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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Colombia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Colombia, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa8324.html [accessed 1 August 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

 

Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty democracy in which the Liberal and Conservative parties have long dominated the political scene. President Ernesto Samper was the Liberal Party's candidate in the relatively peaceful presidential and congressional elections held in 1994. Throughout 1995 Samper was beset by allegations that he knowingly received campaign contributions from drug traffickers.

Responsibility for internal security resides in the Ministry of Defense which oversees both the armed forces and the National Police. The Department of Administrative Security, which is responsible for national security intelligence, reports directly to the President. Civil unrest and lawlessness continued to dominate society. The police and the armed forces were responsible for widespread human rights abuse.

On August 16, President Samper declared a 90-day state of emergency claiming this action was designed to combat the ever-increasing violence in the country. On October 26, the Constitutional Court struck down the declaration as unconstitutional for lack of justification that the level of violence was extraordinary. Following the November 2 assassination of prominent politician Alvaro Gomez Hurtado, the President again declared a state of emergency. For 35 of the past 44 years, the Government has operated under declared states of emergency which enable the executive to rule by decree. These decrees frequently set aside temporarily 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 by the Government to negotiate peaceful settlements. Military cooperation with paramilitary groups in remote regions of the country continued.

Colombia has a mixed private and 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, as a result of the August 1994 discovery of immense natural gas reserves, petroleum and gas exports play an even greater role. Narcotics traffickers controlled vast numbers of enterprises.

In an all-out campaign against narcotics traffickers, a special task force arrested six top leaders of the Cali cartel. While violence by narcotics traffickers against the population declined 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 collaborated, especially in rural regions of the country. Their targets included politicians, labor organizers, human rights monitors, and--overwhelmingly--peasant farmers.

The Government took steps to reduce human rights violations. The President publicly acknowledged government responsibility for the 1989-90 massacres in Trujillo. A special commission submitted a draft penal reform proposal, which was designed to end the traditional sense of impunity enjoyed by military and police personnel implicated in human rights violations. The Government announced the formation of a special task force to combat paramilitary groups, and several paramilitary leaders were arrested. Despite these arrests, however, paramilitary activity grew. In addition, both government and nongovernment sources acknowledge that many military and police officers still regard human rights with hostility and believe that the Government granted the guerrillas excessive concessions during the peace process. This process, which many hoped would bring guerrilla factions to the negotiating table, came to a virtual halt in August, largely because of guerrilla intransigence.

The number of human rights violations committed by government security forces declined, but the overall human rights situation in the country remained critical, with a variety of institutions--including the police and the military--continuing to commit abuses such as political and extrajudicial killings, kidnapings, torture, and other physical mistreatment. The Government allowed the military to exercise jurisdiction over military personnel accused of abuses, who in most cases were not prosecuted. Other perpetrators of human rights abuses include antigovernment guerrilla groups, narcotics traffickers, and paramilitary groups. Rampant impunity is the core of the country's human rights violations: 97 percent of all crimes go unpunished. In a major setback for human rights, Attorney General for Human Rights Hernando Valencia Villa resigned in August under pressure from members of the military hierarchy. He subsequently left the country, alleging that he had received numerous threats against his life.

The overburdened judiciary has a huge case backlog. Discrimination against women, minorities, and the indigenous continued. Violence against women, children and indigenous people also remained commonplace. Vigilante groups, often supported or ignored by the police and the military, engaged in "social cleansing"--the killing of street children, prostitutes, homosexuals, and others deemed socially undesirable.

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 rise slightly during the first half of 1995 compared with the corresponding period in 1994. According to the National Police, there were 83.71 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 1994, considerably higher than the 5-year average of approximately 78 per 100,000. When President Samper declared the state of emergency in August, he stated that 19,450 Colombians were the victims of homicide during the first 6 months of 1995 alone. This figure gave rise to considerable controversy because it greatly exceeded National Police statistics. Many critics suggested the administration used the higher figure to strengthen its rationale for the state of emergency. Nevertheless, most observers expected the number of homicides to exceed 30,000 by year's end.

The police and the judiciary have insufficient resources to investigate most killings properly. It is also often difficult to identify precisely which warring party was responsible for which violent incident. As a result, it is frequently hard to distinguish between political and nonpolitical murders. According to the Bogota-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Justice and Peace, there were 1,288 known or presumed politically motivated murders between January and June. The Andean Commission of Jurists (CAJSC) estimated that 4 of the 10 victims murdered each day were targeted for their involvement with political, labor, or social causes. Evidence was sufficient to establish a probable perpetrator in only 35 percent of those cases. Of the perpetrators identified, 45 percent were members of paramilitary groups, 27.5 percent were guerrillas, and 24 percent belonged to the armed forces or state security forces. CAJSC claimed that whereas 97 percent of all violent crimes go unpunished, the impunity rate for politically motivated crimes is even higher. Although the number of political or presumed political murders committed by the military and the police fell by approximately 30 percent during the months of January through June compared with the corresponding 1994 figures, security forces continued to be implicated in cases of extrajudicial killings.

The independent, state-sponsored Office of the Public Ombudsman for Human Rights (Defensoria del Pueblo) reported receiving 268 complaints against the army alleging murder, forced disappearances, and threats between January and June. Some of the complaints referred to 1994 incidents. There were no reports of mass summary executions by the military or police forces.

