Last Updated: Friday, 26 December 2014, 13:50 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Colombia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Colombia, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa3f40.html [accessed 26 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
 

 

Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty democracy in which the Liberal and Conservative parties have long dominated the political scene. Relatively peaceful national congressional and presidential elections were held in June with the Liberal Party candidate, Ernesto Samper, winning the Presidency by a very slight margin in a runoff election against Conservative Party contender Andres Pastrana.

Internal security is the primary responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, which in addition to the armed forces, includes the National Police. The Department of Administrative Security, which is responsible for national security intelligence, reports directly to the President. The police and the armed forces remained responsible for widespread human rights abuse. Colombia has a mixed private/public sector economy. The Government continued an economic liberalization program and the privatization of selected public industries. Crude petroleum rivals coffee as the principal export and, after the August discovery of immense natural gas reserves, petroleum and gas exports will play an even greater role. Narcotics traffickers continued to control extensive illicit and licit enterprises.

For 35 of the past 43 years, the Government has operated under declared states of emergency which enable the executive to rule by "temporary" decree to deal with civil unrest associated with the high degree of internal violence. These decrees frequently set aside fundamental judicial guarantees of due process and sometimes have been incorporated into permanent law by subsequent legislative action. Several violent guerrilla organizations continued to operate, despite regular attempts to negotiate settlements. Military cooperation with narcotics and landowner paramilitary groups in remote regions of the country continued. The Government continued to allow the military to assert jurisdiction over, and in almost all cases to fail to prosecute, abuses by military personnel. This rampant impunity from justice underlies Colombia's human rights problems; 97 percent of all crimes go unpunished.

The overall human rights situation in Colombia remained critical, with a variety of violent actors--including the police and security forces--continuing to commit abuses such as political and extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and other physical mistreatment. In addition to official forces, other perpetrators of human rights abuses include antigovernment guerrilla groups, narcotics traffickers, and paramilitary groups. While violence by narcotics traffickers was drastically reduced from previous years, internecine violence among the trafficking organizations still accounted for substantial numbers of homicides, kidnapings, cases of torture, and attacks against the military and the police. Guerrillas and narcotics traffickers continued to work cooperatively, especially in rural regions of the country. The victims of these abuses most commonly included politicians, labor organizers, human rights monitors,and--overwhelmingly-- peasant farmers. Violence directed against women and children also remained commonplace. Vigilante groups, often supported or condoned by the police and military, engaged in "social cleansing"--the killing of street children, prostitutes, homosexuals, and others deemed socially undesirable.

The human rights situation dominated much of the new administration's agenda during its first few months in office. President Samper created a ministerial-level Human Rights Commission in August, and his Government revived a military justice reform commission intended to address the question of impunity for police and military violators. The Government reopened investigations into several important human rights cases and brought charges against policemen in another case. At year's end, however, despite positive actions by the new Minister of Defense, the Government had yet to establish effective judicial control over military abusers of human rights and thereby begin to end the long reign of impunity.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

The total number of murders in Colombia appeared to decline slightly during the first quarter of 1994; however, it remained cause for grave concern. According to a report by the Government's Department of Planning, between 1987 and 1992 there were 77 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, by far the highest murder rate in the world. Due to insufficient police and judicial resources to investigate and prosecute most killings and the frequently overlapping violent forces at work in the country, it is often difficult to separate political from nonpolitical murders. According to the Bogota-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) "Justice and Peace", there were 1,268 political and presumably politically motivated murders between January and September. The Andean Commission of Jurists (CAJSC) estimated that in approximately 77 percent of all reported violent deaths from March 1993 to March 1994, no perpetrator could be established. Ten candidates for political office were assassinated before the October 30 local elections.

The police and military forces continued to be implicated in cases of extrajudicial killings in 1994. Members of the army's Tarqui battalion in Sogamoso attacked a civilian home with a grenade in an attempt to kill local community organizer Paulino Velandia. Velandia survived the attack, which killed two others and injured two children. The Procuraduria investigated the incident, and a separate military criminal investigation was also under way. No motive was given for the attack. The authorities brought one officer in question before a court- martial, but it had made no ruling by the end of the year.

In January members of the General Gabriel Reveiz Pizarro battalion based in Arauca department killed nine peasants from the town of Puerto Lleras claiming that the attack occurred in the context of a counterinsurgency sweep. The Procuraduria filed charges against nine officers and soldiers based on its investigation that determined that the army sealed off the town, illegally detained approximately 500 townspeople, read off the nine names from a list, and summarily executed them as suspected guerrilla collaborators.

