Coronavirus: what is the impact in Colombia?

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.

16 February 2021

There have been more than two million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Colombia, causing more than 57,000 deaths. The number of new cases is falling after a peak in late January.

On Monday 15 February, Colombia received its first shipment of 50,000 vaccines, which the government says will be prioritised for frontline workers and the elderly before other citizens. It has also promised to vaccinate 35 million people this year despite the vaccination programme beginning later than in several other Latin American countries. Travel and social restrictions remain in place.

The National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), the state’s official data body, has found that the economy contracted by 6.8 per cent in 2020 due to the pandemic, the biggest fall in the country’s modern history at an estimated $70 billion dollars. The sectors particularly impacted included construction, hospitality, retail, hotels and mining. Construction fell by 27.7 per cent, mining by 15.7 per cent and retail by 15.1 per cent. Analysts predict an upturn in 2021, although it will be unlikely to reach pre-pandemic levels this year.

In its latest report on the Colombian peace process, the United Nations Verification Mission said that implementation had advanced in some areas despite the pandemic, although this had presented new challenges. Of 154 FARC former combatants to test positive for COVID-19, three had died. The Working Group on Health, created to address the pandemic within the context of the peace process, had continued monitoring the situation and health professionals had been able to access formal reincorporation zones where former combatants are based. The Working Group on Health was analysing options to reach former combatants based outside the formal zones. The UN had also provided healthcare to more than 10,000 people through development programmes contained in the peace agreement, while 170 municipalities received personal protective equipment. ‘The Final Agreement provides instruments to bring development opportunities, security and peace to the communities that were most affected by the conflict and have now been affected by the pandemic,’ said the UN Mission report.

Defence Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo died of COVID-19 on 26 January. President Duque’s announcement of three days of national mourning was criticised by opposition parties and civil society organisations despite Duque’s insistence that the gesture was intended to commemorate all the Colombians who have died due to the pandemic. Holmes Trujillo had faced calls for his resignation over the police killings of protesters in Bogota in September and other human rights violations committed by security forces. One of the minister’s final acts, on 6 January, was to issue a decree over regulating use of force in protests which trade unions said was a means to permit state repression. His replacement as Defence Minister is Diego Molano, a politician from Duque’s Democratic Centre and former Bogota councillor.

5 November 2020

Colombia has passed 1.1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 32,000 deaths. Major cities Bogota, Medellin and Cali are the regions with most cases. Recent figures show a slight economic recovery during the third quarter of the year although the economy remains severely impacted by the pandemic.

Political leaders have clashed over the government’s decision to reopen international air borders and relax rules around testing for people arriving to Colombia from abroad. While the Health Ministry said it would no longer require passengers to take a COVID-19 test within the three days prior to travel, Bogota’s mayor Claudia López said this would create ‘unnecessary risk.’ International travel is believed to have been a major factor in Colombia’s initial high rate of COVID-19 cases.

A court ordered the government to suspend the use of teargas during public mobilisations and protests due to the dangerous repercussions it could produce in people. Teargas attacks the nervous system, thereby weakening its defences and making people more susceptible to COVID-19. It also increases the spread of the virus by producing coughing in those impacted, including workers and passersby who unintentionally enter zones where security forces are using teargas, often major urban areas such as city centres. The court also raised the possibility of an outright ban. In recent months, security forces have committed widespread human rights violations against protests, with widespread use of teargas a leading component of repressive policing.

Health organisations conducted a vigil in Bogota to commemorate at least 165 health workers who have died from COVID-19. Health unions, such as ANTHOC which has met with British and Irish trade unionists on JFC delegations, have accused the government of downplaying the number of worker deaths in hospitals and clinics, after official figures listed only 93 deaths. In a statement, unions said that health workers were working longer hours on a heavier workload, while simultaneously experiencing a decline in their pay.

13 October 2020

There have been around 920,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 27,000 deaths in Colombia.

Colombia’s prisons have been badly impacted by the pandemic due to high rates of overcrowding and inadequate hygiene and medical facilities. Authorities currently have registered 1,392 cases of infection across 58 prisons. Many prisoners have seen benefits such as partial release suspended in response to a recent increase in cases.