The Public Ombudsman for Human Rights reported that it received 257 complaints between January and June implicating the police in arbitrary killings. In August police shot and killed a small-scale coffee farmer during a demonstration in Bogota, reflecting the police tendency to adopt an adversarial stance toward demonstrations rather than to facilitate them while ensuring public safety. Human rights monitors also implicated the police in incidents of social cleansing--including attacks and killings--directed against individuals deemed socially undesirable such as drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, beggars, and street children. They alleged not only that police failed to pursue the social-cleansing death squads and tolerated their presence in high-crime areas, but that off-duty policemen actually participated in social cleansing operations. The Center for Investigations and Popular Research (CINEP) reported 118 victims in 40 incidents of what it considered social cleansing between January and June. In November the Supreme Court sentenced two policemen to 20 years' imprisonment for the 1990 murders of two indigents in Bucaramanga, Santander department. The Court determined that the two officials were part of a social-cleansing network active in the area.

While incidents of extrajudicial killings by police and military forces decreased, both government and nongovernment sources agree that extrajudicial killings by paramilitary groups increased significantly, often with the alleged complicity of individual soldiers or of entire military units. The groups targeted teachers, labor leaders, community activists, mayors of towns and villages, and, above all, peasants. Many of these victims included members of indigenous communities.

The leftist coalition party known as the Patriotic Union (UP) lost over 2,000 of its members over the last 10 years in what the UP perceives as a campaign of assassination waged against its leadership. UP leader Hernan Motta is the party's member of the Senate, replacing UP leader Manuel Vargas Cepeda who was assassinated in 1994. Initial reports indicated that Cepeda's assassins might have been members of a paramilitary group, but the investigation of his murder was still underway at year's end. The UP implicated members of the state security forces in many of the murders, but no final determination as to the perpetrators has been reached. The UP brought a complaint, still pending, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that charges the Government with "action or omission" in what the UP terms "political genocide" against the UP and the Communist Party.

Although most paramilitary killings remain unsolved, in July members of the army's 7th Brigade and the Prosecutor General's Technical Investigative Corps arrested Arnulfo Castillo Agudelo, a paramilitary leader implicated in the murders of an estimated 100 civilians since 1993 in Meta department. He was alleged to be a key figure in the extensive paramilitary apparatus reportedly funded by emerald magnate Victor Carranza, who has successfully avoided legal scrutiny. Authorities continued to search for Fidel Castano, believed to be the leader of paramilitary groups operating in Uraba.

Seven massacres in Cesar department from January through September claimed the lives of 30 civilians, including farm laborers and organizers. The governor of Cesar attributed the massacres to the ongoing conflict between paramilitary and guerrilla forces, whose victims were typically innocent civilians. In January paramilitary forces killed seven and apparently forcibly kidnaped two citizens of the Aguachica region of Cesar department in a continuation of a series of killings and disappearances in that community that began in October 1994. An official investigative commission determined that paramilitary groups active in Aguachica maintained close relations with commanders in the army and other state security organizations. This investigation resulted in the arrest of the army major who commanded the army base.

Meta department is another region that saw an escalation of paramilitary activity. Paramilitary forces carried out at least 7 of the 19 extrajudicial murders between October 1994 and March 1995. Their victims included three members of the leftist Patriotic Union Party and various members of peasant organizations. The Meta Civic Committee for Human Rights reported that known paramilitary leaders freely appeared in public meetings. Having suffered the murders of 4, the forced disappearances of 3, and the dislocation of 25 of its members since 1991, the Meta Civic Committee finally closed down its office in Villavicencio because of increasing death threats against its members. Instead, it opened a Bogota office with a small staff. At the same time, the Government established a special commission to seek a solution to the violence in Meta.

The banana-producing region of Uraba in Antioquia saw major conflicts. The convergence of paramilitary groups, guerrilla forces, narcotics traffickers, arms traffickers, and common criminals created a climate of unrelenting violence from which the population has suffered for the past 8 years. However, direct armed engagements among these groups or between them and the military, were rare. The military commander in Chigorodo reported that two murders per day were normal for that township. The town of Necocli alone suffered 130 murders, 122 disappearances, and the dislocation of 1,307 families during the February to April period. In January a paramilitary group identifying itself as the Self-Defense Forces of Fidel Castano tortured and murdered six alleged guerrillas in Necocli.

According to estimates by Justice and Peace, guerrillas were responsible for the extrajudicial killings of at least 64 civilians between January and June. In the Uraba massacres of August and September alone, guerrillas were responsible for over 60 of the approximately 90 murders. To justify the executions, guerrillas regularly charged that their victims were either informants for the army or related in some other way to the State, or that they simply refused to support the guerrillas' operations.

The National Liberation Army (ELN), too, killed scores of civilians. In May ELN forces killed five peasants in Sucre for allegedly collaborating with the army. Also in May, ELN forces killed five teenage girls and one woman in Arauca for fraternizing with soldiers. In June ELN forces bombed a building next to an orphanage, wounding several children. In March the Minister of Defense formally denounced the ELN before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights for its persistent use of land mines. Killings of noncombatants by guerrilla groups consistently outnumbered casualties inflicted upon the military in armed engagements.

