peasant Self-Defense Group of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) "committed at least twenty-two of the massacres reported in the first eight months of 1997 . . . [and that] . . . guerrillas committed serious abuses during 1997, among them massacres" (Ibid.). Amnesty International has published numerous reports detailing massacres, extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations committed by all sides of the conflict in different parts of the country, such as Segovia, in northeastern Antioquia, (November 1996); the department of Sucre (June 1996); the departments of Norte de Santander and César (August 1995), among others. In 1997, The Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Mr. Param Cumaraswamy, referred to urgent appeals he had transmitted to the Government of Colombia concerning death threats or assassination of human rights lawyers (E/CN.4/1997/32, 18 February 1997).

In February 1998, 48 people were reportedly killed by paramilitaries in "ten days of bloodshed" in the port city of Puerto Asís, in the southern department of Putumayo (Reuters, 11 February 1998). Elsewhere, a paramilitary group was reported to have killed 11 peasants in the municipality of La Ceja, in the northeast of the department of Antioquia (El Espectador, 25 February 1998).

Forced disappearance/Kidnappings

The U.S. Department of State reports that an estimated 3,000 cases of forced disappearance have been formally reported to the authorities since 1977, with only very few cases having been resolved. It cites data collected by the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace and the Center for Investigations and Popular Research (CINEP) which indicates that 136 persons ‘disappeared' during the first nine months of 1997 (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).

Human Rights Watch notes that "kidnapping remained a common tactic of paramilitaries and guerrillas, who routinely took family members of combatants as hostages" (World Report 1998, 102). Guerrillas were believed to be responsible for over 50 per cent (867 victims) of the 1,693 kidnapping cases formally reported to the National Police during 1997 (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported that most instances of forced disappearance have occurred in those region where the level of violence is highest, and that some of its victims are persons belonging to civic or human rights groups who publicly denounced abuses committed by members of the security forces or paramilitary groups (UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1998/43, 12 January 1998). Foreigners are said to account for five per cent of those kidnapped, posing attractive targets for both the FARC and the ELN, which generally demanded "exorbitant ransom payments for their release" (Ibid.). From August to October 1997, FARC and ELN guerrillas conducted a massive campaign against candidates for the 26 October departmental and local elections in which "hundreds of persons were kidnapped, held for several days or weeks, lectured, and subsequently released, typically after promising to withdraw their candidacies" (Ibid.). On the other hand, since 1996 ACCU paramilitary groups have kidnapped over a dozen relatives of guerrillas, some of whom were released on 26 March through the good offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) (Ibid.). On 18 April 1997, presumed members of a paramilitary group in the city of Bucaramanga kidnapped the sister and brother-in-law of Nicolas Rodríguez, the deputy commander of the ELN, ostensibly as part of a campaign begun in 1996 to give guerrillas "a taste of their own medicine" (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). Guerrillas also kidnapped and subsequently released two electoral observers from the the Organization of American States (OAS, Press Release No. 20/97, 8 December 1997).

In February 1998, El Tiempo reported the kidnappings by the FARC of the mayor and two councilmen of the municipality of Planadas (22 February 1998), the mayor of the town of Roncesvalles (26 February 1998), and two Liberal party candidates from the municipality of Líbano (22 February 1998), all in the department of Tolima; the mayor and two councilmen of the municipality of Medina, in the department of Cundinamarca (27 February 1998(a)); the abduction of an agronomist, the ninth being held in captivity, from the main palm growing company in Puerto Wilches, in the department of Santander (26 February 1998), and of a wealthy university student who was subsequently rescued, in Bogotá (21 February 1998). El Tiempo also reported the lack of information on two mayors from the municipalities of San Calixto and Convención in the department of Santander, kidnapped five months earlier by the ELN (27 February 1998(a)), or on the fate of three American missionaries kidnapped on 3 January 1993 by the FARC (27 February 1998(b)).


Although the Constitution prohibits torture, as well as other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the U.S. Department of State indicates that there were continued incidents torture or mistreatment of detainees carried out by the police and the military (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). It further indicates that the Office of the Attorney-General for Human Rights reported investigating 462 cases of torture committed by the police, army, prison officials, DAS (Department of Administrative Security) and other agents of the State in the period from June 1995 to October 1996 (Ibid.). Paramilitary and guerrilla groups were also said to be responsible for many instances of torture, as evidenced by the signs of torture and disfiguration on the bodies of a great many persons detained and subsequently killed by these groups (Ibid.).

