U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Colombia

  Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty democracy long dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties. The M-19 guerrilla movement, which became a legal political party, Democratic Alliance M-19 (AD/M-19) in 1990, fielded a presidential candidate and several congressional candidates in 1993. A small Socialist party, Patriotic Union, also participates in national politics. The next national elections will be held in May 1994. Until August, the country was under a state of emergency declared by President Cesar Gaviria in late 1992. This allowed the President to issue decrees on public order matters normally requiring legislative action. During the fall session, Congress debated many of these decrees, with the participation of human rights groups, and incorporated some of their provisions into permanent legislation. Internal security is the primary responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, which in addition to the armed forces, includes the National Police (CNP). The Department of Administrative Security (DAS), which is responsible for national security intelligence, reports directly to the President. Elements of the police and the armed forces remained responsible for widespread human rights abuses. Colombia has a mixed economy in which the private sector has assumed an even more dominant role as a result of the economic liberalization program introduced by the Gaviria Government. Crude petroleum rivals coffee as the principal export. The privatization of selected public industries continued, with three banks and a number of smaller enterprises sold by the Government during the year. Narcotics traffickers continued to control extensive economic interests. Colombia's engrained democratic tradition has survived despite high levels of internal violence. For 8 months in 1993 and 35 of the past 42 years, the Government operated under states of emergency which gave the executive a wide range of powers to issue decrees, some of which impinged on the basic rights of citizens, in order to deal with civil unrest associated with internal violence. Narcotics traffickers, leftist guerrilla groups, and rightwing paramilitary groups – the last of which sometimes act with the support or acquiescence of local or regional military or police units – committed the majority of human rights abuses. However, the army and police appeared to be jointly responsible for almost as many violations as the combined nongovernmental groups. Narcotics traffickers frequently resorted to terror in attempts to intimidate the Government and the general population. They continued to disseminate false information about official human rights violations in an effort to undermine the Government's credibility. Narcotics traffickers and guerrillas cooperated extensively. The commander of the armed forces estimated that 60 percent of the revenue of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in two provinces came from drug trafficking. Individual members and units of the police and army were responsible for extensive human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention. As acknowledged by the Attorney General and the National Human Rights Ombudsman, a major reason for the high level of abuse was the virtual impunity with which most took place. Targets of abuse in rural and urban areas by the security forces included workers, politicians, labor organizers, human rights monitors, and, most frequently, peasant farmers in guerrilla territory. Violence and economic discrimination against women remained commonplace. The Government actively sought to improve its human rights record and effect reform, passing a comprehensive police reform law establishing a civilian Police Commissioner's Office and a National Advisory Board. It remains to be seen whether these efforts will reduce police and military abuses. The Office of the Defender of the People remained underfunded, while the Procuraduria, an independent government watchdog agency, conducted some investigations and imposed sanctions on a few state agents implicated in human rights abuses. The armed forces initiated a human rights awareness campaign at the end of the year, creating a special office staffed by civilians to advise the joint chiefs of staff on human rights issues and to develop training materials and programs.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