According to the Procuraduria's annual human rights report that covered the 1-year period preceding April 1994, the National Police had the worst human rights record among state security agencies. The Procuraduria linked 80 percent of its disciplinary decisions that involved violations of human rights to police actions. In June two off-duty Bogota policemen stopped a bus on which they were traveling in order to intervene in a street scuffle. They fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing one person and forcing a 9-year-old street vendor to board the bus with them. One of the agents then shot the child and threw the body out the window. Taxi drivers initially apprehended the agents; police and Procuraduria investigators later determined that they were inebriated at the time of the crime. In December a court sentenced one of the police officers involved in the killing to 60 years, or two maximum sentences.

Human rights monitors also implicated the police in incidents of social cleansing, involving attacks and killings of individuals deemed socially undesirable such as drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, beggars, and street children. The Center for Investigations and Popular Research (CINEP) reported that between January and October there were 291 homicides, 57 injuries, and 22 threats that it considered social cleansing. This activity was particularly notable in Cali, where there were persistent reports of murders of indigent youths on or around construction sites. According to the local human rights ombudsman, 20 such murders occurred in Cali in just the first 2 months of the year. In July a group of masked armed men gunned down six individuals in a northern Medellin neighborhood frequented by drug vendors and prostitutes. The killers arrived in a taxi, lined the victims up against a wall and executed them gangland-style. In this and other cases, human rights groups persistently alleged implicit police cooperation with the "clean-up squads." The Government opened an investigation, but it produced no leads by the end of the year.

Paramilitary groups also perpetrated scores of extrajudicial killings in 1994, often with the alleged complicity of military units or individuals. Indigenous community and labor leaders frequently were the victims of this violence. In March unknown gunmen murdered four Zenu Indian leaders in San Andres de Sotavento in Cordoba department. A new paramilitary group "Colombia Without Guerrillas" (Colsingue) claimed responsibility for the August assassination of Communist Party Senator Manuel Vargas Cepeda and openly threatened other members of the Patriotic Union (UP) Communist Party. Although most paramilitary killings go unresolved, in January police arrested William Infante, the paramilitary assassin of UP leader Jaime Pardo Leal in 1986. Both the Gaviria and Samper administrations regularly condemned extrajudicial killings, but rarely punished police or military personnel implicated in such cases.

Soldiers and police continued to be the victims of violence perpetrated by drug traffickers, guerrillas, and common criminals on a daily basis. For example, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas murdered army 4th Division commander General Gil Colorado near Villavicencio in July. Guerrillas also killed noncombatants on a regular basis and assassinated several prominent politicians. FARC operatives executed the highly popular mayor of Fusagasuga after guerrillas accidentally trapped him during an attack on a highway toll station. Operatives of the Army of National Liberation (ELN) unsuccessfully attempted to kill the Treasury Minister with a car bomb in Bogota in January. There were strong indications that urban operatives of the ELN assassinated Senatorial candidate Francisco Alejandro Gonzalo Jaramillo in Medellin in January and Antioquia Congressman Arlem Uribe in September.

b. Disappearance

Colombia continued to suffer from extremely high overall rates of disappearance and kidnaping. According to a joint report by the Government and a human rights group, there were a total of 1,378 reported kidnapings in 1994, an increase of 35 percent over the previous year. Given the complexity of the internal disorder and the variety of perpetrators, both among the state security forces and illegal groups involved in this conflict, the disappearances for political motives and kidnaping for profit is often unclear; guerrillas were responsible for approximately half the cases. There were rarely arrests or prosecutions in any of the cases.

In October the Senate passed a bill which, while narrower than the administration had wanted, codified the act of forced disappearance as a crime. However, in doing so, it stripped from the bill a proposal to transfer jurisdiction in such cases from military to civilian courts. The Senate also deleted a section which stipulated that such an act could never be considered in the line of duty for police and military service members. In June President Gaviria had vetoed an earlier bill which contained the additional provisions. Many observers perceived his veto as an administration concession to the military high command, who claimed that such legislation would provoke a rash of false accusations by the guerrillas against military officials. The Samper administration reiterated objections to the proposed bill but attempted to address the issue by proposing language that clearly stipulated that service members were not obliged to obey illegal or immoral orders, such as an order to make someone "disappear." However, this section was also deleted from the final bill. At year's end, the lower House had not passed the bill.

A CAJSC report highlighted the impunity that surrounds forced disappearances in Colombia when it attributed at least 2,000 cases of forced disappearance in the last 15 years to state security forces, yet recorded only 1 case of a military criminal sanction for such activity. The Office of the Defender of the People received 110 reports of forced disappearances between January and June. In 234 such incidents for all of 1993, the Procuraduria reported that the authorities brought only 2 sets of charges.