3.3 The Situation of Specific Groups

In 1995, Amnesty International reported that Colombian security and paramilitary forces frequently targeted civilians active in popular and civic organizations such as trade unions, peasant organizations, human rights organizations and members of legal political opposition parties (August 1995). These sectors are considered subversive not only by the armed forces and paramilitary groups, but also by traditionally dominant sectors whose interests are challenged by popular activists and organizations as well as opposition party politicians. Consequently, people considered to be guerrilla collaborators are included in "death lists" drawn up by the security forces and then used by them and the paramilitary groups to target civilians (Ibid.). The U.S. Department of State reported that there were numerous instances of people pressured into self-exile for their personal safety, and that these included politicians, human rights workers, slum-dwellers, business executives, and rural farmers, who were threatened by diverse sources such as elements of the military, paramilitary groups, guerrilla groups, narcotics traffickers, and other criminal elements (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). The Office of the Presidency is said to have assisted the international relocation of threatened persons in more than 150 cases, when it was decided that the Government was unable to ensure their security anywhere in the country (Ibid.).

Human rights activists

Human rights defenders are said to be one of the groups most affected by the violence, whether they are attached to important government, non-governmental, state, church or academic institutions most often involved in providing legal protection and humanitarian assistance to the displaced population (Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos, Abril 1997). Some have been detained on charges of collaborating with guerrillas, others have been killed, and most of them have been forced to flee their places of origin, either becoming internally displaced themselves or seeking asylum or refuge in other countries (Ibid.). At least ten governmental and non-governmental human rights workers were reportedly killed during 1997: two workers associated with CINEP, Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado, along with her father, were killed in a pre-dawn attack on 19 May by five armed individuals; the head of the Meta Committee for Human Rights, Josué Giraldo, who was then under "protection" of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, was killed in October 1996; on 4 June 1997 a small bomb exploded at the Medellín office of the Colombian Red Cross when the ICRC was coordinating the release of 70 government troops held by the FARC; also targeted were the offices of an association helping displaced people (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). In December 1996, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Bacre Waly Ndiaye, reported that the risks facing human rights activists are believed to have led several organizations to suspend their activities (E/CN.4/1997/60/Add.1, 23 December 1996). The Special Rapporteur provided lists of people either under threat or killed, which in addition to human rights and civic workers included lawyers, priests, members of political opposition parties, trade unionists, peasant and indigenous leaders, and minors (Ibid.). In 1995, the Special Rapporteur referred to the targeting of people regarded as ‘disposable' (desechables) such as prostitutes, homosexuals, beggars, drug consumers and street children, killed by ‘death squads' in ‘social cleansing' operations (E/CN.4/1995/111, 16 January 1995).


According to the U.S. Department of State, Colombian and international journalists work in an atmosphere of threats and intimidation. Journalists who denounced the drug trade and its influence on all facets of Colombia life were either threatened or killed: Francisco Santos, an editor of the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo and a critic of the drug cartels, received an anonymous phone call threatening to kill him and to blow up the newspaper's office; Gerardo Bedoya, editor of Cali's El País, also a vocal critic of President Samper for accepting drug money and a cousin of former chief of the military General Harold Bedoya, was shot and killed on 20 March 1997; a car bomb containing about 550 pounds of dynamite was deactivated in front of the offices of Medellín's El Mundo newspaper. Seven journalists were reportedly killed in separate attacks during the year (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). In December 1997, presidential press spokesman William Parra and radio journalist Luis Eduardo Maldonado were allegedly kidnapped (and subsequently released) by the Jaime Bateman Cayon movement, a small splinter group of the demobilized M-19 movement, and four other journalists were kidnapped by the FARC (Ibid.). In June 1997, the FARC had announced that it would regard journalists who wrote what they considered an "apology for militarism" legitimate military targets (HRW World Report 1998, 101). Journalist Alvaro Molano was threatened by paramilitaries because of his work for the government's High Commissioner for Peace (Ibid.). On 3 March 1998, Didier Aristizábal, a radio journalist who had worked closely with police by helping them set up a radio station in the city of Cali, was reported killed in a gangland-style shooting on his way home (Reuters, 3 March 1998).