The overall murder rate in Colombia increased for the second year in a row in 1993. Bogota's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, cited 15,000 murders attributed to all sources throughout the country in the first 6 months of 1993, as compared to 11,000 for the same period in 1992. Due to insufficient police and judicial resources to investigate and prosecute most killings and the frequently overlapping violent forces at work, it is often difficult to separate political from nonpolitical murders. The Center for Investigations and Popular Education (CINEP), Bogota's Jesuit-affiliated human rights and social welfare research center, reported a total of 581 politically motivated murders for the period from January through September 1993, compared with 873 for all of 1992. Of these, 159 were attributed to members of the state security apparatus, 37 to paramilitary groups, 242 to the guerrillas, and 143 to unknown perpetrators. According to the Andean Commission of Jurists (CAJSC), 437 cases of politically motivated killings were reported between January and June 1993, with another 755 killings presumed to have been politically motivated. CAJSC also stated that, during the full year, an average of 11 people per day were killed in politically motivated attacks, a figure almost identical to that of 1992. In December a press report cited a figure of 649 political killings in Colombia for the year. The report also stated that the department of Antioquia had the highest incidence of this violence, with a total of 230 such killings. The armed forces continued to be responsible for extrajudicial killings, including one reported massacre. Lt. Colonel Luis Becerra was dismissed from the army and placed under investigation by the Attorney General for his alleged role in the October 1 massacre of 13 unarmed peasants in Rio Frio by a paramilitary unit. Unit members also raped six women among the peasants before killing them, and there were signs of torture. An army unit under Becerra's command was reported to have placed weapons on the peasants and dressed them in guerrilla- style uniforms after the massacre. There were credible reports that Becerra was tied to the 1988 killings of 23 purported guerrillas who later turned out to be unarmed banana workers. The Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights reported an increase in massacres over the past 12 years, citing 176 massacres with 857 victims in 1992. The report assigned responsibility for about 10 percent of the massacres during this 12-year period to government forces. In April members of the 2nd Mobile Brigade allegedly tortured and executed high school teacher Parmencio Bonilla, cattleman Jairo Arguello, and laborer Roberto Alvarado in El Mordisco, Arauca department. According to witnesses, guerrillas ambushed a military patrol shortly before these three were captured; area residents reported that none of the three had ties to the insurgents. There were credible reports that the army executed two guerrillas who represented the Socialist Renewal Current faction in negotiations with the Government and that the local authorities attempted to cover up this extrajudicial killing. The Procuraduria reported that five investigations of alleged human rights violations committed by the military were completed between January and August, resulting in administrative sanctions against 14 service members. Charges against nine servicemen were dropped. Members of the CNP also committed extrajudicial killings. CINEP linked CNP agents to a total of 21 of these killings through September, noting that this number had dropped from 40 the previous year. In September the Procuraduria charged a police captain and five agents of the Criminal Investigative Unit (SIJIN) in Narino department for their participation in the summary execution of five people in Catatumbo in March 1992. The five, suspected of having attacked buses along the Pan American highway, were detained but never brought into custody or charged. The bodies of the victims showed signs of torture, and there was no indication that they were armed at the time of their detention. In March a 9-year-old girl was found strangled in a Bogota police station after having been sexually assaulted. In the wake of the crime, CNP Inspector General Humberto Maldonado and Operations Director Nassim Diaz were dismissed, along with several other high-ranking officers. This incident was also cause for a rapid acceleration in drafting the police reform bill that was signed into law in August, and galvanized public opinion as to the dire need for institutional reform of the CNP. The murdered child's father, himself a police agent, was initially detained as a suspect but was later released. A continuing investigation had not produced any new developments by year's end. CINEP reported 118 incidents of "social cleansing" between January and September throughout most major cities, which represented a slight decline from the previous year. This activity involves attacks and killings, often by off-duty police, directed against groups deemed socially undesirable, i.e., prostitutes, homosexuals, indigent street people and street children (see Section 5), drug addicts, and panhandlers. Many of these victims were rural peasants forced to flee military and guerrilla violence in their native regions who migrated to the cities in search of improved economic opportunities. Merchant or vigilante citizens' groups are alleged to sponsor the attacks; off-duty police agents or contract killers are the most frequently accused perpetrators of these murders. The October beating death of an indigent street poet in Bogota at the hands of police catalyzed public outcry, and a crowd of 3,000 turned his funeral into a peace march. Two policemen were in custody and under investigation for this killing. The Procuraduria reported that the Special Investigative Unit formed by the Prosecutor General's Office (Fiscalia) in 1992 to investigate these occurrences found one police officer and two agents linked to incidents but did not find sufficient evidence to suggest that there was official police complicity in organized attacks against a specific class of citizens. It determined that the three members of the CNP acted for personal motives; their cases were referred to the Attorney General's Office for Police Affairs, where they remained under investigation at year's end. The Bogota Human Rights Ombudsman associated with the National Office of the Defender of the People issued a report in September decrying the increased incidence of "social cleansing." The report very clearly accused elements of the police of tacit complicity in these cases and cited 12 murders as well as hundreds of lesser abuses, such as physical aggression and harassment by police or police-sponsored groups. The inquiry into the 1991 death of journalist Henry Rojas continued. A former Arauca mayor and an army colonel who had been exonerated in May were rearrested in September. The Procuraduria investigation was still pending at year's end. The Simon Bolivar Guerrilla Coordinating Board stepped up attacks against the military in the early fall during its "black September" campaign. In separate attacks against police and military convoys in Usme and Antioquia, FARC guerrillas killed 13 policemen and 13 soldiers, respectively. Survivors of the two attacks reported that the guerrilla attackers first dynamited the convoys and then bayoneted or shot the wounded at close range. Press and human rights sources reported that 264 members of the police and armed forces died while on active duty during the year. Guerrillas were also responsible for many extrajudicial killings. Members of a dissident faction of the Army of Popular Liberation (EPL) assassinated a well-known, outspoken peace activist, Father Javier Cirujano, in May in San Jacinto, Bolivar. His accused killer, Ariel Contreras, was arrested by DAS agents in September. Other, less notable victims included those who refused to submit to extortion, those suspected of collaborating with the Government or military, and, in particular, those former guerrillas who deserted the subversive movements to reintegrate themselves with the noncombatant population under the Government's "reinsertion" plan. In September FARC members killed the parents of a soldier when they became lost on their way to visit him and stumbled into rebel territory. Nationwide, policemen continued to be murdered by drug traffickers, terrorists, guerrillas, and common criminals, although the number dropped significantly from the previous year. According to official police statistics, 177 police officials were killed from January through September, compared to 620 in 1992. Of these 177 deaths, 36 were attributed to narcotics traffickers. In November National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas assassinated Colombian Senate Vice President Dario Londono in Medellin. He was chairing congressional debate on public order legislation at the time. Following his murder, the ELN published several open letters that stated that other congressmen who supported the legislation would be targeted as well. Also in November, the body of Italian Honorary Consul Guisseppe Suarigia was discovered several months after he had been kidnaped by the FARC in Bucamaranga. In November alone, press reports estimated that upwards of 70 banana workers were killed in Uraba. Accounts indicate that the killings were most likely perpetrated by EPL guerrillas against "reinserted" former subversives. Two weeks later the FARC openly assassinated another 20 or so reinserted workers, arriving at the plantations in force with death lists in hand and executing the laborers in front of their fellow workers. Narcotics-related terrorism remained at a high level during the first several months of 1993 but tapered off during the second half of the year. Before government forces tracked him down and killed him on December 2, fugitive drug kingpin Pablo Escobar conducted a random bombing campaign in Medellin and Bogota, intended to force the Government to grant him favorable terms of surrender. The attacks culminated in April with the explosion of a powerful bomb in a fashionable Bogota neighborhood that left 11 dead and over 200 wounded. Escobar was also believed to be responsible for ordering the deaths of over 140 policemen since his escape in July 1992. In October an ELN bomb attack in central Bogota against a police bus claimed the lives of 2 policemen and wounded 17 other police and civilian bystanders. A shadowy paramilitary group dedicated to the elimination of Pablo Escobar and his Medellin-based trafficking organization conducted a series of terrorist attacks, mostly aimed at Escobar's family and associates. The group, known as the "Pepes" and led by the well-known paramilitary chief Fidel Castano, conducted spectacular attacks on Escobar's properties and assets. Despite the group's public announcement in April that it would disband due to government opposition to its activities, killings of Escobar defense attorneys and associates continued. Two days before Escobar's death, the group announced it would resume its activities. It claimed responsibility for the killing of an Escobar relative on the same day that the drug kingpin was killed by the military. In general, paramilitary activity declined during the first part of the year but, according to press reports, began to resurface in the latter half of 1993. The national weekly, Cambio 16, reported the return of irregular armed militias sponsored by ranchers and often tacitly supported by regional armed forces in the conflict-ridden region of Uraba. Paramilitary groups, including associates of deceased paramilitary leader Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, were responsible for a series of killings, incidents of torture, and disappearances among rural peasants in the Yacopi area.