In Cali disappearances perpetrated by state security members and organized criminals reached epidemic proportions, according to the local prosecutor's office, with an average of one disappearance per day. Many of these were women and children, who according to the same source, often end up being forced to work as prostitutes.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits torture, but incidents of police and military beatings and torture of detainees continued to be reported throughout the year. These abuses often occurred in connection with illegal detentions in the context of counterinsurgency or counternarcotics operations. Paramilitary groups that operated in rural areas of the country were also responsible for instances of torture and sometimes took credit for their macabre work with menacing notes left on the bodies of their victims. In many cases, however, it was difficult to establish the perpetrators of torture since cadavers found bearing the traces of physical torture were rarely subject to extensive forensic investigations.

Justice and Peace reported an incident that occurred in June in Barrancabermeja in which members of the Nueva Granada Battalion detained the son of a local labor leader in an effort to exact information about local guerrilla activity. They tied the person naked to a stake on an anthill, threatened him with rape and then almost suffocated him with a plastic bag. Military officials originally denied holding the individual when family members questioned them but later admitted to local human rights officials that they had detained him. Police also allegedly tortured the same victim in January by electric shocks and beatings during an interrogation.

Overcrowding and dangerous sanitary and health conditions in the prisons remained a serious problem. In May the Bureau of Prisons, the Office of the Defender of the People, and the Procuraduria established a pilot project in Bogota's La Picota prison, convoking a prisoners' human rights committee to work with prison and government authorities to address perceived violations of basic human rights.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that it continued to have access to most prisons and police and military detention centers. However, it noted that local or regional commanders did not always prepare mandatory detention registers and follow notification procedures, resulting in a poor accounting of actual detainees.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention or Exile

The Constitution includes several mechanisms designed to prevent illegal detention. The authorities must bring a detainee before a judge within 36 hours and the person has the right to seek, before any judge, a petition of habeas corpus that must be acted upon within 36 hours. Despite these legal protections, instances of arbitrary detention continued, and a large percentage of the prison population remained in an undetermined pretrial status. The Procuraduria singled out the police and others conducting the late-1993 search for narcotics kingpin Pablo Escobar as having engaged in more arbitrary detentions than previously believed and stated that the police violated constitutional and procedural norms during this operation.

Exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution specifically provides for the right to due process. The accused has the right to representation by counsel, but historically representation for the indigenous and the indigent has been inadequate. The Government continues to battle staffing and funding inadequacies to develop a credible public defender system.

The judiciary remained overburdened and often in a state of chaos during 1994. The system is largely independent of the executive and legislative branches, both in theory and practice. It continued to experience growing pains as the various courts, prosecutorial entities, and ministries attempted to define their roles and streamline their operations in the wake of the judicial reorganization brought about under the 1991 Constitution. The judiciary has long been subject to threats and intimidation when dealing with narcotics and paramilitary cases. With the decline in drug terrorism, there was a corresponding drop in the incidence of attacks on members of the judiciary, but this violence did not disappear altogether. In June unknown gunmen assassinated Luis Guillermo Lopez, head of the Medellin prosecutor's office. Several months earlier, gunmen also murdered the director of that office's technical investigative unit, Luis Fernando Correa. The police suspect narcotics trafficking organizations are involved in both incidents, which continued under investigation at year's end.

The 1991 Constitution formalized the "regional" or "public order" jurisdictions, in which anonymous judges and prosecutors handle narcotics and terrorism cases. Human rights groups continued to charge that the system infringed on basic procedural legal rights.

As in past years, the regional jurisdiction system continued to be overwhelmed with staggering caseloads that it was unable to process expeditiously. In May President Gaviria invoked a state of internal emergency in order to proscribe portions of the Criminal Procedures Code that would have mandated the release of many of the public order detainees whose cases had not been processed. The Constitutional Court, however, found the President's action unconstitutional and struck down the state of emergency, facilitating the release of many of these suspects 1 month later.

While a late 1993 reform of the Criminal Procedures Code addressed the lack of certain procedural rights within the system, problems remained. It is still extremely difficult for defense attorneys to impeach or cross-examine anonymous witnesses, and often they do not have unimpeded access to the State's evidence. Human rights groups also took exception with the Government's surrender policy for major narcotics traffickers which involved high-level voluntary surrender and sentence negotiations. These critics charged that "small-time" defendants were, in effect, railroaded under the system while powerful criminals were treated deferentially. Critics also charged that the vast majority of cases sent to the regional jurisdiction involved low-level criminals suspected of subversive activity, and that the system did not effectively deter the major guerrilla leaders. At year's end the Attorney General began a review of plea-bargain agreements to ensure that confessed criminals had actually committed the crimes and that sentence reductions were related to genuine cooperation.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law generally requires a judicial order for authorities to enter a private home, except in cases of hot pursuit. In remote regions of the country, the military forces have civilian prosecutorial units delegated to them. Human rights groups charged that these delegate units were unconstitutional, and Congress refused to grant them permanent status. Nonetheless, there were credible reports that they continued to function, often facilitating army searches with little regard for judicious issuance of search warrants. In one example, the Nueva Granada battalion carried out over 60 searches and detentions in the rural areas surrounding Barrancabermeja between January and March. Many of the detainees reported that soldiers mistreated and unjustly interrogated them.