Politicians/Elected officials

During 1997, more than 200 incumbents or candidates for public office, of all political orientations, were reportedly killed by guerrillas, as the FARC, ELN and EPL publicly declared their armed opposition to electioneering in areas under their control (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). At least 60 mayors or mayoral candidates, and numerous candidates for lesser local offices were abducted, and more than 2,000 of the 42,500 candidates for office nation-wide, including all four gubernatorial candidates for Putumayo, were forced to withdraw their candidacies ahead of the October 1997 elections (Ibid.). According to Human Rights Watch, even candidates' families were the frequent targets of death threats and kidnapping (World Report 1998, 101). Moreover, mayors themselves became the targets of army investigations for supposed ties to guerrillas, and in May 1997 an army intelligence report leaked to the newsweekly Semana alleged that 650, or more than half of all the municipal governments in Colombia, had direct ties to the guerrillas or collaborated with them (Ibid.).


Guerrillas and paramilitary groups reportedly targeted elementary and secondary level teachers in areas of conflict, with 23 teachers killed and six others disappeared in the first half of 1997, primarily in the departments of Córdoba and Antioquia (Ibid.). Also targeted were university-level academics engaged in the study of the internal conflict or human rights (Ibid.). In a 1996 report about human rights violations in the department of Sucre, Amnesty International refers to a list of teachers who were under threat presented by the Sucre Association of Teachers (Asociación de Educadores de Sucre - ADES) to the Departmental Committee of Teachers under Threat (Comité Departamental de Amenazados). In it were the names of 19 teachers who had been forced to leave the region, 27 teachers reportedly named on a "death list", as well as seven other names (June 1996). In the words of a member of the ADES executive board, "it would be wrong to believe that left-wing teachers were the only ones under threat, those to the right are also under threat as well as those who keep away from politics" (Ibid.)


Peasant farmers who are not active in popular organizations are equally the target of human rights violations, including death threats, torture, extrajudicial execution and forced "disappearance", merely on the basis that they live in areas of guerrilla activity and are therefore considered by the armed forces or the paramilitaries to be guerrilla collaborators or sympathisers (Amnesty International, August 1995). In its August 1995 report on political violence in the eastern departments of Norte de Santander and César, Amnesty International cited numerous incidents of evident collaboration between security forces and paramilitary groups as they attacked entire villages or individuals whose names appeared on their lists, which often resulted in death (Ibid.). On 23 February 1998, a group of armed men believed to be members of the Peasant Self Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá - ACCU) reportedly broke into several homes in the municipality of La Ceja, in the eastern part of the department of Antioquia, and indiscriminately shot and killed their occupants as they slept (El Espectador, 25 February 1998; El Tiempo, 26 February 1998(c)). Elsewhere in the country, in the oil-producing eastern department of Santander, four peasants selected from a list were killed by an unidentified group of 20 armed men (El Espectador, 25 February 1998.).

Former guerrillas and members of left-wing political parties

According to the U.S. Department of State, former members of guerrilla groups who laid down their arms following peace agreements with the Government were targeted both by paramilitary groups and by their former comrades-in-arms. By the end of 1996, 258 of the 5,897 guerrillas from at least six rebel armies formally demobilized during 1990-94 had been killed, and an additional 82 had been killed by the middle of August 1997, two-thirds of them in the departments of Antioquia and Sucre (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). At least 19 members of the Socialist Renovation Current (CRS), which broke away from the ELN and demobilized in 1994, were killed during 1997 (Ibid.). Likewise, since 1985 approximately 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union and Communist parties were the victims of a campaign of assassinations initially set off by Medellín cartel leader Rodríguez Gacha, with 600 of these murders taking place in the department of Meta (Ibid.).


Although homosexual behaviour between consenting adults is not considered a criminal offense in Colombia, society in general has a negative attitude towards homosexuality. Death squads target homosexuals, and the most serious violations of fundamental rights are said to be committed against transvestites and sex workers or prostitutes. Other abuses, such as rejection in educational institutions and denial of housing or employment, are said to occur frequently, but the victims do not denounce these violations for fear of scandal or additional problems (The Third Pink Book, 1993, 270). Serious risks are said to be faced mostly by homosexuals who engage in high-profile activism or who are considered "disposable" (desechables) and as such become victims of "social cleansing" murders (Ibid.).