The President publicly acknowledged government responsibility for the Trujillo massacres of 1989 and 1990, in which over 100 local residents were killed. As a result, some of the victims' surviving family members received indemnification from the Government. Investigation of the Trujillo massacres continued. A special government antidrug cartel task force captured a leading drug kingpin implicated in the Trujillo massacres, but a central figure in the massacres, an army lieutenant colonel, was discharged from the army without criminal sanction.

b. Disappearance

Colombia continued to suffer from extremely high overall rates of disappearance and kidnaping. Human rights officials in the President's executive offices confirmed approximately 1,200 reported kidnaping cases. The Office of the Defender of the People received 98 reports of forced disappearances attributed to organized criminals, police, military, paramilitary, and guerrilla forces between January and June. Authorities believe that the actual number of kidnaping victims was significantly higher because many families choose not to report kidnapings in order to protect ransom negotiations. Due to the complex interplay of military, paramilitary, guerrillas, and narcotics-based forces involved in the country's internal conflicts, it was often difficult to distinguish between disappearances for political motives and kidnapings for profit. It is clear, however, that guerrillas were responsible for approximately half of all these crimes. The guerrillas deny that their practice of kidnaping constitutes the taking of hostages. In June FARC agents murdered two American missionaries held since 1994. Arrests or prosecutions in any of these cases were rare. In September President Samper appointed an antikidnaping czar to oversee increased efforts to investigate and prevent kidnapings.

Colombian law codifies the act of forced disappearance as a crime. However, the law relaxes the standard when forced disappearances have been committed by military or police personnel, classifying them as acts performed in the line of duty. Moreover, the proposed reform of the military penal code submitted in August left unresolved the definition of an act of service or act committed in the line of duty.

For the first time in Colombian history, an army officer--

Brigade Commander Alvaro Velandia Hurtado--was discharged from active duty in August for official misconduct by failing to prevent or investigate the forced disappearance, torture, and murder of an M-19 guerrilla in 1987. The commander challenged the dismissal ordered by the Attorney General for Human Rights after an exhaustive 5-year investigation. Within days of the first ruling reversing the dismissal, President Samper personally signed an award which the Ministry of Defense presented to the commander. A higher court supported the dismissal, however, and the President was obliged to fire the commander. Attorney General for Human Rights Hernando Valencia Villa resigned under pressure from the military hierarchy and the Attorney General and left Colombia amid reports of threats against his security. At year's end, the Prosecutor General's newly created human rights unit initiated an investigation to examine further the forced disappearance and murder of this M-19 guerrilla.

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

The law prohibits torture, but reports of incidents of police and military beatings and torture of detainees continued throughout the year. These abuses often occurred in connection with illegal detentions in the context of counterinsurgency or counternarcotics operations. Paramilitary groups operating in rural areas were also responsible for instances of torture and sometimes took credit for their macabre work, leaving menacing notes on the bodies of their victims. In many cases, however, it was difficult to identify the perpetrators of torture since cadavers which bore the traces of physical torture were rarely subject to extensive forensic investigations. In May the Attorney General's office brought charges against 7 members of the army, 17 members of the National Police, and 3 detectives of the Department of Administrative Security for their presumed participation in incidents of torture throughout the country.

Prison conditions are harsh, especially for those prisoners with reduced means of support. Overcrowding and dangerous sanitary and health conditions remained serious problems. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continued to have access to most prisons and police and military detention centers. However, the ICRC noted that local or regional commanders did not always prepare mandatory detention registers or follow notification procedures. As a result, accurate detainee counts do not exist.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution includes several provisions designed to prevent illegal detention. Suspects must be brought before a judge within 36 hours of their arrest, and they have a right to petition for habeas corpus from any judge. That petition, too, must be acted upon within 36 hours of its application. Despite these legal protections, instances of arbitrary detention continued, and a large percentage of the prison population remained in an undetermined pretrial status. Under the state of emergency, preventive detention was legal with or without prior judicial authorization, but authorities were required to bring the detainees before a judicial officer within 36 hours of their arrest. Although authorities were able to increase the number of arrests, they were unable to bring the detainees before the judicial authorities within the required time, thus holding citizens without any justification before eventually releasing them. The Government not only failed in its stated objective to get criminals off the streets but also violated the rights of suspects in the process. The Government ignored the impact which its declaration of a state of emergency would have on a judicial system that could not even address the needs of citizens under normal circumstances.

Exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial 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, prosecutor's offices, and ministries attempted to define their roles and streamline their operations following the judicial reorganization provided for in the 1991 Constitution. The court system includes the Supreme Court of Justice, the Council of State, the Constitutional Court, the Judiciary Council, and tribunal courts. The 1991 Constitution modified the structure of the judicial branch by creating the office of the Prosecutor General as an independent prosecutorial body. Prosecutors bring criminal cases before the tribunal courts. A National Tribunal serves as the first court of appeal in these cases. The Supreme Court of Justice serves as the appellate court for decisions by the National Tribunal; it is also the court in which elected officials are tried. The Council of State is the appellate court for civil cases. The Judicial Council is the administrative arm of the judicial system. The Constitutional Court adjudicates cases of constitutionality.