A judge must authorize telephone wiretaps and the interception of mail. This protection extends to prisoners incarcerated in the penal system.

g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts

The internal subversive conflict received a good deal of governmental attention in 1994. Both the Gaviria and Samper administrations urged the Congress to ratify Protocol II of the Geneva Convention. Although a Senate committee initially expressed reservations as to its internal application, Congress ratified it without reservations and President Samper signed it into law on December 16.

The military forces, paramilitary groups, and particularly guerrilla organizations committed violations of international humanitarian law in Colombia's internal subversive conflict.

In April members of the army's 2nd Mobile Brigade conducted a counterinsurgency operation near Barrancabermeja during which they allegedly took a local youth, Benjamin Santos, from his home in the Mesa de San Rafael. Local witnesses later reported seeing him dressed in an army uniform being marched with a patrol in the area. Shortly thereafter his body, showing signs of extreme torture, was found in a local cemetery. Military sources claimed he was an unidentified guerrilla slain in combat. Santos' family members reported the incident to the local human rights ombudsman (personero) and claimed Santos had no guerrilla ties. It is not known if the Government is investigating this incident.

Paramilitary groups, often with the alleged complicity of military units or individuals, usually carried out their violent acts with impunity. In September a military court issued a detention order for former army Lieutenant Colonel Luis Becerra, who is widely believed to have cooperated with paramilitary forces by covering up the October 1993 Rio Frio massacre. In September President Samper reiterated the Government's strong opposition to paramilitary groups and rural self-defense forces and promised to investigate carefully all allegations of cooperation with these groups by members and units of the state security forces. Little, however, has been accomplished in ending the climate of impunity.

The loosely organized groups of the Simon Bolivar Coordinating Board, which include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Army of National Liberation, committed a host of violations of humanitarian law during 1994. The most repugnant of these abuses was a January attack on the town of La Chinita in Uraba that left 35 agricultural workers dead. An exhaustive NGO investigation concluded that the FARC's fifth front perpetrated the attack in a move to intimidate the Communist Party stronghold for political purposes. FARC and ELN guerrilla regulars ambushed a police convoy in Purace on November 2, killing 11 police agents and 2 students. A series of bombs exploded on city buses in Cartagena on December 21, killing 10 civilians. The Government arrested three suspects linked to the urban ELN.

Guerrillas frequently committed atrocities against indigenous communities. Guerrillas murdered four members of the Arzaria community in September, following a "trial" in which the four were accused of having participated in the February killing of two other tribe members allegedly working with the guerrilla groups. Guerrillas also violated norms of international humanitarian law during attacks on military installations. Eyewitness survivors reported that in attacks on a petroleum station and military installations in Putumayo in July, FARC guerrillas summarily executed defenseless wounded soldiers.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The authorities generally respected these constitutionally protected rights, but in at least one instance there was implied intimidation of the media (see below). Print and broadcast media regularly criticized the Government without recrimination. The privately owned print media published a wide spectrum of political viewpoints, especially throughout the presidential campaign. They often voiced harsh antigovernment opinions without administration reprisals. The Government imposes some restrictions on electronic media coverage of public order and drug terrorist activity and has the right to prohibit coverage of certain news events that could affect state security. In July some observers charged that the Minister of Communications' public reminder to the media of this constitutional provision during the "narco-cassette" scandal, in which President-elect Samper's campaign financing was allegedly linked to Cali drug barons, constituted a veiled threat of government censorship. In September and November, Constitutional Court decisions struck down some of the provisions on government prescreening of electronic media coverage of public order and narcotics terrorist events.

All citizens have the right to seek a judicial injunction or motion (tutela) for immediate redress of violations of basic constitutional rights. This theoretically provides all persons and organizations, including the media, a mechanism to denounce both private and government violations of basic constitutional rights.

Several incidents of violence directed against journalists occurred during 1994. An unidentified gunman murdered Cucuta radio and print journalist Jesus Medina in January. Unknown persons killed Medellin radio journalist and national vice president of a broadcasters' union, Martin Eduardo Munera, in September. Colleagues of Munera also reported receiving death threats. The International Press Society reported that Munera's death was the sixth slaying of a Colombian journalist since August 1993. While very few of these cases are ever definitively resolved, it is apparent that journalists are most often the victims of guerrilla groups, paramilitary organizations, and narcotics traffickers. In one case, however, the Procuraduria charged an ex-soldier with the 1991 slaying of "El Tiempo" journalist Henry Rojas. It also charged Colonel Diogenes Castellanos Guerrero, a former commander of an army unit based in Arauca, with covering up the incident.