b. Disappearance

Security forces continued to be responsible for disappearances. The Procuraduria received 47 reports of disappearance alleged to have been perpetrated by the police or military between January and August that included 62 total victims. Forty-two of these cases are still in the preliminary investigative stage, and three were dismissed. There were no sanctions administered during this period. One case under investigation was the April 19 disappearance of human rights activist Delio Vargas, last seen being forced into a vehicle driven by an army intelligence operative. Given the complexity of Colombia's internal order situation and the variety of agents, both state-sponsored and criminal, involved in this struggle, the line between political disappearance and kidnaping for profit is often unclear. Combining all sources, however, Colombia suffers from one of the world's highest rates of forced abductions. Disappearances attributed to the police and military came under increasing government scrutiny, and a bill was submitted to the Congress that would clearly define and codify forced disappearance as a crime distinct from kidnaping. The chairman of the congressional committee studying the bill indicated that there were 266 allegations of disappearances pending before the Organization of American States in 1993. According to CAJSC, of 98 reported disappearances in the first half of 1993, 34 percent were attributed to state security agents, 14 percent were associated with paramilitary groups and 52 percent were perpetrated by unknown authors. CAJSC noted a drop in the figure for military participation from the previous year but a corresponding rise in the rate of paramilitary involvement with disappearances.