A massive rise in unemployment caused by the pandemic has left millions of people facing an uncertain future, with young people and women particularly impacted. While the national level of unemployment is 17 per cent, rising to around 20 per cent in major cities, the figure is 28 per cent for women and 22 per cent for young people. Around four million people have lost their jobs in recent months. Trade unions are calling for emergency economic support packages for all citizens facing financial hardship.

In its latest report on the Colombian peace process, the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia has emphasised that the pandemic has struck particularly hard in regions long impacted by conflict and which continue to see high levels of human rights violations. In the report, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said ‘I encourage all actors in Colombia to recognise the potential that implemention of the agreement has as a key element for economic and social recovery from the pandemic, and that they redouble their efforts to comprehensively implement the agreement.’ He also noted that the economic recovery would require investment equivalent to ten per cent of Colombia’s national budget.

More than 100 trade unions and social organisations have signed a letter to the Colombian congress in opposition to the government’s proposal of a new law which they say will reduce access to adequate health coverage for workers and which fails to address poor labour conditions in health services. ‘It constitutes a deepening of the business of healthcare through oligopolies and monopolies … which does not resolve problems made visible by the pandemic,’ said the letter. It also said that Law 010 did nothing to address precarious employment in the health system. More than 22 million people cannot access decent healthcare in Colombia, it added.

Colombia’s main trade union confederation, the CUT, has again accused Iván Duque’s government of exploiting the pandemic to channel resources to banks and corporations while failing to provide for workers and smaller businesses, even though the latter ‘generate 80 per cent of the country’s employment’. The CUT has called for a new wave of mobilisations in opposition to the government’s economic policies and ongoing human rights violations.

24 September 2020

There have been more than 770,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Colombia, with over 24,000 deaths. Around 8,000 new cases are being confirmed each day.

The country has resumed a small number of international flights. Passengers must show they have tested negative for COVID-19 before being allowed to travel.

The Constitutional Court has overruled a government decree which would allow the state to take control of any company impacted by the pandemic and transfer it to different owenership. Opponents of the decree said this would have allowed the government to privatise state assets. President Iván Duque’s administration has faced widespread criticism from opposition politicians and trade unions for its attempts to privatise public assets such as Ecopetrol, the state oil company. It has also been accused of failing to support small and medium-sized businesses while at the same point offering a bailout of hundreds of millions of dollars to the main airline, Avianca.

Colombia’s economic growth is down 7.4 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to the government’s National Statistics Department. Unemployment is at around 20 per cent nationally, reaching alomost 28 per cent in the third-largest city, Cali. Trade unions are among those calling for lasting state support for millions of people whose incomes have been hard hit by the pandemic.

The United Nations has again appealed to paramilitary and other armed groups in Colombia ‘to stop the violence in order to give respite to suffering populations and to facilitate efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic’. The UN’s Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping, Rosemary Carlo, made the remarks at an event hosted by the Colombian government to mark two years of its work on the peace process.

3 September 2020

More than 20,000 people have officially died from coronavirus in Colombia, while there are over 633,000 confirmed cases.

At over 20 per cent, unemployment has reached its highest ever recorded level, as more than five million people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Trade unions have condemned the government’s enactment of a decree which has left many workers in even more precarious conditions and struggling to access decent healthcare and pensions. Under the decree, employers can contract staff on an hourly basis and are not obliged to ensure their income meets the minimum wage (already extremely low at just over £200 per month). Workers in the large informal sector have been particularly badly affected, with the consequent economic constriction impacting throughout the entire system. In Bogota, 26 per cent of the workforce is unemployed.

Colombia’s largest trade union confederation, the CUT, has called on the government to guarantee a minimum wage package for at least six months to workers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, as well as the suspension of service bills (water, gas, electricity, internet). Additionally, the CUT has urged the government to suspend public university enrollment fees, to cover the costs of students enrolled at private universities and to provide economic support to the cultural sector. It also says classes should remain closed until it is safe to return.