The Government generally respected academic freedom, and there exists a wide spectrum of political activity throughout the country's universities. Teachers at the elementary and secondary levels in guerrilla-controlled territory are often subject to threats and intimidation from local subversive operatives and are unable to resist guerrilla propaganda campaigns.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the Government respects these rights in practice. The authorities do not normally interfere with public meetings and demonstrations and usually grant the required permission except when they determine that there is imminent danger to public order. Any organization is free to associate with international groups in its field.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for complete religious freedom and there is little religious discrimination in practice. Catholic religious training is no longer mandatory in public state schools, and a July Constitutional Court decision found unconstitutional any official government reference to Colombia as "the country of the sacred heart." The Government permits proselytizing among the indigenous population, provided the Indians welcome it and are not induced to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands. Indian tribes must still invite outsiders onto their reserves, and these groups remain at the disposition of the indigenous community.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides citizens the right to travel domestically and abroad. In areas where military operations against guerrillas are under way, police or military officials occasionally required civilians to obtain safe-conduct passes; guerrillas reportedly used similar means to restrict travel in areas under their control.

Guerrilla incursion, military counterinsurgency operations, guerrilla and paramilitary conscription, and land seizures by narcotics traffickers often forced peasants to flee their homes and farms. In October the Episcopal Bishop's Conference published a comprehensive study on the phenomenon of internal forced displacement and put the total number of such persons at 600,000. The report said that the single greatest cause of displacement is guerrilla incursion into the rural civilian population. Members of the army's V Brigade threatened and harassed the Peasant Farmer's Refuge, a local refugee center in Barrancabermeja, in March. The incident highlighted the dilemma faced by displaced persons in Colombia; they cannot stay in conflict zones for legitimate fears for their safety, yet they are not wanted and perceived as an economic drain in the regional and major cities that are their most common destinations.

The law provides for unrestricted emigration and repatriation by expatriates.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Colombian citizens exercise this right in regular, secret ballot elections that have historically been considered fair and open. Presidential elections are held every 4 years. The Liberal and Conservative parties have long dominated Colombian politics, with one or the other customarily winning the presidency. The President serves only one term and may not be reelected. All citizens are enfranchised at age 18. Public employees are not permitted to participate in campaigns but, with the exception of the military, may vote. All parties operate freely without government interference. Political parties which fail to garner 50,000 votes in a general election may lose the right to present candidates and may not receive funds from the Government. But they may reincorporate at any time by presenting 50,000 signatures to the National Electoral Board.

Colombia held national presidential and congressional elections, as well as gubernatorial and mayoral elections, in 1994. Liberal Party presidential candidate Ernesto Samper narrowly defeated Conservative Party hopeful Andres Pastrana by just 1.73 percentage points in a June runoff election. For the first time, Colombians also elected a vice president, Humberto de la Calle, who ran on Samper's ticket. Liberal Party representatives also dominated the congressional elections in both the upper and lower houses. However, bipartisan coalitions were still often necessary for the Liberals to enact legislation.

In 1990 the M-19 guerrilla movement signed a peace accord with the Government and became a legal political party, Democratic Alliance M-19 (AD/M-19). In 1994 the AD/M-19 fielded a presidential candidate and several congressional candidates, all of whom were defeated.

The elections were relatively peaceful, but numerous incidents of violence occurred. Unknown assailants assassinated Senator Manuel Vargas Cepeda, the only national UP representative, in Bogota in August. At least 10 candidates were assassinated and 10 others kidnaped preceding the October 30 local elections. President Samper postponed elections in 10 municipalities due to guerrilla violence during the campaigns. Elections proceeded normally in most districts, and the postponed elections were held successfully in December.

There are no legal restrictions, and few de facto ones, on the participation of women or minorities in the political process. There are 7 female senators and 18 female representatives serving in Congress, including 1 black Congresswoman. The Ministers of Labor and the Environment are both women, as is the President's international affairs adviser and his adviser for social policy. Two seats in the 102-seat Congress are reserved for representatives of the indigenous population. Both the black and indigenous populations continued to expand their social and political agendas and an indigenous politician, Jesus Pinacue, ran as vice presidential candidate on the unsuccessful ticket of former M-19 guerrilla leader Antonio Navarro-Wolf. Piedad Cordoba de Castro, a black female, is a senior member of the Liberal Party national committee and served as a member of the Government's delegation to the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Center for Investigations and Popular Research, the Andean Commission of Jurists, the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace, the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, the Episcopal Bishops Conference, the "Jose Alvear Restrepo" lawyers collective, and others are among the many human rights groups active in Colombia.

