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Colombia in Detail

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Political System

Colombia has a parliamentary democracy with Presidential and Congressional elections every four years. There are 102 Senate seats and 166 seats in the Legislature. Until 1991 Colombia was officially governed by the 1889 constitution. The growing military and social unrest of the 1980s and the killing of four presidential candidates in the late 1980s, finally led large sectors of society and the elite to agree that a new constitution was necessary. This new constitution was developed as part of the demobilisation of the M-19, EPL and Quintin Lame guerrillas, through the calling of a constituent assembly. The much-lauded 1991 constitution sought to democratise society as part of an effort to re-legitimise the state. The constitution’s main features were its recognition of Colombia’s ethnic and cultural diversity, the de-centralisation of the state, an effort to limit the powers of the president, the creation of the constitutional court, the inclusion of international humanitarian and human rights law into the constitution, and the clear definition of the rights and obligations of both state and citizens. The best known result of this was the introduction of the ‘acción tutela’ or ‘action for protection’ whereby any citizen can intercede before the courts in order to ensure the fulfilment of their constitutional rights. The constitution also made peace a constitutional right. Whilst the Colombian Constitution is widely recognised as world leader in terms of the rights of citizens, many of its elements are in practice largely ignored. Aside from a period of military dictatorships from 1953 to 1958, two largely elitist political parties – the Liberals and Conservatives – dominated for 150 years, until the 2002 election of Alvaro Uribe broke the duopoly. Attempts to resist the exclusion of alternative political groups have been met historically with intimidation and violence. One of the most notable cases was the 1948 assassination of popular political figure Jorge Eleicer Gaitan, who tried to open up participation to the masses. Conservative-Liberal domination was formalised during the 1958-74 ‘National Front’ period, when the two parties agreed to rotate periods of rule and maintain parity in Congress and prohibit other political forces from contesting elections. The political alienation built into the system during this era contributed to the rise of Colombia’s guerilla groups. Efforts to challenge the establishment from the left have unleashed some of the most brutal responses from those holding power. The left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party, which was joined by a wide spectrum of organisations, including demobilised members of the FARC, was created in the 1980s as part of a peace process. But the party was wiped out by the Army and paramilitaries. Between 3,000 and 5,000 members – including two presidential candidates, Congress members, mayors, councillors, trade unionists and progressive activists – were murdered. The FARC withdrew from the UP and some members joined the guerillas. To this day, the corrupting role of paramilitaries is a crucial factor in Colombian politics. They often ensure their favoured candidates are elected by threatening the opposition until they withdraw, while some are assassinated. Paramilitaries regularly buy or fund candidates. Paramilitary penetration of the political system – known as the ‘para-politica’ scandal – is so widespread more than 11,000 officials have been implicated. In most elections, large numbers of votes are bought. Another key impediment to democracy is the partiality of the media which, although ostensibly free, is severely restricted by violence, intimidation and self-censorship. Colombia remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a journalist. Those unearthing corruption, paramilitary scandals or human rights violations are most at risk. Voter turnout is often low. In the 2014 Presidential election, turnout was 45%. In past elections widespread violence has also been a major issue – elections in 2015 were reported to be the least violent, yet still eight candidates were murdered and 28 suffered violent attacks.

Political Parties

The Colombian political system has traditionally been dominated by the Conservative and Liberal Parties. However, this changed in 2002 after Liberal Party Senator Alvaro Uribe failed to secure his party’s nomination for the 2002 presidential race.He resigned, ran as an independent and won the election with a significant majority – it was the first time a candidate not backed by either of Colombia’s traditional political parties had won the presidency. Colombia now has a wider spectrum of parties, many rooted in splits from the Liberals and Conservatives. In 2010 and 2014 the governing party was a coalition of “National Unity”, which united several parties behind President Santos. Having ruled with Uribe as Defence Minister, Santos ran for the Presidency in 2010 on a ticket to continue with Uribe’s program. However, whilst he maintained his commitment to neo-liberal economic policies and little changed in practice in terms of abuses committed on the ground, he surprised many by initiating a peace process with the FARC and moderating his discourse towards human rights activists and trade unionists. This created a split with the more belligerent Uribe and the split was solidified during the 2014 Presidential election in which Santos of the Party of the U beat the candidate of Uribe’s newly formed Central Democratic Party by just a few percent. Uribe himself was elected to the Senate in the congressional elections of the same year. In the 2014 presidential election the main issue was the ongoing peace process. After Juan Manuel Santos failed to win the first round a number of pro-peace process parties and political parties, including many of those on the left, chose to offer temporary support to Santos in the second round in order to save the process. Uribe’s election win in 2002initially forced a reunification of some of the left which saw the Democratic Pole come second in the 2006 Presidential elections before splitting in 2010. The Green Party – a centrist party – came second in 2010 but also subsequently split. In 2013 the Patriotic Union, which had been wiped out in the late 1980s, received legal recognition again, and in the 2014 elections they ran alongside the Democratic Pole in the second round of the Presidential elections.  In the 2015 regional elections however the UP did not perform well and the left’s option for Bogota Mayor, Clara Lopez of the Democratic Pole, was pushed into third place by centre-right candidates. The main parties: National Unity Coalition (Unidad Nacional): pro-government

