With coronavirus crisis moving so fast, we will be posting updates on the situation in Colombia, particularly in its impact on issues of human rights, peace and trade unionism in the country. You can return to this page for regular information on the situation in the country.
20 May 2020
Colombia has recorded 16,935 cases of coronavirus and 613 deaths. The true totals are likely to be higher. The government has extended the lockdown until 31 May and declared a ‘sanitary emergency’ until the end of August. Schools will be closed until then.
Colombia’s Ombudsman has warned over paramilitaries and other armed groups which, it says, have consolidated control in several zones, while also seeking to legitimise their authority over communities during the pandemic.
An independent human rights report has ofund that 20 social activists have been murdered in the region of Cauca, southwest Colombia, since lockdown measures were imposed by the government, accounting for 59 per cent of the total national number of victims during this period. The report’s author, the Territorial Council for Guarantees in Cauca, said that more than 215 social activists had been murdered in Cauca since the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016, while also criticising increased militarisation of the region by security forces.
The humanitarian crisis in Colombian prisons continues, with 994 confirmed cases of coronavirus and four deaths. Severe overcrowding and a lack of medical and hygiene facilities has left inmates and prison staff dangerously exposed to the virus.
Despite the government orders for people to stay at home, security forces carried out a series of forced evictions in the Altos de la Estancia zone on the outskirts of Bogota. Residents had built homes from raw materials in extremely precarious conditions but were forced to abandon them when ESMAD riot police entered the zone. While the government claims the action was carried out due to dangerous risks of landslides, residents said the evictions had been planned for years and now left them at greater risk of coronavirus.
13 May 2020
Up to 12 May, there had been 12,272 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Colombia and 493 deaths.
Colombian prisons are still seeing inmates and staff dangerously exposed to coronavirus, with 995 cases confirmed in prisons, as well as least four deaths. The number of cases continue to rise despite a government decree to release thousands of vulnerable, low-risk, elderly and other prisoners to ease the burden on the chronically overcrowded and under-equipped prison system. The Villavicencio prison has more than 800 cases.
The FARC political party has proposed a series of modifications to the government’s COVID-19 emergency measures. Among these are for the prisoner release decree to be extended to people who have not been convicted of any crime yet are incarcerated, where they are highly exposed to dire sanitary conditions. The party, which was founded under the terms of the 2016 peace agreement, has also called for school students who qualify for free school meals to continue receiving these at home, with schools currently closed due to the coronavirus. The proposals also call for improved health provisions for medical workers and staff at family support centres, guaranteed economic support for senior citizens and increased protection for worker rights.
The National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) has warned of the critical situation facing indigenous communities in the Amazonian region, particularly along the borders with Peru and Brazil. The city of Leticia, where 75 per cent of the population is of indigenous descent, has seen the fourth highest number of coronavirus deaths despite its small population of under 100,000. The ONIC says that 384 communities in the region are at high risk, with the situation exacerbated by a severe lack of medical facilities and services, as well as structural factors such as underdevelopment and poverty. There are only two hosptials – with less than one hundred beds between them – in Leticia, while a number of medical workers resigned due to the poor conditions. Many people find themselves facing the difficult choice of buying food or hygiene products such as soap. Community leaders and social organisations are calling for special measures to alleviate the crisis in the Amazonian region.
Medical workers are being forced to work without protective equipment due to mass shortages. Colombia’s Attorney General and Ombudsman have both urged the government to ensure health workers were provided necessary PPE for their own safety and that of patients. Health organisations and trade unions have criticised the government over the dangerous conditions facing workers, while Health Minister Fernando Carrillo has sought to deflect responsibility to hospitals and clinics. The failure to protect medical workers has led to widespread resignations.
6 May 2020
There have been at least 8,613 cases of coronavirus in Colombia and 378 deaths. The government has extended the general lockdown, while also taking out a $10 billion dollars loan from the IMF to address the economic impact of coronavirus.