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

Although torture is prohibited by law, incidents of police and military beatings and torture of detainees continued, especially in the period immediately following detention and prior to long-term incarceration. CINEP recorded 13 cases of torture alleged to have been perpetrated by security forces, down from 31 the previous year. The Procuraduria reported that a total of 42 cases of torture alleged to have been committed by members of the police and military were investigated between January and August. Administrative sanctions were imposed on 7 police and 10 members of the armed services for incidents involving torture during that time. In August Gilberto Jurado, the Secretary of Public Works in Fortul, Arauca, and a member of the Patriotic Union Party, was detained and beaten by members of the army's Reveiz Pizarro Battalion. His torturers denied him medicine he requires daily and submitted him to a mock execution. Jurado was saved by the intervention of the regional human rights ombudsman who was able to secure his release and have him brought to a hospital. The specific motive for the attack is unclear; it is not known if any investigation is being conducted against the military perpetrators. The paramilitary groups that operate in the countryside routinely torture victims before killing them. Torture is also a common guerrilla and narcotics terrorist practice. Unresolved cases were reported throughout many departments in which decapitated bodies were found with the hands and feet severed to prevent identification of the victim. Overcrowding in Colombia's prisons is a serious problem that caused poor sanitary and health conditions in many institutions and drew harsh criticism in September from Prosecutor Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff. The prison system, designed to house some 27,000 people, stood at 110 percent of occupancy in 1993, with roughly 30,000 inmates.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution includes several mechanisms designed to prevent illegal detentions. A detainee must be brought before a judge within 36 hours and 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 occurred, although according to CINEP, there were far fewer cases reported in 1993 than the previous year. The Procuraduria investigated cases involving alleged victims of arbitrary arrest or detention and levied administrative sanctions against members of the police and servicemen. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that it had made a significant advance in gaining access not only to prisons but to certain military and police provisional detention centers. Exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The right to due process is specifically provided for in the Constitution. The accused have the right to representation by counsel, but historically representation for indigents has been woefully inadequate. To address this situation, the Government's Office of the Defender of the People began a drive to establish an expanded public defender program. Due to a reluctance to grant bail, many detainees never come to trial; they simply remain in pretrial detention until they have been incarcerated for the time stipulated for the minimum sentence applicable to the crimes they are alleged to have committed. The judiciary remained overburdened and struggled to delineate its functions in the wake of the 1991 constitutional changes. It is independent of the executive and legislative branches in theory and largely in practice. The judiciary has long been subject to intimidation when dealing with narcotics trafficking and paramilitary cases. Magistrates, judges, attorneys, and prosecutors were suborned, threatened, assassinated, or had family members killed in connection with certain cases. In an attempt to provide increased judicial protection and specialization in these cases, in 1991 the Government established a special jurisdiction for narcotics, terrorism, and public corruption cases. There are five such "regional jurisdictions" in which anonymous judges and prosecutors handle all major trials of narcotics terrorists. Law enforcement agencies' investigative powers were strengthened under this system, and conviction rates rose dramatically. According to public opinion polls, Chief Prosecutor Gustavo de Greiff became the most respected public official in the Government during this time. The regional jurisdiction system nonetheless gave rise to a series of due process concerns. The regional prosecutors were overwhelmed by staggering caseloads, which in turn led to long delays in issuing indictments. In August the Constitutional Court struck down a provision of the law by which the regional jurisdiction courts were able to suspend detainees' rights to provisional release and bail. Some 5,000 drug and terrorist suspects stood to be released under provisions of the Criminal Procedures Code. President Gaviria issued a last-minute state of emergency decree which temporarily prevented the release. According to the Director of Prisons, some 10,000 detainees linked to special jurisdiction cases remained in prison without being indicted in 1993. Defendants in the regional jurisdiction system lack important procedural rights contained in the Constitution. For instance, it is extremely difficult for a defense attorney openly to impeach an anonymous witness. Due to the anonymity of the judge and prosecutor, it is also quite difficult for a defense attorney to bring charges of malfeasance or corruption against either state official. The anonymity of the judges, prosecutors, and key witnesses led many defense attorneys and human rights groups to accuse the courts of railroading suspects. A revision of the Criminal Procedures Code removed the restriction on defense teams copying documents used as evidence by the prosecution. Critics also charged that the special jurisdiction courts were used to try persons involved in nonterrorist activities but who commit a violent act that technically brings them within the scope of these courts. In one case, 13 telephone workers were detained for investigation by special jurisdiction courts on sabotage charges related to an April 1992 national strike. After criticism by labor and human rights groups, the Fiscalia later decided to try them in ordinary criminal courts.