Women and Children

During its 1997 visit to Colombia, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights noted the plight of many women and children, despite the existence of legal mechanisms designed to ensure their protection (OAS, 8 December 1998). Women and children have been particularly affected by internal displacement; women continue to be the victims of domestic violence, and children are vulnerable to forced recruitment by the army, paramilitary and guerrilla groups (Ibid.). Amnesty International reported that
[t]ens of thousands of peasant women, many of them recently widowed, have been forced to flee their rural homes with their children, abandon their livestock and possessions, and take precarious refuge in shanty towns surrounding towns and cities. There, they, but particularly their children, may be preyed upon by urban death squads or forced into a life of crime and prostitution in order to survive (October 1997).

Women are said to constitute 58 per cent of internally displaced persons, the majority of them being heads of families; some 75 per cent of the displaced are under 25 years old, several thousand of them also being heads of families because of the death of one or both parents (Ibid.).

The U.S. Department of State indicates that women constitute 88 per cent of the estimated 239,400 victims of sexual abuse annually; 82 per cent of sexual abuse victims are minors, and an estimated 25,000 boys and girls under the age of 18 work in the sex trade (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).

Indigenous populations

Colombia has more than 80 distinct groups among the 800,000 indigenous inhabitants (1.7 per cent of the population) living in a variety of ecological zones, most notably the Arhuaco, Embera, Guambiano, Wayúu, Nukak, Kuna, Kogi, Paez and Zenu (World Directory of Minorities, 1997, 77; U.S. DOS Reports for 1997, 1998). They are protected by the Constitution of 1991, which called for the establishment or upgrading of indigenous reserves, recognizes their territorial rights, as well as their right to self-government and management of their internal resources (Ibid.; UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1995/50/Add.1, 3 October 1994). The Constitution also provides for a special criminal and civil jurisdiction, based on traditional community laws, within Indian territories (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998). Indigenous communities can educate their children in traditional dialects and in the observance of cultural and religious customs, and indigenous men are not required to do military service (Ibid.). Most threats or attacks against them stem from land ownership disputes concerning the designated Indian reserves, and some 40 indigenous communities had no legal title to land they claimed as their own, while an estimated 100 other groups had title claims that were not recognized or reconciled (Ibid.).

The Interamerican Commission on Human Rights reported in 1997 that indigenous towns, together with Afro-Colombian communities, have been particularly vulnerable to the political violence in the country, and expressed its concern over the Zenu community in San Andrés de Sotavento, in the department of Córdoba, where despite the existence of legal protection mechanisms several "protected" inhabitants have been assassinated or ‘disappeared' (OAS, 8 de diciembre de 1998). Amnesty International has also voiced its concern about the Zenu community of El Volao, in the region of Urabá in Antioquia, where a wave of killings in 1995, culminating in the death of the community's leader, José Elías Suárez, at the hands of EPL guerrillas, led to the exodus of almost the entire community of 700 people from their lands (October 1997). It adds that indigenous communities have been displaced by the armed forces throughout Colombia, leading the Regional Indigenous Council of Tolima (Consejo Regional Indígena de Tolima - CRIT) to publicly criticize the displacement of several indigenous families following the murder of their leaders, military harassment, paramilitary actions and guerrilla attacks (Ibid.). More than 87 indigenous leaders have reportedly been murdered since 1990 (UN Commission of Human Rights, E/CN.4/1997/71/Add.1).

3.4 Internal Displacement

According to the U.S. Department of State, an active policy of depopulation pursued by some paramilitary groups against communities suspected of supporting guerrillas is the main cause of the growing internal displacement problem in Colombia (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).