The Let’s Defend Peace (Defendamos la Paz) collective has written to the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, which observes implementation of the peace agreement, to criticise the government over several issues relating to the peace process. The collective was established to support the peace process and contains both government and FARC negotiating teams in the 2016 agreement, as well as opposition politicians, ELN negotiators, activists, journalists, trade unionists and academics. In the statement, Let’s Defend Peace said ‘we raise our voice to protest against the instrumentalisation of the pandemic to undermine the Peace Agreement. The sanitary crisis cannot be permitted to cover up the government’s inaction. Even more important, it feeds the campaign of the governing party against the implementation of peace.’ The letter also criticised the government over its attempts to remove FARC senators from congress, refusal to release FARC prisoners accredited by the peace process, continuation of aerial spraying of glyphosate in coca-producing regions and plans to divert peace process funds to coronavirus measures.
An investigation by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which was created in the peace agreement to investigate human rights abuses during the armed conflict, has found that violence against former guerrillas in the FARC has escalated during the lockdown. The report also showed that armed groups are strengthening their control of several zones, while the first few months of 2020 have seen the highest rate of murders of social activists since the peace agreement was signed in November 2016.
The POA trade union for workers in Britain’s prison system has written to the Colombian Ministry of Justice over the humanitarian crisis in prisons, where overcrowding and inadequate facilities have left inmates and staff dangerously exposed to coronavirus. The POA also urged the Colombian government to release FARC prisoners accredited in the peace process. More than one-third of inmates at the Villavicencio prison – 657 people – have caught coronavirus, while at least three inmates have died, as well as the 24-year-old partner of a prison guard.
Only around 15 per cent of health workers have received adequate personal protective equipment, with more than half forced to buy their own, according to the Colombian Medical Federation. Health unions have criticised the government’s failures to ensure the safety of workers.
The ceasefire announced by the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla movement has formally ended after the government refused to suspend its own military operations. Announcing a unilateral ceasefire for the duration of April to alleviate the coronavirus emergency response, the ELN urged the government to reciprocate. The Justicia y Paz Commission, a Colombian human rights organisation, said it ‘asked the government to support the ELN’s gesture and take steps in the right direction to a negotiated exit to consolidate the ceasefire definitively’.
29 April 2020
There have been 5949 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Colombia and 269 deaths. The true figures are almost certain to be significantly higher.
Social organisations representing African-Colombians have urged the government to guarantee economic support for communities heavily impacted by the coronavirus. African-Colombians are disproportionately affected by structural inequalities that sees many people living in highly precarious conditions, in substandard housing and with little or no access to essential services such as clinics, schools and decent roads. Consequently, many communities are highly vulnerable to the coronavirus, while facilities are sorely lacking to deal with an outbreak. The solicitude submitted by six organisations requested immediate access to resources and funds to develop infrastructure, security and food production.
Other ethnic minorities are also considerably at risk from the coronavirus. Indigenous communities face high levels of state abandonment and inequality that has left them vulnerable to the disease. A six-month-old baby is the first confirmed case among the indigenous Yukpa population in northeast Colombia. Yukpa community leaders have accused the government of ignoring requests for urgent measures to protect people from the disease. Social and human rights organisations are pressing the government to guarantee resources and funds across indigenous territories.
Colombian prisons continue to see a major health crisis, despite a government decree to conditionally release thousands of prisoners and ease the burden of the coronavirus on the chronically overcrowded and underequipped prison system. In addition to three recorded deaths at the Villavicencio prison (see below), there have been 324 confirmed cases in prisons. Staff, as well as inmates, have been infected.
FARC former guerrillas and conflict victims are making a further 90,000 face masks to be distributed in Colombia and abroad to help contain the coronavirus pandemic. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, FARC members have been making masks but were impeded by the lack of necessary materials, forcing them to use recycled wire and canvas. The project has now expanded after gaining external support.
22 April 2020
Confirmed cases of coronavirus in Colombia have risen to over 4,000, with close to 200 deaths. The real figures are likely to be significantly higher.
The United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia has outlined special measures taken with regards to new challenges presented to the peace process by the coronavirus outbreak. These include the creation of a working group formed of the UN Mission, the government Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation which oversees implementation of the agreement, the Ministry of Health and the FARC political party. The working group is developing a national response to protect former combatants from the coronavirus and establish protocols in the event of outbreaks. Meetings with the CSIVI implementation commission have also been conducted via videolink. The head of the Mission, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, emphasised the importance of continuing working towards full implementation of the peace process despite the coronavirus. ‘Peace in Colombia cannot be, should not be, a casualty of this pandemic,’ he said.