  • Party of the U (Partido de la U): Right wing. Biggest party in Congress. Founded by Santos during Uribe’s presidency to unify supporters. Core of Santos’s coalition. Implicated in ‘para-politica’ scandal.
  • Liberal Party (Partido Liberal): Politically centrist, but very broad church – Uribe and leftwing leader Piedad Cordoba both came from its ranks.Second largest party in Congress.Were divided over support for Uribe, but not so split over Santos. Generally supportive of peace process.
  • Conservative Party (Partido Conservador): Right wing. Third largest in Congress. Backed Santos and Uribe.Traditionally loyal to Catholic Church. Implicated in ‘para-politica’ scandal. Divided over peace negotiations.
  • Radical Change (Cambio Radical): R Fifth largest in Congress. Key part of Uribe coalition but moved away from Uribe towards the end of his presidency. Its leader served as Vice-President in second term of Santos presidency. Deeply implicated in ‘para-politica’ scandal.

Democratic Centre (Centro Democratico): right wing and anti-peace Party of ex-president Alvaro Uribe.Fifth biggest in Congress, second in Senate.Vehemently opposes peace process. Democratic Pole (Polo Democratico): left-wing Second in 2006 presidential election was their best results.Won Mayorship of Bogota in 2007.Has 8 legislators. Significant political player and supported by most Colombian trade unions.Strongly pro-peace and opposed to Uribe/Santos social and economic policies.Numerous leaders and activists have been murdered. Green Alliance (Alianza Verde):  centrist/right Unlike European Greens, not focused on environment.Portray themselves as ‘centrist’ party. Joined Santos’ coalition in 2010.A split saw the creation of the more leftist Progresistas. Citizens’ Choice (Opcion Ciudadana): right wing Renamed itself in 2013 to distance itself from the ‘para-politica’ scandal with which it was heavily involved. Has strong historic links to paramilitaries. Very right wing but supports Santos.

Civil Society

Vibrant and able to mobilise large numbers on protests, rallies and in political campaigns, Colombian civil society is at the heart of political life. The peasant movement, trade unions, human rights organisations, indigenous groups, afrocolombian communities, peace NGOs and the highly active student movement are all key elements. The well-organised women’s movement is the backbone of Colombia’s growing peace movement and prominent women such as Liberal Party Senator Piedad Cordoba an important figure in the campaigns for peace and social justice. The Patriotic March, a social and political movement launched in April 2012, unites more than 2,000 trade unions, human rights groups, social movements and civil society organisations with a particular base in rural Colombia. The Patriotic March offers an alternative political voice, calling for a peaceful resolution to the armed conflict and widespread reforms to secure peace with social justice. It played a key role in organising a peace rally which saw one million people on the streets in April 2013, and throughout the summer of 2013 was at the heart of the biggest wave of mobilisations and strikes to have rocked Colombia since 1977. Members of ‘La Marcha’ have faced persecution and been repeatedly smeared by the Colombian government. In 2012 Colombian Army General Sergio Mantilla publicly accused the FARC of being behind the movement -allegations repeated later that year by Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon. This stigmatisation has been a key factor behind the assassination or disappearance of more than 90 members of the Patriotic March since its founding. With Colombia’s conflicts particularly intense in rural regions, the peasant social movement, the Afro-Colombian population and the well-organised and highly active indigenous movement are a central part to Colombia’s social movements. Afro-Colombians for example have been at the forefront of efforts to assist displaced people to return to their land whilst the indigenous movement has played a key role in protecting the autonomy and ecology of indigenous reserves as well as, in some regions, the struggle for land reform. They also play an active role in mobilisations and protests in favour of peace, as well as in campaigns around land, resources and the environment. All have disproportionately suffered the effects of the conflict – according to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), 1,400 indigenous people have been assassinated since 2002, including many community leaders. Peasant farmers and, increasingly, plantation and agricultural workers are well organised, especially in the struggle for land reform and rural development and were involved in a series of strikes during 2013 and 2014. In 2010 more than 17,000 civil society activists came together at the People’s Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos) to discuss community-based economic and political campaigns and policies. The Congreso de los Pueblos and Marcha Patriotica form the two most significant social movements in Colombia. Since 2013 they have been organising together under the banner of the Agrarian Council. Faith groups often also work at local level, promoting conflict resolution, human rightsas well as some groups becoming involved in broader socio-economic or environmental issues. Colombian civil society organisations, despite the violence meted out against them, remain key players in the politics and society of Colombia and important potential agents of reform.