The judiciary has long been subject to threats and intimidation when dealing with narcotics and paramilitary cases. With the decline in drug-related terrorism, there was a corresponding decrease in violent attacks against members of the judiciary. Nevertheless, in June, unknown assassins tortured and murdered family court judge Luis Guillermo Acevedo. Justice and Peace reported that, of the 10 murders which targeted lawyers between January and June, 7 were presumed to be politically motivated. In September armed gunmen attempted to assassinate President Samper's legal counsel; the counsel was wounded, and two government security escorts were killed in the incident.

The 1991 Constitution formalized the "regional" or "public order" jurisdictions, in which anonymous or "faceless" judges and prosecutors handle narcotics and terrorism cases. Human rights groups continued to charge that this system violated basic legal norms and procedural rights. Prosecutors, judges, and witnesses agree, however, that the protection provided by a faceless system is essential to any progress in investigations and prosecution of human rights cases involving massacres, forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, and other acts of extreme violence. As in past years, the judiciary remained overburdened and often in a state of chaos, staggering under a backlog of over 1 million cases.

The Constitution specifically provides for the right to due process. The accused has the right to representation by counsel, although representation for the indigenous and the indigent historically has been inadequate. The Government continued to labor under staffing and funding shortages in an effort to develop a credible public defender system.

The Attorney General investigates some allegations of human rights abuses by members of the state security apparatus, drawing upon a network of government human rights ombudsmen in over 1,000 municipalities. However, the Attorney General can only recommend administrative sanctions; 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. During the year, it completed expansion of regional offices to serve citizens throughout the country. The number of cases referred to it increased by almost 30 percent, largely because of its expanded reach and increased public awareness of its function. The President has a special adviser for human rights issues who investigates allegations of abuse and disseminates human rights educational information.

In a major effort to end impunity for human rights violations, the Prosecutor General's office opened a special human rights unit consisting of faceless prosecutors assigned to major cases. The Ministry of Defense also has a Secretariat for Human Rights which has instituted human rights advisory offices at brigade level, developed human rights training programs, and coordinated the project to reform the military Penal Code. The National Police, which is under the direction of the Minister of Defense, instituted a Special Office of Oversight to monitor human rights violations by the police and expanded human rights training. The new director of the National Police ordered a major purge of corrupt and incompetent police officers. In general, the purge was welcomed by the public and by human rights observers, although some feared that the dismissed police officers would turn to crime if given no means to find alternative employment.

While a late 1993 reform of the Criminal Procedures Code addressed certain procedural shortcomings within the system, problems remained. It was still difficult for defense attorneys to impeach or cross-examine anonymous witnesses, and often they did not have unimpeded access to the State's evidence. Supporters of the regional jurisdictions argued that it was better to address those shortcomings than to abolish the system. As a result of such considerations, judges may no longer base a conviction solely on the testimony of an anonymous witness. Human rights groups also criticized the Government's policy of allowing major narcotics traffickers to surrender voluntarily and negotiate their sentences. These critics charged that "small-time" defendants were at a disadvantage under the system while powerful criminals received deferential treatment. They also charged that the system, lacking resources, could not effectively prosecute the major guerrilla leaders and was left to handle only low-level criminals suspected of subversive activity. Prosecutors reported, moreover, that potential witnesses in major cases often doubted the Government's ability to protect their anonymity.

Colombia does not imprison citizens for political beliefs or expression of political convictions. However, the ICRC reported that it monitored 1,800 cases of citizens imprisoned under accusations of rebellion or aiding and abetting the insurgency, which are punishable under law. Many of these prisoners were noncombatants who in some cases were held for months before formal charges were filed.

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, the military forces have civilian prosecutorial units delegated to them. Human rights groups charged that these delegated 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 without bothering to apply for search warrants from the courts. To address this problem, the Ministry of Defense increased training in legal search procedures that comply with constitutional and human rights.

A prosecutor must authorize telephone monitoring and the interception of mail. This protection extends to prisoners held in jails. However, various state authorities tap phones without obtaining authorization.

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

The Government devoted much attention to the internal conflict. The military forces, paramilitary groups, and particularly guerrilla organizations violated international humanitarian law in Colombia's internal conflict. On May 18, the Constitutional Court formally declared Law 171 of 1994 to be constitutional; this law ratified without reservation Protocol II of the Geneva Convention. By declaring the Protocol to be equally applicable to both armed insurgents and government forces, the Court challenged those guerrilla groups who have refused to cease kidnaping, deploying land mines, and recruiting minors.

In February military helicopters and planes attacked the village of Puerto Trujillo, Meta. They shot and killed one 49-year-old woman and wounded several townspeople, including a 5-year-old child. The military claimed that they believed guerrillas were in the village. A commission comprised of both government and nongovernmental members determined that the military received no return fire and that no guerrillas were present in the village at the time.

A persistent, if unofficial, emphasis by the army on body counts as a means of assessing field performance is a leading cause of violations of international humanitarian law. Both NGO and military sources reported that some units placed weapons in the hands of dead bodies in an effort to create the impression that they had engaged in combat as members of guerrillas forces. In April military authorities relieved an army lieutenant colonel of his command and placed him under house arrest for murdering local indigents and claiming that they were guerrillas killed in action. Authorities also imprisoned seven noncommissioned officers on murder charges in the same case. At year's end, the Prosecutor General's Office was still investigating the case.