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

A judicial order is generally required for authorities to enter a private home, except in cases of hot pursuit. There were widespread violations of legal norms regarding searches in remote regions, but in urban areas the sanctity of the home was generally respected. The Procuraduria did not receive any reports of illegal searches by state officials between January and September 1993. This might be explained partially by the fact that the Fiscalia was vigilant in requiring police to obtain search warrants, especially in high visibility cases such as the extensive manhunt for Pablo Escobar in Medellin. Telephone wiretaps and the interception of mail must be authorized by a judge. This protection extends to prisoners incarcerated in the penal system.

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

There were no reports in 1993 that military aircraft targeted civilians in antiguerrilla operations. Human rights groups, nonetheless, continued to insist that civilian populations in known guerrilla territory were purposely targeted during military operations. The military denied this accusation and maintained that its operations did not deliberately target noncombatants, although they recognize that injuries among the civilian population occurred. Mines laid by both the military and guerrilla forces in areas of conflict were responsible for maiming and killing hundreds of civilian noncombatants. The guerrillas continued their attacks on oil pipelines and power stations. CAJSC published two detailed reports on human rights abuses in Putumayo and the Magdaleno Medio region in which they reported that it is common practice for the army's mobile brigades to force civilians to wear camouflage uniforms and precede patrols in dangerous or mined areas.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

These constitutionally protected rights are respected. The press regularly criticized the Government without recrimination. The privately owned print media published a wide spectrum of political views, many of which take harsh antigovernment positions. Television frequencies and facilities are owned by the State which leases air time to private production companies. The Government imposes some restrictions on the television coverage of terrorist activity, and reserves the rights to prohibit broadcast media from covering certain news events during states of emergency. Human rights groups charged that these restrictions were unnecessary and restricted the exercise of free speech through the 8 months of the year during which the state of emergency was in effect. "Tutela," which is a judicial injunction or motion that can be brought before any judge seeking immediate redress for violations of basic constitutional rights, theoretically provides all Colombians with a constitutional means to denounce perceived injustices freely. In a few instances, tutela has been employed against the press by persons who felt that they had been slandered. In general, however, the justice system and the administration have been attentive not to curtail free speech by means of unjustified recourse to tutela. During 1993 violence directed against journalists appeared to decline somewhat but did not disappear completely. In February the editor of a Cucuta newspaper, Eustorgio Colmenares, was murdered, allegedly by members of the ELN. Academic freedom in Colombia is generally accepted by the Government, 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. Public meetings and demonstrations are normally held without interference. Permission is required for demonstrations and is usually granted except when the Government concludes 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. In March the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional portions of the 1973 Concordat with the Vatican, which requires Catholic religious training in public schools, and abolished this provision. Mainline and evangelical Protestants constitute between 3 and 6 percent of the population. 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.

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

Citizens are constitutionally assured the right to travel domestically and abroad. In areas where military operations against guerrillas are under way, civilians were required to obtain safe-conduct passes from the military; guerrillas reportedly used similar means to restrict travel in areas under their control. Peasants were often forced to leave their farms due to military counterinsurgency operations, guerrilla and paramilitary conscriptions, and narcotics trafficking violence. The nongovernmental U.S. Committee for Refugees reported that an estimated 300,000 Colombians could be considered internally displaced. Emigration is unrestricted, and expatriates may, by law, repatriate.

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

Citizens exercise this right in regular elections that have historically been considered fair and open. Presidential elections are held every 4 years. The Liberal and Conservative parties are the most competitive, with one or the other customarily winning the presidency. The President may serve only one term and may not be reelected. All citizens are enfranchised at age 18. Public employees are not permitted to participate in political campaigns but, with the exception of the military, may vote. All parties operate freely without government interference. There are no legal restrictions, and few de facto ones, on the participation of women or minorities in politics. There are 7 female senators and 13 female representatives serving in Congress and several top government officials, including the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Education, are women. Women also hold key positions in the judicial branch and the prosecutor general's office. Two seats in the 102-seat Congress are reserved for representatives of the indigenous population, and a third indigenous citizen holds an at-large seat. There is growing self-awareness and political activism among the indigenous peoples of Colombia.