NGO's investigated and reported on a number of human rights abuses, including the army's extrajudicial assassination of two Socialist Renewal Current spokesmen in 1993, the army's coverup of the Rio Frio massacre, and the FARC's January massacre of 35 townspeople in La Chinita. Often these reports criticized, justifiably, the Government's failure to investigate and punish those responsible.

The Government generally did not interfere with the work of human rights NGO's, which were often the targets of threats and intimidation by the guerrillas, paramilitary groups, or individual members of the police and military forces. Many prominent human rights monitors, including lawyers Eduardo Umana, Carlos Alberto Ruiz, Raul Barrios Mendivil, and children's rights activist Jaime Jaramillo, work under constant fear for their physical safety. Unknown assailants assassinated human rights lawyer Laura Simmonds in Popayan in May.

The Procuraduria investigates some allegations of human rights abuses by members of the state security apparatus, drawing upon a network of government representatives who serve as human rights ombudsmen in 1,041 municipalities. However, the Procuraduria can only recommend administrative sanctions; as noted in this report, police and military personnel are rarely punished commensurately for human rights abuses. The Office of the Defender of the People has the constitutionally assigned duty to ensure the promotion and exercise of human rights, but is severely underfunded. The President has a Special Adviser for human rights issues, who investigates allegations of abuse and disseminates human rights education and information.

Since President Samper's August inauguration, he and the Government publicly admitted that the human rights situation reflected a "shameful and troubling reality." President Samper requested that Amnesty International establish a permanent observer office in country and invited the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Colombia. He also pledged to work closely with representatives of the ICRC and the Colombian Red Cross, and declared an "open door" policy with respect to international and local human rights NGO cooperation.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, language, or social status.

Women

The Constitution provides that women may not be subjected to any form of discrimination and specifically requires the authorities to "guarantee adequate and effective participation by women at the decisionmaking levels of public administration." Even prior to implementation of the 1991 Constitution, the law had provided women extensive civil rights. Despite these constitutional provisions, however, discrimination and violence against women persist. The quasi-governmental Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF) and the presidential adviser's Office for Youth, Women, and Family Affairs published a report that criticized high and pervasive levels of spouse and partner abuse throughout the country. The ICBF runs programs and provides refuges and counseling for victims of spouse abuse, but the level and amount of these services are dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem. According to the National Forensic Office, a total of 440 females reported they had been raped in the first 2 months of the year alone. In a much publicized decision in May, the Supreme Court mandated that a husband abstain from physical aggression against his wife and children and ordered the local police to enforce its dictum by monitoring the individual.

Women earn, on average, 30 to 35 percent less than men for similar work despite being legally entitled to equal remuneration. They constitute a high percentage of the subsistence labor work force, especially in rural areas. Women's groups such as Promujer and the Association of Twenty-first Century Women reported that the social and economic problems of marginalized single mothers remained great throughout the year, despite government efforts to provide training programs in parenting skills, reproductive rights, and birth control.

Children

Despite significant constitutional and legislative commitments to the protection of the rights of children, these are only marginally effective in practice. The Constitution provides for the fundamental rights of children and mandates that the family, society, and the State are obligated to assist and protect children, to foster their development, and to assure the full exercise of these rights. A special Children's Code sets forth many of these rights and establishes services and programs designed to enforce protection of minors.

The reality is that children's rights are frequently abused. Vigilante gangs often linked to the police killed hundreds of street children in several major cities in the social cleansing killings described earlier. Merchants and citizens' groups allegedly hire off-duty police agents and contract killers to rid neighborhoods of children suspected to be beggars and thieves; the Office of the Defender of the People reported clear complicity by police officers in some of these killings. In conflict zones, children were also frequent victims of cross fire by the security forces, paramilitary groups, and guerrilla organizations. Deadly land mines known as "leg breakers" laid by guerrillas killed or mutilated many children in conflict areas. Both forced and uncoerced child prostitution is commonplace in the five major cities of Colombia. The Procuraduria for the Family reported in September that in the preceding 15 months, 2,190 minors were killed violently, 3,125 were kidnaped, and 452 were reported to have been sexually assaulted. In all of these cases, the authorities detained only 45 perpetrators. In March the Government sentenced a former police agent to 41 years in prison for having shot a minor girl for refusing to dance with him at a party.