Paramilitary groups, who often allegedly operated with individual soldiers or entire military units, usually carried out their violent acts with impunity. In September the Intercongregational Commission of Justice and Peace reported cases of torture, beatings, and death threats against residents of several rural communities in Santander at the hands of paramilitary forces working for a local landowner. Local military units tolerated these acts and, in some instances, participated in them. However, peasants whom paramilitary forces had driven out of the community of La Leal were able to return to their homes under the protection of a special army unit. In response, paramilitary members threatened they would again drive out the residents of La Leal as soon as their military protectors left. The report faulted civilian authorities for refusing to investigate charges brought by the peasants, thus allowing the 8-year saga of violence in the region to continue unabated.

The violence reached a peak when paramilitary and guerrilla elements killed some 90 civilians in a series of massacres between August 12 and September 20. With unusual speed, the authorities arrested 13 paramilitary soldiers within a week of the first of the massacres. Military authorities, regionally elected officials, the Catholic Church, and former guerrilla leaders agreed that of the six massacres during this period, five were probably part of a campaign by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) against members and sympathizers of the Hope, Peace, and Freedom Party. (These are former members of The Popular Liberation Army (EPL) who laid down their arms in the early 1990's.) Critics charged that the army had advance knowledge of the FARC plan to carry out the August 29 massacre but failed to take proper measures to protect the population. The majority of the FARC's victims were banana workers.

There were no reports of armed confrontations between the FARC and paramilitary groups, despite the fact that the declared purpose of the FARC's so-called dignity plan was to combat paramilitary groups. The FARC massacre of September 20 took the lives of at least 25 banana workers, including 5 women and 2 minors. After summarily executing the workers, the FARC mutilated the bodies of five or six of the dead. In response, the Government declared martial law in the Uraba region and pledged to deploy large numbers of troops to protect the civilian population. A government proposal to establish civilian security cooperatives met with considerable resistance from local community leaders and human rights observers who believed that such cooperatives would raise the level of violence in the area.

The loosely organized guerrilla groups of the Simon Bolivar Coordinating Board, which include the FARC and ELN, committed a host of violations against humanitarian law, among them extrajudicial killings and kidnapings (see Section 1.b.), as well as bombings and other acts of sabotage. In March various FARC units attacked the headquarters of the Agrarian Bank, the Coffee Growers Bank, and the local police in the town of Ituango, Antioquia. They took hostages, wounded several citizens, and killed one policeman and three civilians, including the 11-year-old daughter of the police commander. The Jaime Bateman Cayon guerrillas (dissident M-19 members who refused their leadership's order to lay down their arms in 1990) destroyed installations at the Center for Sugar Cane

Research. In July the ELN injured seven children at an orphanage for girls when it bombed an adjacent police station. Other acts of sabotage and deployment of land mines by the guerrillas showed an equal lack of concern for the civilian population. In September a car bomb wounded several citizens and caused extensive damage to the Santander Financial Corporation building in Bucaramanga. The governor of Santander reported that guerrilla organizations declared that they would increase terrorist acts in Bucaramanga.

Soldiers and police continued to be targeted by drug traffickers, guerrillas, and common criminals on a daily basis. For example, in May FARC-placed land mines in Tolima killed six soldiers. In July FARC guerrillas attacked the village of Sueva, Cundinamarca, tortured and murdered all five members of its police force, and set fire to the bodies. In another July attack, the ELN dynamited a public road in El Playon, Santander, killing seven policemen. In August in Miraflores guerrillas killed 6 and wounded 29 antinarcotics police in a 72-hour attack that nearly destroyed the village. After the attack, two army soldiers died while attempting to deactivate landmines. The guerrillas also fired on a Red Cross plane as it evacuated women and children from Miraflores. In December a guerrilla attack on a police unit stationed near Bogota resulted in the death of an 18-month-old child. Antinarcotics police reported continuing confrontations with paramilitary groups in Tolima.

Internecine violence among guerrilla groups has a long history. In August a regional judge sentenced dissident FARC leader Javier Delgado to 19 years in prison for the 1985 massacre of 180 rival FARC guerrillas in Tacueyo, Cauca.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

The authorities generally respected these constitutionally protected rights but were prone to apply subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) pressure on certain media when their core interests were threatened. Most media, however, were disinclined to bend. For example, in April journalists at leading news magazine Semana complained publicly that agents representing the President's office inquired about the contents of an upcoming article which was to criticize President Samper. The President's office immediately denied attempting to intimidate Semana staff, but the denial was not considered credible. Other signs of government efforts to influence the media included occasional calls on patriotic grounds to limit negative reporting which might hurt Colombia's image in the world and implied threats that government advertising might be withdrawn. In spite of these efforts, print and broadcast media regularly criticized the Government without recrimination. The privately owned print media published a wide spectrum of political viewpoints and often voiced harsh antigovernment opinions without administrative reprisals. The Government imposed some restrictions on electronic media coverage of incidents of public disorder and of drug terrorist activity and reserved the right to prohibit coverage of certain news events that could affect state security.

Based on the Government's Decree 221 issued in January, the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute issued a resolution in March prohibiting journalists from visiting inmates of high security facilities.