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

The Center for Investigations and Popular Research (CINEP), the Andean Commission of Jurists, the Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS), the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace, and the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights are among the prominent human rights groups active in Colombia. These organizations maintain data banks on human rights and produce regular reports and publications showing the results of their investigations into human rights abuses. Often these reports are highly critical of the Government and denounce its lack of zeal in conducting official investigations and disciplining implicated state agents. These and similar groups functioned unimpeded by official government interference but were at times the victims of threats and intimidation by paramilitary groups or individual members of the police or military. Some of the members of CREDHOS, for example, were forced to leave the country in 1992 following the murder of two of their associates; they returned to Colombia in 1993 but work under different names in a different city due to security considerations. The Procuraduria is charged with protecting citizens from abuses of human rights and investigating allegations of state complicity in cases of abuse or violation. The Defender of the People has the constitutionally assigned duty to ensure the promotion and exercise of human rights, but this office is severely underfunded and not effective. The President has a Special Advisor for human rights issues who investigates allegations of abuse and engages in the dissemination of human rights education and information. All three of these offices collaborate extensively with local and international human rights organizations. Government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) seminars and programs study the causes of violence and human rights violations.

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

Women The Constitution declares that "men and women have equal rights and opportunities. Women may not be subjected to any form of discrimination." It also specifically requires authorities to "guarantee adequate and effective participation by women at the decisionmaking levels of public administration." Long before implementation of the new Constitution, moreover, Colombian legislation had guaranteed women extensive rights. Despite these constitutional guarantees, discrimination against women still exists, especially in the rural sectors of the country. While legally entitled to remuneration equal to that of men, in practice women earn 30 to 40 percent less than their male counterparts. Women comprise 41 percent of the country's active economic population, but men dominate the top positions in government and private industry. As in past years, however, women continued to constitute a growing percentage of the university population, now almost equal to men, and increased their participation in a wide variety of traditionally male-dominated professions. According to Pro Mujer, a Bogota-based women's organization that assists victims of violence directed against women, statistics on sexual assault are incomplete and unreliable. Only a small percentage of rape cases are ever reported, and even fewer are brought to trial. The Government, through the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare and the Office of the Presidential Advisor on Women's, Family and Children's Issues, provides training and education programs in parenting skills, reproductive rights, and birth control, as well as vocational training for lower income mothers. Nonetheless, penalties for abuse directed against women are often not commensurate with the gravity of the assault, and in the poorer urban and rural areas, both physical and economic discrimination against women is commonplace.


Colombia has significant constitutional and legislative commitments to the protection of the rights of children, but they are flawed in practice. A Children's Code sets forth principles for the protection of minors and establishes services to enforce those protections. The Constitution provides for the fundamental rights of children and states 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 their rights. The reality of children's rights is much bleaker. In September the Procuraduria issued a report showing that the incidence of violent physical abuse directed against children had risen dramatically within the past year. An average of four minors per day were killed by adults in Bogota alone. According to the Foundation for Andean Children, a Bogota-based group that caters to the needs of street children, a core group of approximately 200 children dwell in Bogota's sewer systems. Thousands of others live on the streets and resort to petty thievery to support themselves. Most of these children, known as the "disposable ones," are addicted to intoxicating inhalants. The Foundation reported, however, that the situation improved over the past 2 years due to international pressure, primarily from the European Parliament. There were no roundup killings of street children in 1993, although in August posters sponsored by illegal merchant groups appeared in downtown sections of Bogota threatening such children with their own funerals.

Indigenous People

There are approximately 80 distinct ethnic groups among the roughly 800,000 indigenous inhabitants of Colombia, who constitute 1.5 percent of the population. 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 the 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 and departments of Colombia and work with other governmental human and civil rights organizations to promote Indian interests and investigate violations of indigenous sovereignty. A Presidential decree issued in June regulated the creation of traditional Indian Authority Boards. These boards are entitled to handle national or local funds and are subject to fiscal control of the Comptroller General. The decree also gives these boards the right to administer their respective territories as municipal entities. Indigenous communities are free to educate their children in the traditional dialects and in the observance of cultural and religious customs. There is a small but growing number of indigenous university students. Despite protective efforts by the Government, Indians often suffer at the hands of narcotics traffickers and guerrillas in their homelands. The Office of the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights, which has a special section dedicated to the protection of indigenous rights, reported that attacks by the FARC on the Coyaima tribe in Tolima department were especially brutal, and included the burning of entire villages and the assassinations of Indian leaders. Press reports in November chronicled persistent attacks by the FARC on members of the former indigenous guerrilla group Quintin Lame that signed a reinsertion accord with the Government in 1991. In one such incident in November, FARC operatives executed Jorge Issac Vargas, a tribal leader of the Paletara Municipality in Cauca department, before a local crowd during an indigenous festival.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

About 2 million blacks, primarily residing in the Choco department, form a racial minority in Colombia, and represent 4 percent of the general population. They are entitled to all constitutional rights and protections but have traditionally suffered from unofficial economic discrimination. In an attempt to rectify the situation, the Government passed an Afro-Colombian Law which calls for increased government and private investment in Choco. The law also provides for greater self-determination at the local and regional levels among the black population. The police and military also took steps to increase recruitment of black officers from Choco, creating special training programs and academy scholarships for black applicants to the services.