While the government has further eroded the rights of ordinary workers, it has offered protection to the private sector. Although Colombia’s ‘national’ airline, Avianca, is majority US-owned, the government granted a support package of at least £260 million after the airline asked for state help. Small and medium-sized businesses, meanwhile, have criticised what they say is a lack of economic support to avoid bankruptcy. Critics say Colombia has taken on too much of the economic burden of protecting Avianca, as numerous other countries benefit from the airline’s operations.

Colombia has eased lockdown measures as it seeks to restart sections of the economy, including reopening restaurants and parks, while non-essential shops can open four days a week. Certain forms of travel are now also permitted. While Bogota’s airport has reopened to domestic flights after five months, international travel is still banned (other than to Colombian citizens returning from abroad), with the closure of borders extended until 1 October. Currently, only a handful of flights are allowed each day.

Colombia’s prison system has been badly impacted by coronavirus, with more than 2,000 inmates and 200 staff currently infected. While the national average sees 2.7 positive cases of infection per 1,000 people, in prisons the figure leaps to 19.7 cases. The crisis was fuelled by chronic overcrowding in Colombian prisons, which has fallen (but still exceeds capacity by at least 20 per cent) due to emergency measures taken to contain the virus.

Security in unstable regions has collapsed even further during the pandemic, with human rights violations, massacres and targeted killings all escalating. Read the latest update on cases here.

19 August 2020

Colombia is approaching the half-million mark in coronavirus cases, with 489,000, and over 15,000 deaths. There have been around 31 deaths per 100,000 people, with just over three per cent of cases proving fatal. During the first week of August, however, the country registered the highest per-capita death rate in the world. Currently, Colombia is registering over 10,000 new cases each day.

Despite a court ruling around providing adequate protection for staff at a hospital in the western region of Chocó, many hospital and medical workers continue to face dangerous conditions due to inadequate facilities and a lack of PPE. Since the pandemic began, healthcare trade unions have continuously called on the government to ensure the safety of those on the frontline of the crisis.

With a third of cases concentrated in and around Bogota, city authorities have extended lockdown measures, even as parts of the economy reopen. While other badly-affected regions, such as the Caribbean coast, have recently began showing a downward trend in cases, cases in the capital have yet to drop. The situation is almost as bad in Colombia’s next-largest cities, Medellin and Cali, with Health Minister Fernando Ruiz warning that cases are peaking there. There are fears that the loosening of lockdowns could produce a second wave.

Trade unions have again accused the government of Iván Duque of using new legislation implemented under the State of Emergency to attempt to sell off state-owned companies. Chief among these is the public oil company, Ecopetrol, while there are also concerns over the future of electricity, investment and transport assets. Under the emergency legislation, the government potentially could sell companies without requiring congressional approval. The USO oil workers union is among those to have accused the government of planning to sell public assets in order to protect private companies such as the main airline, Avianca, which faces financial crisis due to the collapse in air travel. Critics say any sale of state companies will further impact on the social needs of the population.

Student organisations and the ASPU trade union for higher education workers have called for tuition fees to be waived in public universities, warning that failure to do so will deprive hundreds of thousands of young people from enrolling. The vast majority of public university students come from working-class backgrounds, with family incomes often dependent on the informal sector that has seen a major economic fall since the pandemic began.

Organisers of the National Strike which was called in November 2019 by a coalition of trade unions, social organisations, students and opposition political parties have called on the government to engage in negotiations over core demands such as the protection of worker rights, health and economic support for the general population and ending the human rights crisis impacting various regions. Since the strike began, the government has refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with strike organisers.

4 August 2020

Coronavirus is spreading in Colombia, with 328,000 confirmed cases and over 11,000 deaths. The health minister, Fernando Ruiz, has warned that the virus has not yet peaked and that major cities should prepare for further rises in the number of cases. In the final week of July, Colombia reportedly suffered the sixth-highest number of deaths of any country.