Some observers charged that anticorruption legislation passed by the Congress on May 30 directly violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press. They suggested that the restrictions imposed upon media reporting of pending anticorruption cases deprived the public of its right to know about misconduct by public officials. Under the state of emergency the Government may regulate the media only if the information will endanger lives or directly induce public disturbances. The Government may use television and radio stations as it deems appropriate but may not prohibit reports of human rights violations. The Government may not establish an official censorship board, but accredited media associations are to act as a self-regulatory tribunal.

In February publisher Juan B. Fernandez escaped assassination when a contract killer revealed that two former agents of the National Police investigatory apparatus SIJIN (fired in 1992 for alleged involvement in the murder of seven citizens of Barranquilla) had hired him to assassinate Fernandez. In April the Bogota circle of journalists publicly condemned the threats and intimidation suffered in particular by journalists covering narcotics trafficking. In May Ombudsman for Human Rights Jaime Cordoba Trivino reported that 107 journalists had been murdered since 1980. In December hit men in Armenia, capital of Quindio department, assassinated Ernesto Acero Cadena, a prominent journalist known for his harsh criticism of corrupt officials. While very few of these cases were ever definitively resolved, it was apparent that journalists were often victims of guerrilla groups, paramilitary organizations, and narcotics traffickers.

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 were often threatened and intimidated by local guerrillas and paramilitary groups. Paramilitary forces killed at least 19 teachers in Uraba.

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. NGO's criticized the Government's response to the coffee workers' strike in the spring and summer. Among the incidents cited was the August 14 police shooting of a peasant who participated in a peaceful march by the small-scale coffee growers in Bogota. In addition, there was police harassment and the arbitrary arrest of some peasant protesters in Ibague, and the use of excessive force to dismantle the tent city set up by the protesters.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for complete religious freedom, and the Government respects this right in practice. There is little religious discrimination. Roman Catholic religious instruction is no longer mandatory in state schools, and a Constitutional Court decision in 1994 found unconstitutional any official government reference to religious characterizations of the country. The Government permits proselytizing among the indigenous population, provided it is welcome and does not induce members of indigenous communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands. In May the Samper administration issued a regulatory decree implementing the Law on the Freedom of Cults which provides a mechanism for religions to obtain the status of recognized legal entities.

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

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to travel domestically and abroad. Outsiders wishing to enter Indian tribes' reserves must be invited. In areas where military operations against guerrillas are underway, 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 incursions, military counterinsurgency operations, guerrilla and paramilitary conscription, and land seizures by narcotics traffickers often forced peasants to flee their homes and farms. In its 1995 Report on Violence and Internal Forced Displacement in Colombia, the Colombian Conference of Bishops noted that approximately 600,000 Colombians, or 2 percent of the population, were displaced persons. Displaced persons continued to face a crucial dilemma: while they could not stay in conflict zones because of legitimate fears for their safety, they were rejected and perceived as an economic drain in the regions and cities which were their most common destinations.

Colombia has had a tradition of providing political asylum since the 1920's. During the 1970's, Colombia granted asylum to Argentine, Chilean, Uruguayan, and Paraguayan citizens seeking refuge from dictatorial regimes in their own countries. The Government reserves the right to determine eligibility for asylum, based upon its own assessment of the political nature of the persecution an applicant may have suffered. In a controversial decision, the Government granted asylum to former Haitian dictator Prosper Avril, who remained in the Colombian embassy in Port au Prince at year's end.

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

Citizens exercise this right in regular, secret ballot elections that have historically been considered fair and open, although critics maintain that vote buying is a regular feature of elections in some regions. Presidential elections are held every 4 years. The Liberal and Conservative parties have long dominated the political scene 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. Officially, all political parties operate freely without government interference. Those that 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. However, they may reincorporate at any time by presenting 50,000 signatures to the National Electoral Board.

In 1994 the country held a national presidential election as well as congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral elections. For the first time, the country also elected a Vice President, Humberto de la Calle, who ran on the Liberal party ticket with presidential candidate Ernesto Samper. The office of Vice President was created by the 1991 Constitution and replaced a less powerful "presidential designate," elected by congress. Liberal party representatives dominated the congressional elections, providing a Liberal majority in both houses.

However, bipartisan coalitions were still often necessary for the Liberals to enact legislation. Throughout 1995 Samper was beset by allegations that he knowingly received campaign contributions from drug traffickers.

There are no legal restrictions, and few de facto ones, on the participation of women or minorities in the political process. Seven female senators and 19 female representatives served in Congress, including the First Vice President of the House of Representatives. The Ministers of Labor, Environment, and Education were women, as were the President's advisers for social policy, human rights, and Bogota issues.

Two seats in the 102-seat Senate are reserved for representatives of the indigenous population, and 2 in the 165-seat House of Representatives are reserved for citizens of African heritage. Both the African-Colombian and indigenous populations continued to expand their social and political agenda, and an indigenous politician, Jesus Pinacue, was a vice presidential candidate on the unsuccessful ticket of the AD/M-19 Party in 1994. Senator Piedad Cordoba de Castro, an African-Colombian woman, is a senior member of the Liberal party.

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

Human rights groups active in Colombia include 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 Latin American Institute for Alternative Legal Services, and Peace Brigades International.

