1998 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 3

Ratings Change

Colombia's political rights rating changed from 4 to 3 due to the selection of a new president, believed not to be beholden to narcotics traffickers, in largely free and fair elections.


With the U.S military predicting that Colombia could fall into the hands of left-wing guerrillas in as little as five years, newly elected President Andres Pastrana launched a series of measures to improve the country's faltering economy and bolster a fledgling peace process. Political violence and growing labor unrest, however, threaten Pastrana's gamble on negotiations with Latin America's oldest guerrilla insurgency. The peace process is also imperiled by an increasingly politically assertive military.

After independence from Spain in 1819 and a long period of federal government with what are now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, the Republic of Colombia was established in 1886. Politics have since been dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties, which have been led largely by the country's traditional elite. Under Liberal President Cesar Gaviria from 1990 to 1994, Colombia approved a new constitution that limits presidents to a single four-year term and provides for an elected bicameral Congress, with a 102-member Senate and a 161-member Chamber of Representatives.

Modern Colombia has been marked by the corrupt machine politics of the Liberals and Conservatives, left-wing guerrilla insurgencies, right-wing paramilitary violence, the emergence of vicious drug cartels, and gross human rights violations committed by all sides. In the 1994 elections, the Liberals retained a majority in both houses of Congress and won the presidency. Ernesto Samper, a former economic development minister, won the latter with 50.4 percent of the vote in a runoff election. With strong U.S. encouragement, Samper presided over the dismantling of the Cali drug cartel, most of whose leaders were captured in 1995. The arrests, however, netted persuasive evidence that the cartel had given $6 million to Samper's campaign with his approval. In 1996, the country's prosecutor general formally charged Samper with illegal enrichment, fraud, falsification of documents, and a cover-up of his campaign financing. The House, dominated by Samper's Liberals, voted 111 to 43 to clear Samper on grounds of insufficient evidence. In the June 1998 election, Andres Pastrana, a former mayor of Bogota and the son of a former Colombian president, who lost to Samper in 1994, won the presidency in an impressive victory over Liberal party candidate and Interior Minister Horacio Serpa.

After more than three decades of fighting primarily in rural areas, guerrillas have pushed their insurgency ever closer to Bogota and other major cities and are now believed to control more than 40 percent of the country's territory. In November, in an effort to consolidate the peace process, Pastrana oversaw the regrouping by guerrillas in, and the withdrawal by a dispirited military from, a demilitarized zone of five southern districts. Skeptics worried, however, that the move would hamper Colombia's anti-drug campaign.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government through elections. The 1991 constitution provides for broader participation in the system, including two reserved seats in the Congress for the country's small Indian minority. Political violence and a generalized belief that corruption renders elections meaningless have helped to limit voter participation, although 60 percent of the electorate voted in the 1998 presidential contest. In 1998, President Pastrana proposed a broad reform of the political system to combat corruption and promote greater public participation in decision-making. He also offered the guerrillas a presidential pardon and guarantees for their post-peace participation in legal political activities.

The justice system remains slow and compromised by corruption and extortion.

Strong evidence suggests that the Cali cartel, through its lawyers, virtually dictated the 1993 penal code reform to Congress. It allows traffickers who surrender as much as a two-thirds sentence reduction and the dismissal of any pending charges in which they do not plead. The country's national police, once a focal point of official corruption, have been reorganized and are now Colombia's most respected security institution.

Constitutional rights regarding free expression and the freedom to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions are severely restricted by political and drug-related violence and by the government's inability to guarantee the security of its citizens. Political violence in Colombia continues to take more lives than in any other country in the hemisphere, and civilians are the primary victims. In the past decade, an estimated 35,000 have died, and approximately one million have been displaced from their homes. More than 90 percent of violent crimes are never solved. Conditions in the country's 168 prisons, which are severely overcrowded, are dire. In 1998, the government announced plans to privatize their expansion and management.

Human rights violations have soared to unprecedented highs, with atrocities being committed by all sides in the conflict. Human rights workers in Colombia are frequently murdered by rightist paramilitary forces or the country's untrained, undisciplined, and inadequately funded military. The paramilitary groups, who are protected by the military and paid by narcotics traffickers and large landowners, have grown exponentially. In May, a military intelligence unit was disbanded after credible reports tied it to support for death squads and a string of political assassinations, including the 1995 murder of Colombia's top opposition leader. In 1998, left-wing guerrillas used as many as 400 villagers in a single town as human shields to protect themselves against aerial bombardment. Perpetrators of political violence operate with a high degree of impunity.

Journalists are frequently the victims of political and revenge violence. More than 120 journalists, including at least seven in 1998, have been murdered in the past decade. Many were killed for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption. Another category of killings is known as "social cleansing," or the elimination of drug addicts, street children, and other marginal citizens by vigilante groups often linked to the police.

After threatening mass suicide, the 5,000-member Uwa Indian tribe has reported that foreign oil companies have retreated from plans to exploit their ancestral lands. In August, however, an Embera Katio community leader was murdered by a right-wing death squad because he was protesting the planned construction of a dam that would flood tribal lands. In a positive development in September, the constitutional court overturned as discriminatory a 1979 law that allowed teachers to be dismissed for homosexuality.

Murders of trade union activists continued as Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for organized labor. According to the United Nations, approximately 948,000 children under the age of 14 work in "unacceptable" conditions.

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