The FECODE teachers union has rejected government plans to reopen schools, saying that conditions remain too dangerous for students and teachers. While the government had proposed rotating attendance to reduce student numbers, in addition to home and online tuition, FECODE says the government has failed to adequately prepare schools for social distancing or to implement protective measures. Many Colombian teachers are over the age of 60, thereby increasing their risk from the virus. Furthermore, FECODE has repeated its criticism over government failures to meet the needs of children studying at home, where only around 50 per cent of children can connect to the internet, leaving around half of children unable to access online educational materials.

Student organisations and trade unions have called on the Colombian government to waive university tuition fees for the forthcoming academic year. Failure to do this will prevent large numbers of young people from enrolling at public universities, while others may not be able to complete courses. The vast majority of students at public universities come from less economically well-off backgrounds, where income often depends on the informal labour sector which has shrunk rapidly during the pandemic. As a result, many families have been thrown into serious financial difficulty by the pandemic, while the future of hundreds of thousands of public university students is also uncertain.

The coronavirus pandemic has opened new chapters in the truth and reconciliation process around Colombia’s armed conflict. In the region of Copey, northern Colombia, a mass grave of people disappeared during the conflict was unearthed after local authorities had designated the site for the burial of coronavirus victims. The Search Unit for Disappeared People and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which were both created in the peace agreement to establish truth and justice for victims of the conflict, will coordinate the operation to identify the remains, which are thought to be the victims of extrajudicial executions committed by security forces against civilians.

The United Nations has urged Colombia, along with Brazil and Peru, to adopt emergency measures to contain the spread of coronavirus in the Amazon region, where indigenous communities are at dangerous risk of infection. Communities in the region are seeing disproportionately high levels of coronavirus, while health facilities are inadequately prepared to address the crisis. Quarantine measures have exacerbated social conditions, as people have been unable to work and food supplies have dwindled. Gender inequality has also risen. The UN says it has developed a regional relief plan to be implemented in cooperation with the three countries whose territory is affected.

27 July 2020

Cases of coronavirus have risen sharply in Colombia with almost quarter of a million confirmed infections and more than 8,000 deaths.

Hospital facilitates are severely stretched with fears that healthcare services could collapse in some regions. Intensive care units in Bogota are at over 90 per cent capacity, with Mayor Claudia López reimposing lockdown measures in contradiction to government directives. In Medellin, where intensive care units are over three-quarters full, the mayor closed the city centre following a rise in cases, while authorities in the third-largest city, Cali, have imposed a curfew until the end of July. Other cities, such as Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast and Leticia in the Amazon region, are struggling under the number of infections, with indigenous and African-Colombian people disproportionately impacted.

For the last 30 days, trade unionists from the USO oil workers union have been staging a protest outside the headquarters of state oil company Ecopetrol in Bogota. They are calling for an end to government plans to privatise Ecopetrol and other state-owned companies, which USO says would lead to mass layoffs and further erode labour rights.

The health crisis in Colombia’s overcrowded and underfunded penitentiary system has not slowed down. La Picota prison in Bogota has confirmed around 300 cases of coronavirus among staff and inmates, who have repeatedly requested assurances over access to medical treatment and urgent measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Inmates say they have been prevented from speaking with health inspectors over the critical conditions.

8 July 2020

Colombia has more than 68,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 4,300 deaths, while the number of daily infections continues to rise. However, the government is seeking to gradually relax lockdown measures in order to restart the economy.

Medical unions have warned that hospitals across much of the country are struggling to cope with the immense burden of the health crisis. The mayor of Bogota, Claudia López, has said she may declare a Red Alert which would return the capital to full lockdown. According to López, of 305 ventilators provided by the government, 206 do not work.

A group of 94 US Congress members have written to the US State Department over their fears that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated human rights insecurity in Colombia. In the letter, they call for full implementation of the peace agreement and hold Iván Duque’s government to account over failing to meet its obligations to the peace process. They also say that the US must ensure its military aid to Colombia is not used for illegal spying, as was recently revealed to have occurred.