Indigenous People

There are approximately 82 distinct ethnic groups among the 800,000 indigenous inhabitants. The Constitution gives special recognition to the fundamental rights of indigenous people. Under its provisions, two senatorial seats are reserved exclusively for indigenous representation and a special criminal and civil jurisdiction, based upon traditional community laws, functions within Indian territories. The Ministry of Government, through the Office of Indigenous Affairs, is responsible for protecting the territorial, cultural, and self-determination rights of Indians. Ministry representatives are located in all regions of the country with indigenous populations and work with other governmental human and civil rights organizations to promote Indian interests and investigate violations of indigenous rights.

There are some 334 designated Indian reserves that are run by traditional Indian authority boards which handle national or local funds and are subject to fiscal control by the national Comptroller General. These boards administer their territories as municipal entities, with officials locally chosen or elected according to Indian tradition. Indigenous communities are free to educate their children in traditional dialects and in the observance of cultural and religious customs. The Constitutional Court reaffirmed in March that indigenous men are not subject to the national military draft.

Despite protective efforts by the Government, Indians were frequently the victims of violence throughout the year, by government security forces, paramilitary groups (often sponsored by landowners), narcotics traffickers, and guerrillas (see Sections 1.a. and 1.g.). In zones where the guerrillas are active, such as the Sierra Nevada and Valle de Cauca, the security forces often suspected the indigenous population of complicity with narcotics traffickers and guerrillas. Most of the incidents in which Indians were attacked or threatened stemmed from land ownership conflicts concerning the designated Indian reserves. The National Land Reform Institute estimated that some 40 indigenous communities had lost the legal title to land they claimed as their own and that roughly 100 other groups had title claims that were not recognized or reconciled.

The Zenu tribe in particular saw at least seven of its community leaders assassinated during the first several months of the year. Unknown gunmen also killed well-known Indian rights activist Laureano Inampue. In response the Government provided bodyguards to many Zenu and other indigenous leaders. In September there was a rash of attacks against indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region. FARC operatives executed four Indians from that community as suspected collaborators with the army. Most of the attacks were unsolved by year's end, and the regional land conflicts that spawned them remained largely unresolved.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Two million black citizens live primarily in the Pacific department of Choco and along the Caribbean coast. They represent roughly 4 percent of the general population. Blacks are entitled to all constitutional rights and protections but have traditionally suffered from economic discrimination. Despite the passage of the Afro-Colombian Law in 1993, little concrete progress was made in expanding public services and private investment in the Choco or other predominantly black regions.

People with Disabilities

The Constitution enumerates the fundamental social, economic, and cultural rights of the physically disabled, but serious practical impediments exist to prevent disabled persons' full participation in society. There is no legislation that specifically mandates access for people with disabilities. The Constitutional Court ruled in September that physically disabled individuals must be given access to and assistance at the voting stations. In August the Constitutional Court ruled that the Social Security Fund for Public Employees (Cajanal) cannot refuse to provide services for the disabled children of its members, regardless of the cost involved.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law recognizes the rights of workers to organize unions and strike. The Labor Code provides for automatic recognition of unions that obtain at least 25 signatures from the workplace and comply with a simple registration process at the Labor Ministry. The law penalizes interference with freedom of association. It also stipulates union freedom to determine internal rules, elect officials, and manage activities, and forbids the dissolution of trade unions by administrative fiat. According to Labor Ministry estimates, only about 8 percent of the work force is organized. Unions freely establish international affiliations without government restrictions.

The 1991 Constitution provides for the right to strike by nonessential public employees and authorizes Congress to pass enabling legislation that would define "essential", which it has not yet done. In the absence of this definition, existing legislation which prohibits public employees from striking is still in force. Before staging a legal strike, unions must negotiate directly with management and--if no agreement results --accept mediation. By law, public employees must accept binding arbitration if mediation fails; in practice, public service unions decide by membership vote whether or not to seek arbitration .

In 1993 the International Labor Organization (ILO) criticized 10 provisions of Colombian law, including: the supervision of the internal management and meetings of unions by government officials; the presence of officials at assemblies convened to vote on a strike call; the suspension of union officers who dissolve their unions; the requirement that contenders for trade union office must belong to the occupation in question; the prohibition of strikes in a wide range of public services which are not necessarily essential; various restrictions on the right to strike and the power of the Minister of Labor and the President to intervene in disputes through compulsory arbitration; and the power to dismiss trade union officers involved in an unlawful strike.

The most important strike in the private sector in 1994 was the 66-day work stoppage by the 4,000 employees of Acerias Paz del Rio, a steel plant in the department of Boyaca. Collective bargaining on salaries and benefits broke down when the union refused to affiliate with the new private pension system. In addition, the Government's ongoing privatization plans provoked significant labor protests in several public enterprises. Petroleum workers opposed the Government's plan to divide the state petroleum company Ecopetrol into four smaller companies, a move they fear is a prelude to privatization. The authorities arrested and threatened union leaders during the longstanding Ecopetrol conflict, and the rank and file authorized the union leadership to call a national strike.