Juan Manual Santos

President Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected in 2014 for a second four-year term. Before winning the presidency in 2010 he served as Defence Minister under President Uribe during a period in which the military campaign against the FARC led to widespread allegations of army brutality, human rights abuses and political scandals. He has opened talks with the guerrillas in a bid to find a negotiated solution to Colombia’s long-running internal conflict. He played a key role in an earlier attempt to achieve peace, between 1998 and 2002. Upon taking the Presidency he made a significant shift away from his predecessor Alvaro Uribe by recognising the armed conflict and adopting a discourse far more favourable to human rights and the rule of law. A highly skilled politician, Santos is a free trade-supporting conservative who prefers to characterise himself as a member of the ‘Third Way’ alongside politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Educated at Harvard and LSE, he has worked closely with Tony Blair. His economic plans involve a major role for transnational business, with the export of raw materials and energy seen as key to growth. Improving infrastructure, increasing the exploitation of natural resources and expanding agri-business are part of this project. Santos was born in 1951 into a wealthy, powerful family whose influence spans the worlds of politics and the media. His great uncle, Eduardo Santos, was president from 1938-42, while his cousin Francisco was Uribe’s vice president – and implicated in a land theft scandal. The family co-owns national daily newspaper El Tiempo – of which Santos’ father was editor for 50 years, and Santos a deputy editor.  The dynasty also includes ownership of several other outlets, including news magazine Semana, edited by the president’s nephew. Santos is directly connected to one of the biggest scandals to hit Colombia– the extrajudicial execution of innocent civilians whom the Army claimed were guerrillas in order to increase perceived combat kills. The scandal is known as the ‘False Positives’ scandal. During his time as Defence Minister the number of victims peaked due to policies that rewarded army units for high body counts. In 2008, the UN criticised Santos for taking “insufficient” steps to tackle the killings. In 2007 Santos was accused of meeting with notorious paramilitary leaders and in 2008 criticised for his conduct after Colombian troops disguised themselves as members of the Red Cross during the rescue of hostage Ingrid Betancourt. Using the logo for military operations violates the Geneva Convention, and the UN concluded it was “a breach of international humanitarian law”. Also in 2008, an illegal raid by the Colombian Army into Ecuador – during which a FARC commander and 19 guerillas, an Ecuadorian civilian and four Mexican students were killed – led to Santos being the subject of an Ecuadorian arrest warrant for murder. After it was revoked in 2010, six warrants were issued against high ranking Colombian military officials. The raid, against a FARC camp, was condemned by the Organization of American States as a “violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ecuador and of principles of international law,” and caused Ecuador to break off diplomatic relations. Santos’ two periods as President have been characterised by decisive split with Alvaro Uribe and his commitment to sign a peace agreement to bring an end to Colombia’s civil war.

International Relations

Colombia is seen as a key ally of the west, aligning itself strongly with the United States. It was the only Latin American country to send troops to the Korean War and the only South American nation to support the invasion of Iraq. Colombia has been one of the world’s largest recipients of US military aid, with more than $9bn received through Plan Colombia, since 2000. President Obama has been gradually reducing those funds, and some money was frozen in 2009 citing human rights concerns. In a  2015 report on ‘false positives’ killings, Human Rights Watch called on the US to suspend military aid that is subject to human rights conditions. In 2015 Obama and Santos agreed a new proposal for US assistance to Colombia, changing Plan Colombia to Peace Colombia. The proposal would see up to $450 million a year provided to Colombia with an ongoing focus on drugs, increasing state presence throughout the country, but also on supporting transitional justice. Santos enjoys excellent relations with Obama. In 2009 Colombia gave the US access to seven military bases on its soil, causing friction with its neighbours, although the decision was later ruled to be unconstitutional. While it has made limited criticisms on human rights, the relationship between Britain and Colombia remains strong. Britain provides significant but secretive military training and aid to Colombia. The US, Canada and EU have all signed Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with Colombia in recent years. Colombia also signed an FTA with Israel, to which it is closely allied. A 2008 US State Department cable released by Wikileaks said they maintain “positive relations… and that “key areas of cooperation include strategic military advice, special forces training, and arms sales in support of Colombia’s battle against the FARC.” Colombia’s conflict has been a major source of tension with some of its neighbours, although Santos has a more diplomatic approach than his predecessor. Ecuador and Venezuela, in particular, have been accused of having sympathies with the FARC. Nicaragua has been criticised for granting political asylum to suspected guerillas. In March 2008, a major diplomatic crisis unfolded after an illegal raid by the Colombian Army into Ecuador. Both Ecuador and Venezuela cut diplomatic ties with Bogota and sent troops to their borders following the incursion, which killed 20 FARC members, including a senior commander, an Ecuadorian civilian and four visiting Mexican students. Nicaragua also broke off diplomatic ties with Colombia. Ecuador accused Colombia of unwarranted aggression and the raid was condemned by the Organization of American States. There was a further clash in 2010 when Uribe accused Venezuela of providing a safe haven for FARC and ELN guerillas, again citing information allegedly gleaned from the laptops seized in the raid. Relations between Santos and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are rocky. Recently there have been confrontations over the country’s borders, with Venezuela shutting parts of its frontier with northwest Colombia, claiming the areas were infiltrated by Colombian paramilitaries working with smugglers and criminal gangs.