The National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), the largest such body in the country, has warned of the grave situation facing the indigenous and African-Colombian population. The ONIC said that 591,000 families face a health emergency due to woefully inadequate infrastructure and the lack of access to health services. The government has not provided advice or food provisions urgently needed with communities ordered to stay at home rather than work or tend to crops. ONIC spokesperson Armando Wooriyu Valbuena said the government was not responding to these concerns.
Police were accused of brutally repressing protests in Bogota over the lack of provisions and support for communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The protests came after authorities failed to provide food and other essential aid to families in Ciudad Bolivar, one of the capital’s poorest districts. Police allegedly became aggressive after residents complained over insufficient essential goods contained in emergency packs, with at least one man shot in the stomach and a pregnant woman threatened with a taser. The police said an investigation had been opened into the incident.
A number of medical associations co-signed a letter criticising the Health Minister, Fernando Ruiz, over the coronavirus response. The Colombian Medical Federation, the Colombian Association of Scientific Societies, the Colombian Medical College and the Federation of Medical Unions said the government had failed to protect health workers by providing them with personal protective equipment. Medical organisations have repeatedly called for PPE to ensure their own protection and that of patients. At least 117 health workers have contracted coronavirus and three have died, although the true figures are likely to be significantly higher.
Colombian prisons continue to see protests over chronic overcrowding and inadequate health and hygiene facilities. Following the outbreak of coronavirus in Villavicencio prison, where three prisoners died (see below), new cases have been confirmed in prisons in Bogota and Florencia. In some cases, inmates have been denied even minimal protection from coronavirus, with running water available only three hours a day and a lack of soap and other basic products.
15 April 2020
As of 14 April, Colombia had 2,979 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with at least 127 deaths. 11 April saw the highest number of deaths in a single day so far, with twenty.
There have been major protests in Colombian prisons since the coronavirus crisis began. Prisoners and human rights groups have warned repeatedly that overcrowding and substandard medical and hygiene facilities could lead to a devastating outbreak among inmates. On 21 March, 23 inmates at the Modelo prison in Bogota were killed when security forces violently suppressed protests. Subsequently, three prisoners at a prison in Villavicencio died, the first coronavirus deaths inside Colombian prisons, with another 15 cases confirmed. Prisoner support groups and families have presented a list of demands, including closing prisons to visits by authorities (personal visits have already been banned), releasing elderly, non-violent and vulnerable prisoners and for the government to hold the perpetrators of the Modelo massacre to account. Several inmates have begun hunger strikes over the dreadful and dangerous conditions in which they are confined.
On 14 April, the government finally took action to alleviate the burden on prisons and health services. A new decree clarifies which prisoners would be eligible for conditional release or transfer to house arrest: those affected include inmates aged over sixty, pregnant women, mothers with children under three years old and prisoners suffering HIV, cancer, diabetes and other specified health conditions. Others potentially covered by the decree include disabled inmates and those with sentences under five years, in pre-trial dention or who have completed more than 40 per cent of their sentence.
FARC former guerrillas living in the specially-created ETCR reincorporation zones around the country are at risk from coronavirus due to a lack of medical facilities, close living conditions and shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. People living in ETCR zones say they have not received directions from the government on what to do in cases of suspected coronavirus or where to take patients. Since the ETCRs began operating around three years ago, authorities have failed to provide adequate facilities, funds or essential products, a major factor in exposing FARC members to heightened health risks.
Human rights groups have urged the Constitutional Court to implement urgent measures to support conflict victims amid the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of people have been forcibly displaced from their homes and communities due to violence and the majority resettled in extremely precarious conditions, with very limited access to services, security and work. A commission established to monitor displacement victims called for guarantees over minimum incomes and healthcare access.