During the civil war known as La Violencia between 1948 and 1958, approximately two million people were forced to flee their homes and lands, and subsequent sporadic waves of violence have caused further forced migration (Amnesty International, October 1997). More recently, in the upsurge of violence between 1985 and 1997, more than one million people, constituting 68 per cent of the total rural population of the country, have been displaced by the violence. An estimated 600,000 people were displaced between 1985 and 1994, the majority of them being women, children and peasant farmers from rural areas affected by the armed conflict; between August 1994 and the end of 1996 a further 300,000 people were forced to flee their homes (Ibid.). Forty-three per cent of internally displaced people are said to arrive in the major cities with no assistance, to enlarge the ranks of the poor living in marginalized shanty towns (Amnesty International, October 1997; HRW World Report 1998, 1997). About 280,000 have arrived in the capital, Santa Fé de Bogotá. The great majority never return to their place of origin, nor do they know why they lost their lands (Alternativa, Número 10, 1997 [Internet]). Their plight is said to be compounded by a dramatic lack of solidarity among regional authorities, who attempt to regard the waves of displaced people from other departments as an external problem (Semana, 24 Noviembre-1 Diciembre de 1997 [Internet]).

During a 1994 visit to Colombia, the UN Secretary-General's Representative for Internally Displaced Persons, Mr. Francis Deng, observed that
[t]he drama of the internally displaced lies in the fact that they more often than not feel compelled to flee in absolute silence, since a displaced person is considered to be a person with a ‘problematic' past. This is exacerbated by the fact that the most ‘visible' displaced are those who have some organizational links with a political organization. Others, like many of the displaced, especially in Bogotá, who had a prominent role in local society prior to being displaced, upon arrival actually have to hide their achievements for fear of renewed persecution (United Nations, Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1995/50/Add.1, 3 October 1994).According to the Colombian Advisory Committee for Human Rights and Displacement, in 1996 mass displacements occurred in 208 municipalities spread over 27 departments, with residents of Antioquia constituting 31 per cent of all displaced persons, and in the first seven months of 1997 an additional 120,000 or more persons became were internally displaced (U.S. DOS Country Reports for 1997, 1998).Some of the more important areas of displacement are:

Norte de Santander and César

The departments of Norte de Santander and César, in the northeast of the country, contain extensive areas of fertile land. Small farmers have faced increasing pressure from "a process of land concentration by large landowners, cattle-ranchers and drug traffickers" (Costello, P., August 1996). While both the FARC and the ELN had a number of units in this region, a strong network of civic and popular organizations also emerged over the years (Ibid.). The military has a specialized counter-insurgency unit, known as a mobile brigade (brigada móvil), as well as several other military units operating under the command of Santander's Fifth Brigade (Ibid.). Their strategy has been characterized by "targeting those sectors suspected of being linked to the guerrillas, that is, members of civic and popular organizations and peasant farmers" (Amnesty International, August 1995). Paramilitary groups are also said to be operating in this region, forcing peasant farmers and their families to flee their homes in order to protect the interests of the more economically powerful sectors (Ibid.). While some peasant farmers are forced to flee the lands they own, others are forced out of those belonging to large landowners which are due for redistribution to the peasants under a new plan devised by the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Instituto Colombiano de Reforma Agraria - ICORA) (Ibid.).

Chocó (Urabá)

In the northwestern department of Chocó, the violence is foreshadowed by the battle for political and socio-economic control of the area: for the guerrilla groups, the Gulf of Urabá is of strategic importance for the entry of weapons, while drug traffickers use it as a point of exit for narcotics and entry of chemical products (Alternativa, Número 10, 1997 [Internet]). Chocó is also rich in mineral deposits, biodiversity, wood and land: its soil provides 82 per cent of the total national gold production, 18 per cent of platinum and 13.8 per cent of silver. There is also bauxite, manganese, radioactive cobalt, tin, chrome, nickel and oil, plus the enormous timber reserves in its forests (Amnesty International, June 1997; Alternativa, Número 10, 1997 [Internet]). The northern area of Chocó, Urabá, has been chosen for a proposed canal linking the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea, the construction of the missing link to the Pan American Highway, railroads, oil pipelines and hydroelectric projects (Ibid.). Thus, according to Amnesty International, paramilitary offensives in the region correspond to efforts by powerful economic interests to secure possession of rich land (June 1997). The non-governmental Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy (Consultoría de Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento - CODHES) has concluded that
[v]iolence is a trump card. The best lands and strategic areas become a key objective of violent forces who by creating confusion and protected by impunity, effect the expulsion of the most vulnerable inhabitants (Ibid.).

Construction of the interoceanic canal is due to begin in the municipality of Riosucio. In December 1996, an attack by paramilitary groups left countless decapitated bodies floating down the Atrato river. Of the original 38,238 inhabitants of the municipality, more than 30,000 are said to be dispersed throughout different areas (Alternativa, Número 10, 1997 [Internet]). Much of the land in this region has therefore changed hands through violent means (Ibid.).