Free Trade Agreements

  Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have led to hundreds of thousands of Colombians being forced off their land, a surge in anti-union violence, strikes, protests and increasing poverty. The long-delayed US-Colombia FTA – the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA) was signed in 2011 – a year after Canada signed a similar agreement – in the face of strong opposition from trade unions. Under the agreement, tariffs were eliminated on 80% of US consumer and industrial exports. Poor Colombian farmers are forced to compete against heavily-subsidised US products. US exports have soared, more than doubling in just two years, with Colombia becoming the largest US market in South America. Oxfam estimates the average income of 1.8 million grossly under-protected small farmers will fall 16% and that the earnings of 400,000 farmers – already surviving on incomes below the minimum wage – will drop by up to 70%. Many will have no choice but to grow illicit crops, join illegal armed groups or leave their land, fuelling the crisis of internally-displaced people. Mass displacements jumped 83% in one year following the agreement’s implementation, mostly in areas affected by the CTPA. It is this crisis that fuelled weeks of strikes and disruptions across Colombia in 2013/14. Opposition from campaigners in the US forced the Obama administration to append a Labour Action Plan (LAP) – ostensibly designed to protect trade unionists from violence and human rights abuses. The proposed measures were aimed at five major areas:

  1. Strengthening state institutions

Creating a Ministry of Labour, increase number of labour inspectors, improve training, improving complaints mechanism etc.

  1. Achieving regular work contracts

Eliminate abuse of cooperatives of associated workers and other forms of work relationship affecting workers rights.

  1. Protecting the right to organise

Punish violations to right to organise and bargain collectively.

  1. Protecting the right to bargain collectively

Criminalise collective pacts and stop temporary service agencies from circumventing labour rights.

  1. Overcoming violence and impunity

Measures to raise awareness, increase scope of protection programmes, increase funding to investigations on union killings Four years later the LAP had still not been implemented and workers faced ongoing threats of violence and persecution. Over 100 trade unionists were killed in the four years following the signing of the LAP. Fines for labour abuses go uncollected, impunity remains the norm for labour killings, and retaliation against unions and activists who attempt to defend their right to organise and collectively bargain are rampant – including mass firings. The CTPA also opens up Colombian industries and services, such as water, energy, and healthcare to privatisation. The EU-Colombia free trade agreement was delayed for three years thanks to campaigning by Justice for Colombia, unions and MEPs. Ratified by the European Parliament in 2012 – but opposed by every Labour MEP– the agreement was finally adopted by all member parliaments in 2015 when Ireland narrowly ratified it, despite opposition from trade unions and campaigners. Unions across Europe opposed it, claiming it would fail to stop the killing of trade unionists, tackle impunity, stop the persecution of indigenous communities and would open up poor Colombian farmers to unfair competition and lead to the potential privatisation of key services. Specific human and labour rights obligations were agreed as part of the EU deal, however this article is not binding and the only mechanism for enforcement is for a member state to take Colombia to the International Court of Justice and secure unanimous agreement of all EU member states – an extremely difficult and wholly insufficient mechanism for holding one of the world’s worst human rights violators to account.

Armed Conflict


The armed conflict in Colombia officially began in 1964 with the formation of two separate guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN. The violence in Colombia however had started long before. Ever since Colombia gained its independence from Spain there had been an intense struggle between the country’s elites for economic and political control. After a number of civil wars in the second half of the 19th Century, the murder of the anti-establishment Liberal Party presidential candidate Jorge Gaitan, who was hugely popular amongst the peasantry and promised widespread social reforms, provided the spark for a new period of warfare. His killing initiated a decade of violence which became known as La Violencia during which more than 200,000 Colombians, principally peasant farmers, were killed. Although it had begun as a popular uprising, la Violencia, was being orchestrated by the Liberal and Conservative landowning elite to further their own political and economic interests and in 1958 the two parties came to an agreement to bring an end to the fighting. The National Front was created which would allow for the sharing of power between the two parties in a rotative system for a period of sixteen years. The agreement institutionalised the exclusion of all other political parties. It is in this context that groups of peasant farmers had begun to organise themselves in a series of self-protected and self-maintained areas in the south of the country. Whilst these organised communities demanded greater state assistance and improved social services, local landowners sought to continue their expansion and pressured the government for action against these zones derogatively referred to as “independent republics”. At this time US attention was also turning to Latin America in the wake of the Cuban revolution. Both the US government and the Colombian political elite came to view the peasant enclaves as a political threat. In 1964, Operation Marquetalia was launched against the principal “republic” of the same name. The US-supported military offensive saw a huge mobilisation of between 2,000 and 16,000 troops, but what was meant to be a quick operation lasted months as the Army was met with fierce resistance from the 50 guerrilla fighters. When the troops were finally able to enter the village, the fighters, who had organised themselves in Marquetalia under the guidance of Manuel Marulanda, were long gone. They had redesigned their strategy and began to fight as a guerrilla army. In 1966 this guerrilla army would officially become the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In the same year as the Colombian Army was launching its attack in Marquetalia, a group of students who had been inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the revolutionary philosophy of Che Guevara returned from Cuba and formed the Army of National Liberation (ELN). In 1965 it launched its first attack in Simacota where it distributed a leaflet, the Simacota Manifesto, which called on ‘conservative and liberal masses to join together to defeat the oligarchy of both parties’.