People with Disabilities

The Constitution protects the fundamental social, economic, and cultural rights of the physically disabled. In 1988 Colombia became a party to the 159th Agreement on Professional Rehabilitation and the Employment of the Disabled, as adopted by the 1983 General Conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO). There is no legislation specifically mandating provision of access for people with disabilities. In 1993 three separate bills were introduced in Congress to further expand protection for the physically and mentally disabled. The bills proposed hiring a greater percentage of employees among the ranks of the disabled; a 5-percent allocation of the governmental Institute of Family Welfare budget to programs for disabled minors; and a stipend equal to one-half the minimum wage to those handicapped individuals who are unable to support themselves. The bills were still under discussion at year's end.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The right of workers to organize unions and strike is recognized by law. The Labor Code provides for automatic legal recognition of unions which have obtained 25 signatures from a workplace and penalties for interfering with workers' freedom of association. It also stipulates the independence of labor organizations to determine internal rules, elect officials, and administer activities, and forbids the dissolution of trade unions by administrative fiat. According to the latest data available (1992), 886,446 organized workers are members of 2,435 different unions. These groups are free to establish international affiliations without government restrictions. The Constitution extends the right to strike to nonessential public employees and authorizes the Congress to enact implementing legislation. Before carrying out a legal strike, unions must negotiate directly with management and engage in conciliation procedures if no agreement results. By law, public employees must go to binding arbitration if conciliation talks fail; in practice, public service unions decide by membership vote whether or not to seek arbitration. Two ILO supervisory bodies criticized 10 provisions of Colombian law in 1993, 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 very 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. Throughout the year, there were various protests in major cities against announced layoffs of government workers, the privatization of several government entities, and the government-backed social security reform bill. Two ILO technical experts, invited by the Government to provide advice on the social security bill, were withdrawn for security reasons in April. Workers' fear of violence from guerrillas and narcotics traffickers has reduced the number of participants in labor demonstrations. In September, after reports that guerrillas intended to use a nationwide strike to foment violence, trade unionists called off the strike and announced a march for peace instead. Organized labor suffers from a disproportionately high rate of violence from a variety of sources including the army and police, illegal paramilitary groups, guerrillas, and common criminals, and also as a result of internal union struggles. There have been some complaints of violence by authorities against trade unionists. These cases are currently under investigation by the Prosecutor General's office. Workers at the state-owned oil company went on strike in early 1993. During the negotiations, guerrillas killed an oil company executive and stepped up sabotage of oil pipelines. In retaliation for the arrest of a union leader charged with terrorism, guerrillas kidnaped two company employees who were later released unharmed. During the year an unknown number of trade unionists were killed, particularly in the banana-rich region of Uraba. According to press reports, 70 banana workers were killed in November and December during an upsurge in violence that led the Government to station a military brigade permanently in the area. Jesus Guevara, vice president of the embattled Banana Workers Union, was killed on January 29 by EPL dissident guerrillas who opposed his conciliatory stance with farm owners and his moderate political views. The Secretary General of the same union, Jose Oliverio Molina, was murdered in February by unknown assailants. In March banana workers went on strike to protest the violence. The Government attempted to remedy the situation by providing increased financial aid and more security for that region. In April unknown gunmen killed another important labor leader, Jose Ignacio Vargas, president of a textile union in Medellin. Rural peasants have suffered from a rise in drug trafficker and guerrilla acquisition of prime land in some sectors of the country, now totaling one-third of the best cattle land, according to a study by the Agrarian Reform Institute. Peasants living in these areas were victims of violence from the new landowners and guerrillas, who also forcibly recruit peasant youths. These same peasants were also subjected to human rights violations by the military which perceives them as guerrilla sympathizers. Many peasants were victims of open crossfire between guerrillas and the armed forces. An unknown number of peasant labor organizers were killed in 1993. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions alleged numerous acts of intimidation, abduction, arbitrary arrest, summary justice, torture, and murder by the security services or paramilitary forces during 1992-93. These included the assassination of 45 trade unionists in Barrancabermeja; the murder of a gold miner from Segovia who had protested the detention of a union leader by the military; the torture and hanging of the national leader of the agricultural workers' union, FENSUAGRO, and the execution of another FENSUAGRO leader in Magangue by armed men believed to be security forces; the torture and hanging of two rural workers from Ovejas at Fusiliers Battalion headquarters; the murder of a rural trade unionist by the army's Nueva Granada Battalion; the death of a SINTRENAL union member from La Dorada, Caldas, following his arrest; and the abduction and torture of a labor leader from Valle del Cauca, reportedly by an army intelligence unit. It was not possible to confirm, either with the Ministry of Labor or NGO's, the complicity of state agents in these cases. It is also not clear that all of the victims were trade unionists. The ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association examined seven complaints containing allegations of threats against the life and security of trade unionists and the right to collective bargaining. Its Committee of Experts expressed concern about the serious climate of violence which made the exercise of freedom of association difficult. The workers' bench of the ILO conference in June alleged that 94 percent of the 618 persons detained under the antiterrorist decree in 1992 belonged to trade unions, that more trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 1992 than in any other country, and that 800 had been killed since 1987. The workers also protested the arrest and conviction of trade union leaders for "obstruction of work" under section 290 of the Penal Code.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

