Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty republic. Presidential and legislative elections were held in 2018. Voters elected Ivan Duque Marquez president in a second round of elections that observers considered free and fair and the most peaceful in decades.
The Colombian National Police force is responsible for internal law enforcement and is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. The Migration Directorate, part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the immigration authority. The Colombian National Police shares law enforcement investigatory duties with the Attorney General’s Corps of Technical Investigators. In addition to its responsibility to defend the country against external threats, the army shares limited responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order within the country. For example, military units sometimes provided logistical support and security for criminal investigators to collect evidence in high-conflict or remote areas. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings; reports of torture and arbitrary detention by government security forces and illegal armed groups; rape and abuse of women and children, as well as unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by illegal armed groups; criminalization of libel; widespread corruption; violence against and forced displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; child labor; and killings and other violence against trade unionists.
The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, although some cases continued to experience long delays.
Illegal armed groups, including dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), and drug-trafficking gangs, continued to operate. Illegal armed groups, as well as narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of human rights abuses and violent crimes and committed acts of extrajudicial and unlawful killings, extortion, and other abuses, such as kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, bombings, restriction on freedom of movement, sexual violence, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and threats of violence against journalists, women, and human rights defenders. The government investigated these actions and prosecuted those responsible to the extent possible.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Center for Research and Education of the Populace (CINEP), from January 1 through August 19, there were 15 cases of “intentional deaths of civilians committed by state agents.”
For example, in June a group of army soldiers allegedly killed rural community leader Salvador Jaime Duran in the department of Norte de Santander. A local community association responded by detaining six army soldiers whom they identified as responsible for the killing, ultimately turning the soldiers over to the Attorney General’s Office. According to press reports, army officials said they were in the area conducting security and defense operations when they were attacked. The investigation into the killing continued as of the end of August.
On September 8, police officers allegedly killed civilian Javier Humberto Ordonez Bermudez in Bogota. According to press reports, Ordonez was drinking publicly in violation of COVID-19 restrictions and officers told him he would be fined for public intoxication. A video of the incident shows police officers using taser shocks and beating Ordonez to restrain him. Ordonez later died in the hospital, and an autopsy revealed the beating was the cause of death. President Duque, the minister of defense, and other government officials condemned the killing, and authorities arrested the two police officers allegedly responsible. The inspector general banned the two officers from public service for 20 years. The attorney general appointed a special human rights prosecutor to lead the investigation into the killing. Ordonez’ killing sparked widespread demonstrations.
Illegal armed groups, including the ELN, committed numerous unlawful or politically motivated killings, often in areas without a strong government presence (see section 1.g.).
Investigations of past killings proceeded, albeit slowly. From January 1 through August, the Attorney General’s Office registered 25 new cases of alleged aggravated homicide by state agents for killings that occurred between 2008 and August 2020. During the same period, authorities formally charged six members of the security forces with aggravated homicide or homicide of a civilian, with all six of those crimes occurring in previous years.
Efforts continued to hold officials accountable in “false positive” extrajudicial killings, in which thousands of civilians were killed and falsely presented as guerrilla combatants in the late 1990s to early 2000s. As of June the Attorney General’s Office reported the government had convicted 1,740 members of the security forces in 270 cases related to false positive cases since 2008.
The Attorney General’s Office reported there were open investigations of 14 retired and active-duty generals related to false positive killings as of August. The Attorney General’s Office also reported there were 2,286 open investigations related to false positive killings or other extrajudicial killings as of July 31.
In addition the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the justice component of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Nonrepetition provided for in the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law. This included activities to advance Case 003, focused on extrajudicial killings or “false positives” committed by the First, Second, Fourth, and Seventh Army Divisions. As of August 31, the JEP reported it had received 250 “voluntary versions” in the case from alleged perpetrators recounting their versions of events that occurred during the conflict. Such testimony led investigators to uncover a mass grave of alleged false positive victims in the department of Antioquia. On July 25, retired army general William Henry Torres Escalante admitted his responsibility for false positives before the JEP and apologized to the families of the victims.
In 2019 there were allegations that military orders instructing army commanders to double the results of their missions against guerillas, criminal organizations, and illegal armed groups could heighten the risk of civilian casualties. An independent commission established by President Duque to review the facts regarding these alleged military orders submitted a preliminary report in July 2019 concluding that the orders did not permit, suggest, or result in abuses or criminal conduct, and that the armed forces’ operational rules and doctrine were aligned with human rights and international humanitarian law principles. As of September a final report had not been issued.
Human rights organizations, victims, and government investigators accused some members of government security forces of collaborating with or tolerating the activities of organized-crime gangs, which included some former paramilitary members. According to the Attorney General’s Office, between January and September, nine members of government security forces were formally accused of having ties with illegal armed groups.