Guerrilla War

The founding objective of both the FARC and the ELN was to overthrow the government in order to bring about the social and political transformation of Colombia. The call for both social and political changes has featured centrally in their demands throughout their history. In a 2012 open letter the ELN declared their desire for peace talks centred, amongst other things, on the issue of social equality and social justice in Colombia. In the FARC’s political platform of 2009, again amongst other issues, there was a call for a greater proportion of the national budget to be destined for welfare programs, for structural political changes including increased democratic participation, and for a redistribution of land to peasant farmers. The issue of unequal land distribution has been a central issue from the very beginning of the armed conflict and is emblematic of the more general social inequality that exists throughout the country. The years following the formation of the FARC and the ELN saw the emergence of other armed guerrilla groups. In 1967 the Maoist influenced EPL was formed and three years later an electoral fraud carried out by the National Front led to the creation of the M-19 movement. By 1991 a section of the ELN, a major part of the EPL and the entire M-19 movement had demobilised and were involved in the creation of a new constitution. Paramilitaries The increasing force of the guerrillas during the 1980s gave impetus to the solidification of the phenomenon of paramilitary violence, something that would change fundamentally the course of the Colombian armed conflict. Whilst paramilitary-type structures are first used by the Conservative Party in the 1950s during La Violencia, the origins of the modern day paramilitaries emerged in 1981 with the formation of the MAS – Death to Kidnappers – self-defence force. Along with other paramilitary groups that began to surface it saw the coming together of large landholders and business leaders, drug cartels, and the Colombian Army with the immediate objective of advancing economic interests and combating the threat posed by the different guerrilla groups. From the outset the paramilitary structures enjoyed deep rooted support from the Colombian state. There was a sharing of intelligence and joint operations were carried out. As the paramilitaries grew in force during the 1980s they began to broaden their operations to target not just guerrilla fighters but also political activists, trade unionists and other sectors of civil society opposed to the concentration of economic and political power and viewed as potentially supportive of the guerrillas. In 1997 the disparate but overlapping groups united into one national structure called the Self-Defence Force of Colombia (AUC). This period was the most intense in terms of armed hostilities as both the FARC and the ELN reached their peak strength and the paramilitaries expanded across the country. In 2002 Álvaro Uribe became president on the back of a campaign promising a hard-line approach against the guerrillas. He introduced his trademark Democratic Security policy which led to an intensified militarisation of the country and, with the support of close to US$800 million every year as part of the Plan Colombia aid package from the United States, the military underwent dramatic modernisation and began to win a sequence of victories against the guerrillas pushing them back into the most rural parts of the country. The Democratic Security policy which ran alongside the expansion of the AUC brought with it the most severe period in terms of human rights abuses. The UN, as well as respected NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have produced detailed investigations  on the close relationship between the army and paramilitaries with one report from Human Rights Watch titled “Paramilitaries: the Sixth Division” – the Colombian army having only five divisions. A 2005 demobilisation process saw the paramilitary structures reorganise into new disparate groups.

Military Stalemate

In addition to the loss of territory, the FARC began to lose members of it Executive Committee. In 2008, two senior FARC leaders were killed and Manuel Marulanda, leader since its birth in Marquetalia, died of a reported heart attack. In 2010 an army attack killed the FARCs military chief and in 2011, for the first time in the history of the armed conflict, Colombian troops carried out an operation that left the organisation’s leader dead. In spite of the military successes enjoyed by the Colombian Army (at huge human costs), the guerrillas were able to reorganise as a more mobile force and in 2011 there was an increase in guerrilla actions. As of 2012, the FARC had 10,000 troops and the ELN up to 3,000. The were believed to be roughly 8,000 members of paramilitary organisations and the combined total of the Colombian Army and Police forces stands at close to 450,000. In November 2012 the Havana Peace Process was initiated between the Colombian government and the FARC and a series of preliminary peace talks between the government and the ELN have taken place at the same time. In July 2015, the FARC initiated an indefinite unilateral ceasefire.