The right of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining enjoys constitutional protection. Unions were successful in organizing larger firms and public services, which include less than 8 percent of Colombia's economically active population. High unemployment and weak union organization have limited workers' bargaining power in the private sector. Antiunion discrimination or the obstruction of union association is illegal; this prohibition is enforced by administrative labor inspections. It is unclear if these inspections are effective. A few companies have been fined, and some workers have used the courts to seek redress. The new Labor Code increased the fines for restricting freedom of association. The use of strikebreakers is prohibited by law. However, the Single Confederation of Workers of Colombia (CUT) alleges that Act No. 50 of 1990 undermines the right to organize by permitting the practice of short-term labor contracts and has cited several companies in which workers were dismissed because of trade union activity, which continue under examination by the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association. The revised Labor Code eliminates mandatory mediation in private labor-management disputes, and extends the grace period before the Government can intervene in an effort to resolve conflicts. Confederations and federations are empowered to assist their affiliates in collective bargaining. Colombian labor law also applies to the country's seven free trade zones (FTZ's). There is no restriction against union organization in the FTZ's. Several public employee unions have collective bargaining agreements in the FTZ's of Barranquilla, Buenaventura, Cartagena, and Santa Marta.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is legally prohibited, and this prohibition is respected in practice. The Constitution specifically forbids slavery or any treatment of human beings resembling servitude.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Constitution prohibits the employment of children in most jobs before the age of 14, and the Labor Code prohibits youths under the age of 18 from requesting employment permits. This provision is respected in larger enterprises and major cities. However, the extensive informal economy is effectively outside government control. A recent Ministry of Labor study reported that about 800,000 children between ages 12 and 17 work. There are also many younger children who work in the informal sector as street vendors, as well as children who work in substandard conditions in some small coal mines.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government annually sets a national minimum wage which serves as an important benchmark for wage bargaining. The current level was set by the Government after the national labor council, a tripartite advisory board, failed to reach an agreement among government, labor, and private sector representatives in December 1992. It is consistent with the Government's anti-inflation policies but falls short of providing an adequate standard of living for a worker and family. Over one-quarter of the population earns less than the minimum wage, which is about $125 (98,700 pesos) per month. The law provides for a standard workday of 8 hours and a 48-hour workweek. The ILO reiterated its previous requests that the Government amend the Labor Code to conform with the Convention on the issue of weekly rest. Lax enforcement of labor laws is partly due to the small number of Labor Ministry inspectors and to fear on the part of unorganized workers that they will lose their jobs. Workers' occupational safety and health are extensively regulated, but many such regulations are difficult to enforce for workers in the informal sector who are not covered by social insurance systems. The ILO recommended that the Labor Code be amended to ensure that all agricultural workers benefit from compensation for industrial accidents. Employees have the right to ask for Ministry of Labor inspections in cases of suspected occupational hazards. According to the Ministry of Labor, workers have the right to withdraw from a hazardous situation without jeopardy to continued employment. However, Colombian workers suffered many industrial accidents during the year, many of them incapacitating, owing to a combination of low levels of public safety awareness, scant involvement by organized labor, and lax enforcement by the Labor Ministry. Charges about improper working conditions in the cut flower export industry resurfaced during the year. Minister of Labor officials admitted misuse of chemicals by the flower industry in the more remote areas of the country but claimed that the industry as whole followed proper procedures in the use of chemicals.

This 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.