According to Amnesty International, many peasants fleeing the violence in Chocó to seek refuge in Panamá have been forcibly repatriated by the Panamanian authorities, in collaboration with the Colombian air force, and returned to areas where their safety cannot be ensured (June 1997). Others have been targeted by paramilitary groups during their armed incursions into Panamanian territory (Ibid.).


The northeastern part of the department of Antioquia is rich in mineral deposits, especially gold, which is mined by international companies which employ 5 per cent of the economically active population. However, nearly 45 per cent of the working population live in the region's urban marginal areas, subsisting on panning for gold at sites abandoned by transnational mining, and the remainder work in the agricultural sector (Amnesty International, November 1996). The economic marginalization of large segments of the population gave rise to popular activism and support for legal opposition parties advocating alternative socio-economic schemes to those offered by the traditional political groups in power. Thus, the Communist Party and then the Patriotic Union found strong support in the region, as did the FARC and the ELN (whose Frente María Cano and Compañia Cimarrón were said to be influential in urban sections of the city of Segovia) (Ibid.). Northeastern Antioquia is thus strategically important because of its gold and silver deposits, as well as the construction of the Colombian oil pipeline, and therefore mining and other economic interests are keen not to be challenged by guerrillas or legal left-wing political groups (Ibid.). Large-scale massacres by paramilitary groups were committed in November 1988 and April 1996. The 1988 massacre occurred after local elections for mayor were won by a member of the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica). The 1996 killings took place in districts inhabited mainly by urban popular militias attached to the ELN and by "peasant farmer families who [had] fled violence in the countryside and have often been labelled as guerrilla sympathisers by members of the armed forces" (Ibid.)

The Magdalena Medio

The Magdalena Medio is an economically profitable valley between the two main Andean mountain ranges of the country. It has important ports on the Magdalena river connecting the interior with the coast, as well as vast agricultural potential and oil, coal and natural gas reserves (Costello, P., August 1996). The rural areas were populated by successive waves of migration, especially by peasants fleeing La Violencia who colonized large tracts of land (Pearce, J., 1990). They were followed by ELN and FARC guerrillas, who established fronts building support among the new rural communities. The guerrillas' harassment of local ranchers led to the establishment of a permanent army presence in the region, which in the 1980s organized the population into peasant self-defense groups (Ibid.). A 1982 meeting of ranchers, oil company representatives, army officers and local politicians and businessmen established the group known as Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores - MAS), which unleashed the worst violence in the region, targeting suspected guerrilla and communist sympathizers, killing peasant organizers, trade unionists and also Liberal party dissidents (Ibid.). Many of those displaced arrived in towns such as Barrancabermeja, with paramilitary forces following in their footsteps and attacking their shelters, such as the Albergue Campesino (Peasant Shelter) (UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1995/50.Add.1, 3 October 1994).


The central department of Meta is an area rich in emeralds and, more recently, cocaine production. It was in Meta, along with Caquetá and Guaviare to the south, where the FARC developed its roots in the 1960s and 1970s among peasant colonizers, setting itself up as an organization defending peasants from landowners and the military (Pearce, J., 1990). The military's interest in exerting control over the local population who support the FARC converges with the local economic interests in an area of emeralds and drug trafficking: Colombia produces about 55 per cent of the world's emeralds, and in Meta the largest emerald producing company is owned by Victor Carranza Niño, who also controls the paramilitary group known as Serpiente Negra (the Black Serpent) (Costello, P., August 1996). This group is responsible for an increase in the number of killings and forced disappearances, targeting guerrilla members and Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica) activists. Peasants who denounced their activities became in turn victims of the repression, and in 1995 the FARC responded by selectively murdering suspected members of the Black Serpent (Actualidad Colombiana, 24 January 1995).


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All sources are cited. This paper is not, and does not, purport to be, fully exhaustive with regard to conditions in the country surveyed, or conclusive as to the merits of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


[1]* Note on the Statistical Tables: As Colombia is a relatively minor country of origin of asylum seekers in Europe, a number of asylum countries do not report on Colombians separately. Thus, a dash in the Tables may mean that the value is zero, not applicable, or not available.

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