Peace in Colombia

There have been numerous attempts to bring peace to Colombia. A 1991 peace deal saw several guerrilla groups demobilise and the formulation of a new constitution, but the war continued as attempts to end hostilities between the government and the largest guerrilla group, the FARC, all ended in failure. The most important peace talks between the FARC and the government took place in the 1980s in Uribe and in the early 2000s in Caguan. Both of these were followed by an escalation of violence. A further attempt at peace was made between 1991 and 1992 when both the FARC and the ELN came together as part of the Simon Bolivar Guerrilla Coordination Body to negotiate with the Colombian government. However those talks in Caracas and Tlaxcala broke down. The collapse of the Caguan Peace Talks in 2002 was mirrored by an intensification in paramilitary violence and followed by an increased militarisation of the country as the Colombian Armed Forces benefited from billions of dollars in military aid from the United States. Military victories ran alongside spiraling human rights abuses committed by the armed forces and the paramilitaries. Those calling for peace in this period were labelled guerrilla sympathisers and were often targeted as a result. The prioritisation of a military response however was not able to either destroy the guerrillas or eliminate their capacity to recruit new troops. Civil society organisations continued to lead the calls for peace and in November 2012 the Havana Peace Talks were initiated. History of Havana Peace Talks The initiation of the Havana Peace Talks was preceded by a number of key events. When Juan Manuel Santos took over the Presidency in 2010 he marked a significant shift from his predecessor Alvaro Uribe by recognising the existence of an armed conflict – something that had been denied by Uribe who referred instead to groups of narco-terrorists with no political identity. In 2012, after a public letter exchange promoted by the civil society group Colombians for Peace, the FARC unilaterally freed all their remaining military and police hostages, and announced the end of economically motivated hostage taking. The development of the peace process has taken place in the context of vociferous political opposition to peace led by the ex-president Alvaro Uribe, and hardliners in the state institutions and armed forces who favour the pursuit of outright military victory. The talks were centred around a six point agenda titled the “General Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace”. The six points on the agenda are:

  1. Land and Rural Development
  2. Political Participation
  3. End of the Conflict
  4. Illicit Drugs
  5. Victims
  6. Implementation and Verification

The talks are supported by the Cuban and Norwegian governments as guarantors and are accompanied by the Venezuelan and Chilean governments. An original peace deal was signed in August 2016 but was rejected in a referendum. A subsequent revised peace deal was signed in November 2016 and ratified in the Colombian Congress.

Paramilitarism post-2005

The Colombian authorities currently deny the existence of the paramilitaries and allege that all such groups have ‘demobilised’ as a result of the so-called ‘Paramilitary Peace Process’ in 2005. Armed groups operating in the style of paramilitaries are today referred to as BACRIM or neoparamilitaries by the Colombian authorities. The 2005 process was introduced by President Uribe and was legislated for by Law 975 – The Justice and Peace Law. Paramilitary fighters who laid down their arms could benefit from reduced prison sentences in return for confessions about human rights violations and reparations for victims. Supporters of the law claimed it would ensure those paramilitaries who demobilised but had committed human rights crimes, would face justice, truths would be revealed, and their victims would be compensated. The reality is however that paramilitaries, known today by some as ‘neoparamilitaries’ or ‘BACRIM’, continue to function all over the country and persist in threatening, attacking and killing those that they deem to be guerrilla sympathisers or whom threaten the interests of their business partners. Whilst the mode of organisation and operation is different, the paramilitary structures continue to exist. The ongoing relationship between state forces and the paramilitaries was documented in a February 2010 study by Human Rights Watch which revealed links between the security forces and the paramilitaries in every one of the regions that those conducting the study visited.[1] In spite of the supposed demobilisation process, the Colombian conflict observatory Indepaz has catalogued ongoing paramilitary activity across much of Colombia. Many paramilitary groups have maintained their economic and political power in the regions, and have maintained their military and logistics structures and have consolidated control over drug trafficking routes. Reports in 2015 documented paramilitary groups in military fatigue operation often travelling in units of 200 to 300 soldiers entering rural neighbourhoods – resembling a pre-2005 mode of operation. In 2016 there were four principal paramilitary structures: Urabeños (including Clan Usaga and AutodefensasGaitanistas), Rastrojos, Aguuilas Negras and FIAC. [1] A copy of the report is available at: www.hrw.org/node/88060

Alvaro Uribe

Scandal has dogged the career of Alvaro Uribe who was President of Colombia from 2002-2010. During his presidency when thousands of civilians were killed, illegal links between government and paramilitaries were exposed and unlawful wiretaps targeted opposition politicians, journalists and judges. Many of Uribe’s closest allies – including his brother, cousin and personal secretary – have been jailed or are under investigation for their role in human rights abuses. President Uribe:

One of the biggest controversies to hit the Uribe government was the wiretapping scandal – the illegal surveillance of opposition politicians, journalists and lawyers by the intelligence services. The country’s 7,000-strong intelligence agency – the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) – had been the subject of earlier controversies during the Uribe administration. The President’s appointed director, Jorge Noguera, had drawn up death lists of trade unionists for the paramilitaries and ordered DAS agents to:

Noguera has since been jailedfor 25 years. The unravelling wiretapping scandal – a dirty war involving the illegal surveillance, intimidation and smearing of Uribe’s domestic and international political enemies, including more than 600politicians, judges, human rights workers and journalists – has already claimed some of Uribe’s closest aides and appointees. Uribe has denied ordering any illegal wiretapping but is subject to ongoing investigations. Among those convicted are former DAS Directors María del Pilar Hurtado and Fernando Tabares, ex-Deputy Director Hugo Daney Ortiz and Bernardo Moreno, Uribe’s former Chief of Staff. The involvement of so many figures close to Uribe led the Supreme Court to describe the case as “a criminal enterprise directed from the presidential palace”. DAS targeted Uribe’s most vocal opponents, including Carlos Gaviria, who ran against Uribe in the 2006 election, and journalists who scrutinised government activities. DAS agents also intercepted phone conversations, studied financial records and tailed Supreme Court judges. As well as spying on such organisations and individuals, investigations exposed how the DAS harassed and intimidated opponents to seek to silence them through fear and threats. Activities included disinformation campaigns and a plan to try and falsely link opponents of the Uribe administration to the FARC. Although the DAS has now been disbanded, the targeting of political opponents and journalists continues.


Widespread collaboration between government officials and illegal right-wing paramilitaries rocked the political establishment when it was first exposed in 2006. Details of the shocking extent and scale of links between the paramilitaries and senior members of the government and military – known as the Para-Politica scandal – continue to hit the headlines. More than 11,000 individuals have been implicated, including around one-third of the members of the 2006-10 Senate and hundreds of mayors and regional politicians. Ex-president Alvaro Uribe and hundreds of his former officials have been implicated in the scandal. Extradited paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso claimed his group funded Uribe’s 2006 reelection campaign. By April 2012, 139 members of Congress, 943 politicians, 870 military officials, 330 public servants and several business owners were under investigation. Five governors and 32 lawmakers were convicted. Sixty parliamentarians have been jailed and seven Senate presidents between 2002 and 2012 investigated. The scandal broke after a senior official in the DAS secret police revealed his boss – then director Jorge Noguera – had been working for the paramilitaries. Investigations found the DAS and paramilitaries had collaborated to assassinate opposition and union leaders, perpetrated electoral fraud in favour of President Uribe, and protected paramilitary drug-trafficking operations. But the Noguera revelations were just the tip of the iceberg. Later investigations revealed:

  • Several politicians had signed a formal deal with the paramilitaries – the ‘Ralito Pact’.

Virtually all of those implicated were close political allies of then President Uribe who attempted to obstruct investigationsby interfering in, and launching public attackson, the Colombian Supreme Court – the body tasked with looking in to senior political figures. Former Prosecutor General, Luis Camilo Osorio – who served under Uribe – has also been repeatedly accusedof dismissing and undermining cases against high-ranking officials.

  • Every member of Democratic Colombia – established by Uribe’s cousin, Senator Mario Uribe Escobar – has been charged with collaborating with paramilitaries, including Senator Alvaro Garcia Romero, who organised a massacre of peasant farmers along with a paramilitary death squad.
  • Eight of the Cambio Radical party’s 15 senators – one of three key parties in President Uribe’s coalition – have been investigated. All but one of the senators belonging to another coalition supporter – Movimiento Colombia Viva – have been charged.
  • Several senior Conservative Party senators were found to have been collaborating with paramilitaries.
  • Senior members of the largest party in Uribe’s coalition and the party of President Juan Manuel Santos, the ‘Party of the U’, have also been implicated. Its co-leader Carlos Garcia Orjuela was jailed in 2008.

Political elites continue to collaborate with criminal and armed groups. In the 2014 Congressional elections, 69 candidates believed to have ties with illegal groups won seats. More than 140 candidates in the 2015 elections are under investigation for their links with the newly structured paramilitaries.


Impunity is at the heart of Colombia’s human rights crisis. The almost total failure of the authorities to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish violations has created an environment in which abusers can rightly assume they will not be held accountable for crimes such as executions, death threats, sexual violence, forced displacement and disappearances. In an open letter to the 2014 presidential candidates, Amnesty International said the issue had “helped perpetuate the prolonged conflict in Colombia”. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings estimated, in 2010, that the impunity rate for “alleged killings by the security forces are as high as 98.5%”. In the UN’s 2013 human rights report, of 4,716 homicide cases involving security forces, only 6.2% had reached trial or sentencing stage, claiming impunity was “systemic”. Of 219 human rights defenders murdered between 2009 and 2014, less than 3% resulted in sentences. The United Nations reported in 2013 that only 5% of all human rights abuse cases result in prosecution. Impunity is 97% in cases of violence against trade unionists. Any progress made is usually against the hired gunmen, not those who plan, order and finance the killings. Figures from the Prosecutor General which showed 79 trade unionists murdered between 2011 and 2014, there was just one conviction. A 2014 US government report stated that while there were two landmark cases in 2013 – jailing the “intellectual authors” of the murders of two union leaders – there was “concern” about more recent murders.