NGO's investigated and reported on a number of human rights abuses, including killings by FARC and ELN forces; the paramilitary murders of 19 teachers in Uraba; the lack of military protection in Uraba; the paramilitary persecution of the Meta Civic Committee in Sabana de Torres and of the Barrancabermeja Human Rights Committee known as CREDHOS; the guerrilla and paramilitary campaigns against Hope, Peace, and Freedom in Uraba; and the government response to the coffee growers' strike. NGO's were nearly unanimous in their criticism of the declaration of the state of emergency. In August the NGO members of the Joint Commission on Human Rights formed in 1994 withdrew from the Commission as a protest against the state of emergency as well as President Samper's approval of an award for General Alvaro Velandia (see Section 1.b.).

The Government generally did not interfere with the work of human rights NGO's. These NGO's were often threatened and intimidated by the guerrillas, paramilitary groups, or individual members of the police and military forces. Many prominent human rights monitors worked under constant fear for their physical safety.

When President Samper took office in August 1994, he publicly admitted that the human rights situation reflected a "shameful and troubling reality." 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's. In general, the Samper administration abided by that pledge. However, the relationship deteriorated over the course of the year for a number of reasons. Human rights observers and many community leaders believed that the Ministry of Defense pilot project to institute rural civilian defense cooperatives legitimized vigilante justice. Despite positive steps such as the historic acknowledgment of government responsibility in the Trujillo massacres, a corps of government human rights monitors and advisers was often on the losing side in policy disputes. The resignation of the Attorney General for Human Rights and the decoration of the general he had accused of human rights abuses sent a negative signal about the administration's support for the government human rights apparatus. President Samper's declaration of the state of emergency further strained his administration's relationship with NGO's.

On October 27, the U.N. Committee on Human Rights formally declared the Government responsible for the 1987 arrest, disappearance, torture, and subsequent murder of Nydia Erika Bautista de Arellana. In another case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued on December 8 a finding of government responsibility in the 1989 disappearances and presumed deaths of Isidro Caballero and Maria del Carmen Santana. At year's end, both cases were under criminal investigation by the Prosecutor General's office.

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. In practice, however, many of these provisions are not enforced.

The Government does not discriminate against homosexuals, although there are relatively few open ones among the political and business elite of the country. Unofficial, societal discrimination undeniably exists. Homosexuals are often listed as victims of social cleansing. Those targeted by social- cleansing groups are almost exclusively involved in the sex industry.

Women

Rape and other acts of violence against women are pervasive in society, and like other crimes, are seldom prosecuted successfully. The law provides relatively mild sentences, ranging from 6 months to 8 years, for crimes of sexual abuse and allows for significant sentence reductions based on the conduct of the convicted perpetrator. In most cases, the assailant is released because the law permits the probationary release of criminals convicted of crimes carrying minimum sentences of less than 2 years. The law does not penalize marital rape or other forms of marital sexual abuse. Many jurists and women's advocates called for a reform of the law. In May the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of a man who had ignored a restraining order and continued to sexually assault and beat his wife. The 15-day sentence and fine was the first ever passed by a court for spousal abuse. The Bogota police reported that, of the 170 reports of sexual abuse received between January and June, it could legally detain the perpetrators in only 36 cases. In those cases detention was permitted by virtue of the fact that the crimes were committed in conjunction with other crimes.

The Constitution prohibits any form of discrimination against women and specifically requires the authorities to "guarantee adequate and effective participation by women at decisionmaking levels of public administration." Even prior to implementation of the 1991 Constitution, the law had provided women with extensive civil rights. Despite these constitutional provisions, however, discrimination against women persists.

The quasi-governmental Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF) and the presidential adviser's Office for Youth, Women, and Family Affairs reported high levels of spousal and partner abuse throughout the country. The ICBF conducted programs and provided refuge and counseling for victims of spousal abuse, but the level and amount of these services were dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem.

According to figures published by the United Nations, women's earnings for nonagricultural work correspond to approximately 84.7 percent of men's earnings for comparable work. Women 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 single mothers remained great throughout the year, despite government efforts to provide them with training in parenting skills, reproductive rights, and birth control.

Children

Despite significant constitutional and legislative commitments to the protection of the rights of children, these were only minimally implemented. The Constitution imposes the obligation on family, society, and the State 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.

In June the Government announced a program to improve opportunities for youth, including obligatory environmental service, the creation of clubs for adolescents, employment for 150,000 teenagers, and subsidies for instruction and on the job training. The Attorney General's office recommended better interagency coordination for child protection; better control of licensing agencies, schools, daycare centers and other organizations offering services to children; more vigilance on the part of government agencies to ensure compliance with the Children's Code; legislation to increase awareness of children's issues; and establishment of a network for abused children.

Child prostitution was commonplace in the five major cities. In May the press gave wide coverage to the discovery of a child pornography ring in Bogota. The public was outraged when the police released the perpetrators due to the laxity of the law. An attorney from the Attorney General's office investigating the case was assassinated in July.

Children's rights were frequently abused. Vigilante gangs often linked to the police killed street children in several major cities as part of social-cleansing killings (see Section 1.a.). 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 often caught in crossfire between the security forces, paramilitary groups, and guerrilla organizations. Deadly landmines known as "leg breakers" laid by guerrillas killed or mutilated many children in these areas. Despite national and international condemnation, guerrilla groups continued to recruit minors. A survivor of the Uraba massacre of September 21 reported that a boy of 10 to 12 years of age was among the guerrillas who killed 25 farm laborers. Children were the most vulnerable victims of the mass displacement of rural populations. In May nine children died of starvation in the Valencia region of Cordoba as they attempted to escape from paramilitary violence and guerrilla engagements with the army.