Killings of social activists and FARC former guerrillas have continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic. While presenting the UN Verification Mission’s latest report on the Colombian peace process via videolink, mission head Carlos Ruiz Massieu said ‘in moments in which all efforts must be focused on fighting the pandemic, we ask illegal armed groups to end violent actions againt vulnerable communities, including indigenous and African-Colombian ones,’ he added. Although multiple paramilitary and armed groups are active across much of Colombia, so far only the ELN guerrilla movement has announced a ceasefire to alleviate the coronavirus relief effort. ‘Peace in Colombia cannot be, and must not be, a victim of this pandemic,’ said Ruiz Massieu.
8 April 2020
Colombia has fifty deaths and around 2,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus, while around 100 people have recovered. Bogota remains the worst-affected city. The government has extended the nationwide lockdown until 27 April, with the possibility of extending it further. Only one person per household is allowed outside each day to buy essentials or to walk dogs and outdoor exercise is not permitted.
The crisis has particularly impacted on poorer communities, whose livelihoods depend on the informal economy such as street vendors and domestic workers. The majority have seen their incomes dry up without any security net in place, leading to evictions for some who cannot pay their rent. The government has offered poor families around $40 dollars per household.
Human rights groups have urged the Colombian Consitutional Court to take urgent measures to protect conflict victims during the coronavirus pandemic. Killings of social leaders and FARC former guerrillas have contineud despite the lockdown. A commission which represents victims of forced displacement asked the Court to ensure security, healthcare and essential goods for vulnerable communties.
Opposition politicans have asked the government to remove VAT tax from essential items such as face masks, gloves and antibacterial gel to make them more accessible to lower-income citizens. To prevent hoarding and profiteering from the crisis, the government has applied special status and fixed prices to various medicines and foods.
Colombia has requested a credit line of $11 billion dollars from the International Monetary Fund for its coronavirus relief effort. The request is currently under review. It follows a global fall in the price of oil, which accounts for 9.3 per cent of the national budget.
1 April 2020
There are over 900 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 16 deaths in Colombia, with both figures certain to rise. The country is in lockdown, with air and land borders closed to foreigners. Bars, restaurants and other public spaces remain closed.
The USO oil workers union has created a fund to support up to 5,000 workers at state company Ecopetrol, after the mass lay-off of 1,500 outsourced staff. The union criticised the dismissals as a ‘labour massacre.’
The National Liberation Army (ELN) has announced a one-month ceasefire in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The ELN also called on the government needed to provide support for workers in the informal sector, which it said accounted for 60 per cent of the workforce.
FARC members in the reincorporation process are making thousands of face masks to be distributed to communities to fight coronavirus. Colombia faces a drastic shortage of equipment and resources needed to address the pandemic.
23 prisoners were killed after security forces entered la Modelo prison in Bogota. Prisoners were protesting over the failure to implement adequate social distancing measures in response to coronavirus. Human rights groups have called for investigations into the violence.
19 March 2020
Colombia has implemented a series of emergency measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak. By the evening of Wednesday 18 March, there were 102 confirmed cases of people infected by the virus in Colombia, although there have not been any recorded deaths. In response to the global crisis, the government has closed borders and implemented a curfew across much of the country.
On Tuesday 17 March, President Iván Duque declared a state of emergency. Measures include the closure of schools, restaurants and bars, while people over the age of 70 have been ordered to stay at home unless buying essential food or health products. Colombia has also closed its air and land borders and banned entry to non-citizens and non-residents. At least 18 of Colombia’s 32 regional departments are currently under curfew.
However, there have been protests against the Duque government after it removed powers from municipal and regional authorities to take their own measures. Social media showed citizens banging pots and pans – a popular act of dissent in Latin America known as a cacerolazo – from their balconies and homes while chanting for Duque to resign.
There are also serious concerns over the capacity of Colombia’s health system to deal with the crisis. The country has fewer than 10,000 intensive care beds, an insufficient number in the possibility of a severe escalation in coronavirus patients. Doctors and nurses have criticised the government for failing to ensure their safety from the virus.
With so much uncertainty around the coronavirus, it is difficult to predict the impact it will have on the fragile peace process. However, violence against FARC members has continued: on Tuesday, former guerrillas Belle Ester Carrillo Leal and Irnel Flores Forero, who were in a relationship, were murdered in the Caquetá region of southeast Colombia. Their deaths bring the total number of reincorporating FARC members murdered since the peace process was signed in November 2016 to 190.