False Positives

More than 4,700 innocent people have been murdered to boost war figures as part of the false positives scandal – the killing of civilians by army or state forces which are then presented as the deaths of guerrilla combatants. By the end of 2010 the UN had documented thousands of victims of the Defence Ministry’s Directive 29, a secret order establishing a financial reward system, time off and promotions for killing guerrillas. Then Army Commander, General Mario Montoya, exhorted troops to produce “litres of blood”. Human rights groups reported an upsurge in extrajudicial executions in late 2005, complaining that soldiers were murdering young men and boys, dressing their bodies in uniforms and presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat in return for rewards. By mid-2007 nearly a thousand cases had been documented by human rights organisations. The government responded by attacking human rights defenders, cynically trying to link them to the guerrillas, to discredit their work. In September 2008, the now infamous case of Soacha came to light when the families of 23 young men, who disappeared from a poor Bogota neighbourhood, discovered their loved ones had been murdered and buried hundreds of miles away by the Army who claimed they were guerrillas killed in combat. Investigations revealed the Army had established a bogus employment agency to lure away young men with promises of work. The victims were then executed. In the face of the surge in extrajudicial executions, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, accused the Army of “systematic and widespread” extrajudicial executions, calling the scale of the killings a “crime against humanity”. Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions accused the military of “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit”and “the systematic harassment of the survivors”. Professor Alston refuted claims the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples: “The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.” Following the UN’s intervention, the government promised action. Army chief General Montoya resigned and 27 military personnel were dismissed.  None were tried. While the authorities insist they have taken measures to end extrajudicial executions, Colombian NGOs continue to document new cases. A March 2015 report exposed 230 illegal executions – 37% of them children – by state forces since President Santos came to power.  Almost 7,000 Colombians have been the victims of extrajudicial executions during the regimes of Presidents Uribe and Santos. On Their Watch, a June 2015 report, claims senior military officers implicated in the scandal have escaped justice. “False positive killings amount to one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity…and there is mounting evidence many senior army officers bear responsibility. Yet the army officials….have escaped justice and even ascended to the top of the military command, including the current heads of the army and armed forces.”

Prisons and Political Prisoners

Thousands of people are imprisoned in Colombia for political reasons, including trade union and human rights activists, indigenous and community leaders, students and academics who oppose the government. Most are held for long periods without trial or due process. Few are ever convicted. The government denies the existence of ‘political prisoners’, claiming that those activists who are imprisoned are either active guerrilla supporters or responsible for other criminal acts. It suits the authorities to stigmatise political opposition by blurring the lines between jailed civilians and guerilla combatants. They are often held together in special high-security blocks, away from the general prison population. Accurate figures are difficult to ascertain, not least because many activists are arrested for dubious criminal offences, but recent assessments suggest around 4,000 people can be considered ‘political prisoners’. Colombian NGOs claim there could be up to 9,000 civilian political prisoners and 1,000-2,000 guerilla prisoners. According to Colombia’s National Penitentiary and Prison Institute, of the 169,000 men and women in Colombian jails, 2,042 are charged with ‘rebellion’. In the most extreme cases prisoners have been held for up to seven years then released without being convicted of a crime. When freed they find themselves marked as guerilla sympathisers or subversives – many have been assassinated or forced to flee into exile. Meanwhile those found guilty of ‘rebellion’ often receive 40-year sentences. The charges brought usually rely on the testimony of paid informants, a practice criticised by the UN. Defence lawyers are routinely denied access to evidence and, in many cases, are threatened or accused of being associated with their clients’ ‘crime’. Family or friends are similarly stigmatised. The scale of detention without trial exacerbates overcrowding problems and appalling conditions in jails, which have been widely described as a “humanitarian crisis” and regularly spark prison protests. In 2015, remand prisoners accounted for 37.8% of inmates. Prisons are operating at an average of around 50% over capacity. In some areas it exceeds 300 to 400%. Water shortages are common and sanitary conditions very poor. Access to decent health care, exercise time or educational materials is rare. Those who speak out are threatened and sometimes punished with transfer to maximum security prisons with worse conditions. A large number of women political prisoners are single mothers, some of whom are forced to surrender their children to state ‘care’ services or – if they are infants – have their children imprisoned alongside them. Many complain their children are not treated as separate prisoners, meaning food rations have to be shared. Following a visit to Bogota’s Buen Pastor women’s prison, in 2012, the Prison Officers Association leader Steve Gillan said that although he had worked in prisons for 20 years “nothing prepared me for the suffering and injustice I saw inflicted on our trade union colleagues [held there]”. Specific cases – and success stories – are highlighted in the JFC campaign on political prisoners.