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 cannot refuse to provide services for the disabled children of its members, regardless of the cost involved.

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 Interior, 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. Nonetheless, members of indigenous groups suffer discrimination in the sense that they have traditionally been relegated to the margins of Colombian society. Few opportunities exist for those who might wish to participate more fully in modern life.

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. In zones where the guerrillas were 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 disputes 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.

In April, 500 members of the Zenu tribe began a mass exodus from Uraba to return to Sucre, a region they left in the 1980's in search of a better standard of living. Caught in the conflict among guerrilla, paramilitary, and military forces, they cited incidents of physical and psychological torture, abductions, arson, and other threats. Unidentified assassins murdered three Zenu leaders, including reservation governor Jose Elias Suarez, in the first 3 months of 1995, which led to the Zenus' decision to leave Uraba.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Two million Colombian citizens of African heritage live primarily in the Pacific departments of Choco, Valle del Cauca, and Narino, 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 African-Colombian Law in 1993, little concrete progress was made in expanding public services and private investment in the Choco or other predominantly black regions. The Navy makes little effort to recruit African-Colombians, despite their traditional ties to the sea and maritime commerce.

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 potential members and comply with a simple registration process at the Labor Ministry. The law penalizes interference with freedom of association. It allows unions to freely 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 are free to join international confederations 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." Since this has not yet been done, 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 their union represents; the prohibition of strikes in a wide range of public services which are not necessarily essential; various restrictions on the right to strike; 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.

Public primary and secondary school teachers went on strike for higher wages three times between January and late May. The Government declared the strikes illegal and threatened reprisals against members of the Colombian Federation of Educators. The strike settlement reached on May 24 allowed for a 26-percent wage increase, falling far short of the teachers' demands but exceeding the Government's 18-percent limit set for other public workers. In addition, the Government agreed not to take disciplinary action against the striking teachers.

The Government restructured but did not privatize the state petroleum company Ecopetrol in a move that allayed workers' fears of massive layoffs. In May Ecopetrol and the Union of Syndicated Labor (USO) signed a collective work convention for 1995-96. The USO leadership, however, declared that it remained in open conflict with the Government with regard to the cases of union leaders subject to detentions by the Prosecutor General's office, outstanding arrest orders, and administrative investigations by the Attorney General's office. The leadership reported further that USO participants in the collective bargaining with Ecopetrol had received death threats from presumed paramilitary groups active in the oil producing region of Magdalena Medio.

Labor leaders throughout the country continued to be the target of attacks by guerrillas, paramilitary groups, narcotics traffickers, the military, police, and their own union rivals. According to figures published by Justice and Peace, during the first 6 months of 1995, 13 labor activists were murdered in connection with their labor activities. Another 2 were murdered presumably because of their labor activities, and 16 were kidnaped, detained illegally, and threatened. In the banana-producing region of Uraba, organized workers historically belonged to the extreme left wing of the labor movement but refused to cooperate with the FARC. Over a 45-day period in August and September, paramilitary and FARC guerrilla forces murdered some 90 civilians in Uraba. Of that number, approximately half may have been targeted for their participation in or sympathy with the National Syndicate of Agro-Industry Workers, a labor union closely associated with the Hope, Peace, and Freedom movement of demobilized EPL guerrillas.

The list of killings, intimidations, and arbitrary arrests of labor union leaders includes the murders of Association Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos (ANUC) president William Gustavo Jaime Torres in August and ANUC director for Sucre, Manuel Herrera Sierra, in April; the June disappearance, torture, and murder of teachers' union member German Rodriguez; the attempted murder of the president of the Syndicate of Workers of Yumbo, Fidel Castro Murillo, in July; and the attempted murder of Jesus Tovar Durango, president of Sintraigro, the syndicate of agricultural workers. Numerous threats against other labor leaders were reported.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution protects the right of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Workers in larger firms and public services have been most successful in organizing, 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 new Labor Code increases the fines levied for restricting freedom of association and prohibits the use of strike breakers.

Collective pacts, agreements between individual workers and their employers, are not subject to collective bargaining and are typically used by employers to obstruct labor organization. Although collective pacts must be registered formally with the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry does not exercise any oversight or control over them.

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 its 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, which have the largest number 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 not honored.

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 the granting of 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 which affect adult workers, including exposure to toxic substances and accidental injuries, all of which contribute to impaired physical development. In May the Government launched a media outreach campaign to inform child laborers of their rights and where to turn for help. No figures were available to measure the impact of this effort.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government sets a uniform minimum wage for workers every January to serve as a benchmark for wage bargaining. The monthly minimum wage was approximately $124 (Col$ 118,000). Over one-quarter of workers earn the minimum wage. Although consistent with the Government's anti-inflation policies, it fails to provide an adequate standard of living for a worker and family, which, by government estimates, would require two-and-one-half times the minimum wage.

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 criticized by the ILO. 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 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, a lack of public safety awareness, inadequate attention by unions, and lax enforcement by the Labor Ministry result in an unacceptable high level of industrial accidents and unhealthy working conditions.

 

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