Labor leaders throughout the country continue to be the target of attacks by guerrillas, paramilitary groups, narcotics traffickers, the military, police, and their own union rivals. They also suffer from the high level of violence and the pervasive use of firearms that negatively affect the lives of all Colombians. In the department of Antioquia alone, unknown perpetrators murdered at least eight labor leaders. In a single month (July), they killed Luis Guillermo Marin Echavarria, education secretary of the Antioquia Labor Federation; Luis Efren Correa, vice president of the Textile Workers Union; and Jairo Leon Agudelo, president of the Antioquia Agricultural Workers Union. In the banana-producing region of Uraba, organized workers historically belonged to the extreme left wing of the Colombian labor movement but refused to cooperate with the FARC. As a result, guerrillas killed labor leaders and union members, including the January massacre of a whole neighborhood--La Chinita--in Apartado, Antioquia. The list of killings, intimidations, and arbitrary arrests of labor union leaders includes the abduction of Domingo Rafael Tovar Arrieta, a member of the board of the Single Federation of Workers of Colombia (CUT), who was also the victim of threats and arbitrary arrest; the July murder of Trina Soto Xastellanos, treasurer of the Market Sellers Union in Cucuta, and her sister; the July killing of Alberto Alvarado, vice president of the Graphics Workers Union in Bogota; and numerous threats against other labor leaders.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution protects the right of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Workers have been most successful in organizing larger firms and public services, but these unionized workers represent only a small portion of the economically active population. High unemployment, traditional antiunion attitudes, and weak union organization and leadership limit workers' bargaining power in the private sector and in agriculture. The law forbids antiunion discrimination and the obstruction of free association. Government labor inspections theoretically enforce these provisions, but because of the small number of inspectors and workers' fears of losing their jobs, the inspection apparatus is weak. The authorities fined a few transgressor companies, and some workers successfully sought redress in the courts. The new Labor Code increases the fines levied for restricting freedom of association and prohibits the use of strike breakers.

The Labor Code also eliminates mandatory mediation in private labor-management disputes and extends the grace period before the Government can intervene in a conflict. Federations and confederations may assist affiliate unions in collective bargaining.

Labor law applies to the country's seven free trade zones (FTZ's), but these standards are difficult to enforce. Public employee unions have won collective bargaining agreements in the FTZ's of Barranquilla, Buenaventura, Cartagena, and Santa Marta, but the garment manufacturing enterprises in Medellin and Risaralda, the most important in the country in terms of numbers of employees, are not organized. National labor leaders claim that in these FTZ's the provisions of the Labor Code dealing with wages, hours, health and safety are honored in the breach.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution forbids slavery and any form of forced or compulsory labor, and this prohibition is respected in practice.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Constitution bans the employment of children under the age of 14 in most jobs, and the Labor Code prohibits granting work permits to youths under the age of 18. This provision is respected in larger enterprises and in major cities. Nevertheless, Colombia's extensive informal economy remains effectively outside government control. Some 800,000 children between the ages of 12 and 17 work, according to Labor Ministry studies. These children work--often under substandard conditions--in agriculture or in the informal sector, as street vendors, in leather tanning, and in small family-operated mines. Working children are exposed to the same risks affecting adult workers, including exposure to toxic substances and accidental injuries, all of which contribute to impaired physical development.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government annually sets a national minimum wage which serves as a benchmark for wage bargaining. It set the current minimum wage--about $130 (107,000 pesos) per month--in December 1993 after the National Labor Council, a tripartite advisory board, again failed to reach agreement among government, labor, and private sector representatives. The minimum wage, earned by over one-quarter of the population, is consistent with the Government's anti-inflation policies, but falls far short of providing an adequate standard of living for a worker and family.

The law provides for a standard workday of 8 hours and a 48-hour workweek, but does not specifically require a weekly rest period of at least 24 hours, a failing which the ILO criticizes. Legislation provides comprehensive protection for workers' occupational safety and health, but these standards are difficult to enforce, in part due to the small number of Labor Ministry inspectors. In addition, unorganized workers in the informal sector are protected by social insurance systems and fear that they will lose their jobs if they exercise their right to denounce abuses, particularly in the agricultural sector. According to the Labor Code, workers have the right to withdraw from a hazardous work situation without jeopardizing continued employment. In general, low levels of public safety awareness, inadequate involvement by unions, and lax enforcement by the Labor Ministry result in an unacceptably high level of industrial accidents and on-the-job situations that jeopardize workers' health.

Corrected 1/31/95

 

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