Targeted killings and abuses continue unabated in many parts of the country, with human rights organisations expressing concerns that quarantine measures have made it easier for paramilitaries and other armed groups to attack people confined to their homes. Among the recent alarming cases is the murder of 68-year-old trade unionist Ovidio Baena, a retired member of the USO oil workers union, who was killed at his home in the Bolivar region. Ovidio’s age categorised him as vulnerable to coronavirus, thereby requiring him to stay at home.

Colombia’s largest trade union, the FECODE teachers union, has criticised the government over its handling of the coronavirus crisis and, in particular, the impact on students and teachers in the public education system. FECODE executive committee member Luisa Fernanda Ospina said ‘the pandemic has allowed [the government] to shield themselves’. She also said that many students cannot access virtual classes as they do not have computers or they live in zones without internet coverage. While FECODE has attempted to engage the government to develop a strategy to overcome these challenges, there has so far been little response.

17 June 2020

Colombia has surpassed 54,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 1,800 deaths. However, the true figures are certain to be significantly higher. The health ministry has predicted up to 41,000 deaths by the end of the year.

On Monday 15 June, riot police violently repressed protests over the government’s handling of the pandemic. Frontline workers have been dangerously exposed due to the lack of personal protective equipment, while social organisations have accused President Iván Duque of prioritising the needs of banks and big business over the general population. Social media videos showed police attacking peaceful protesters, detaining several people and threatening journalists during marches in major cities. Protesters also called for justice in the case of Anderson Arbeloa, a young African-Colombian man who was killed by police officers allegedly after breaking lockdown rules.

An estimated 5.4 million people lost their jobs during the lockdown, which has seen unemployment rise to 32.6 per cent of the workforce. With many Colombians already living in precarious conditions and lacking access to basic services such as healthcare and potable water, the impact of coronavirus is likely to economically devastating. According to social organisations, state support in the form of subsidies and credit is being channelled to citizens through the private banking sector, which will ensure the banks are protected while normal people face a struggle to survive.

The humanitarian crisis impacting on Colombia’s chronically overcrowded and underresourced prison system shows no sign of softening. At the Villahermosa prison in Cali, 480 inmates and 48 staff have contracted coronavirus. Family members have conducted protests to demand urgent medical attention for prisoners and that their rights are protected. A shocking rise has seen confirmed cases in the prison jump from 18 on 6 June to 480 less than two weeks later. According to local health authorities, the prison was constructed for just over 2,000 inmates yet currently holds more than 5,000.

4 June 2020

There are more than 33,000 recorded cases of coronavirus in Colombia and 1,045 deaths.

Congress members from opposition parties have criticised Iván Duque’s government for permitting the arrival of US military personnel into Colombia territory, even with the country in quarantine and borders closed. They argued that, as well as threatening to destabilise regions and violating national sovereignty, the arrival of foreign troops presented a health risk due to the pandemic.

Colombian health workers have again criticised the government over its woeful lack of provision for those on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis. In a joint open letter, the Colombian Federation of Medical Unions, the Colombian Association of Scientific Societies and the Colombian Medical College said ‘it is incomprehensible to us that amid a situation as delicate and pressing as the COVID-19 pandemic, we have received nothing but ovations, applause, words of praise and promises that have so far failed to materialise or represent a crucial improvement in our precarious working conditions.’ They also condemned the dire work and health security that medical workers face, such as difficulty in accessing sick pay in the event they contract coronavirus and a lack of life insurance if they die of the illness. They also said many workers have had their contracts terminated during the crisis.

Colombian senator Aida Avella told JFC that social activists remain highly vulnerable to attack during quarantine as they are confined to their homes while assailants continue to target them. Watch the video with Aida Avella here.

A court in the central Cundinamarca region has found that the government has delivered barely a third of stipulated humanitarian aid and support to indigenous communities impacted by the pandemic. Lawyers have asked the court to order the government to fulfil its obligations around ensuring aid reaches isolated and vulnerable populations ‘who, during the pandemic, have no seen any letup, for a single moment, in the upsurge in violence and conflict actions in their territories which affect leaders and entire communities.’ Two millions indigenous people have not received expected aid, with 80 per cent of indigenous territories affected.

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.