According to a February 26 report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), there were 108 verified killings of social leaders and human rights defenders in 2019. According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the cases of more than 400 killings of human rights defenders from January 2016 to August 2020, the government had obtained 60 convictions. According to the OHCHR, 75 percent of the 2019 social leader killings occurred in rural areas, and 98 percent occurred in areas where the ELN and other criminal groups were present. The motives for the killings varied, and it was often difficult to determine the primary or precise motive in individual cases. For example, on March 19, armed men reportedly kidnapped and killed crop substitution activist Marco Rivadeneira in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. On April 10, authorities arrested Abel Antonio Loaiza Quinonez, alias “Azul,” in Puerto Asis. According to officials in the Attorney General’s Office, Azul was a senior member of an illegal armed group linked to several killings in the region, possibly including the killing of Rivadeneira.
The Commission of the Timely Action Plan for Prevention and Protection for Human Rights Defenders, Social and Communal Leaders, and Journalists, created in 2018, strengthened efforts to investigate and prevent attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders. The Inspector General’s Office and the human rights ombudsman continued to raise awareness on the situation of human rights defenders through the public “Lead Life” campaign, in partnership with civil society, media, and international organizations. Additionally, there is an elite corps of the National Police, a specialized subdirectorate of the National Protection Unit (NPU), a special investigation unit of the Attorney General’s Office responsible for dismantling criminal organizations and enterprises, and a unified command post, which shared responsibility for protecting human rights defenders from attacks and investigating and prosecuting these cases.
By law the Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP (see section 1.c. for additional information regarding investigations and impunity).
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities during the year. According to the National Institute of Forensic and Legal Medicine, from January 1 through June, a total of 2,052 cases of disappearances were registered, including 53 forced disappearances. The government did not provide information on the number of victims of disappearances who were located.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, as of October there were no convictions in connection with forced disappearances.
The Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons, launched in 2018, continued to investigate disappearances that occurred during the conflict.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, there were reports government officials employed them. CINEP reported that through August, security forces were allegedly involved in six cases of torture, including nine victims. Members of the military and police accused of torture generally were tried in civilian rather than military courts.
The Attorney General’s Office reported it convicted 18 members of the military or police force of torture between January and July 31, all for crimes occurring in previous years. In addition the Attorney General’s Office reported 50 continuing investigations into alleged acts of torture committed by the police or armed forces through July. All but one of the investigations were linked to alleged crimes committed in previous years.
CINEP reported organized-crime gangs and illegal armed groups were responsible for six documented cases of torture through August.
According to NGOs monitoring prison conditions, there were numerous allegations of sexual and physical violence committed by guards and other inmates. In June seven members of the army were charged with raping a 12-year-old indigenous girl in the department of Risaralda. The Attorney General’s Office was investigating the incident and prosecuting the accused persons. According to one NGO, police officers allegedly sexually assaulted three women who were protesting police violence in September.
The Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP. The JEP continued investigations in its seven prioritized macro cases with the objective of identifying patterns and establishing links between perpetrators, with the ultimate goal of identifying those most criminally responsible for the most serious abuses during the conflict.
Some NGOs complained that military investigators, not members of the Attorney General’s Office, were sometimes the first responders in cases of deaths resulting from actions of security forces and might make decisions about possible illegal actions. The government made improvements in investigating and trying cases of abuses, but claims of impunity for security force members continued. This was due in some cases to obstruction of justice and opacity in the process by which cases were investigated and prosecuted in the military justice system. Inadequate protection of witnesses and investigators, delay tactics by defense attorneys, the judiciary’s failure to exert appropriate controls over dockets and case progress, and inadequate coordination among government entities that sometimes allowed statutes of limitations to expire–resulting in a defendant’s release from jail before trial–were also significant obstacles.
The military justice system functioned under both the old inquisitorial and a newer accusatory justice system, which was not yet fully implemented. Transition to the new system continued slowly, and the military had not yet developed an interinstitutional strategy for recruiting, hiring, or training investigators, crime scene technicians, or forensic specialists, which is required under the accusatory system. As such, the military justice system did not exercise criminal investigative authority; all new criminal investigation duties were conducted by judicial police investigators from the CNP and the Attorney General’s Corps of Technical Investigators.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
With the exception of some new facilities, prisons and detention centers were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, poor health care, and lack of other basic services. Poor training of officials remained a problem throughout the prison system.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding existed in men’s and in women’s prisons. The National Prison Institute (INPEC), which operated the national prisons and oversaw the jails, estimated there were 106,700 persons incarcerated in 132 prisons at a rate of approximately 29 percent over capacity. The government made efforts to decrease the prison population in the context of COVID-19. In March the government issued a decree suspending new prisoner admissions during the pandemic, and there was an overall slowdown in judicial proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 14, the government issued a decree allowing for the compassionate release of prisoners who were 60 years or older, pregnant women, mothers of children younger than age three, persons with disabilities or chronic serious illnesses, those sentenced to five years or less, and offenders with 40 percent of their sentence complete.
The law prohibits holding pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, although this frequently occurred. Juvenile detainees were held in separate juvenile detention centers. The Superior Judiciary Council stated the maximum time that a person may remain in judicial detention facilities is three days. The same rules apply to jails located inside police stations. These regulations were often violated.
The practice of preventive detention, in combination with inefficiencies in the judicial system, continued to result in overcrowding. The government continued to implement procedures introduced in 2016 that provide for the immediate release of some pretrial detainees, including many accused of serious crimes such as aggravated robbery and sexual assault.
On March 21, 24 prisoners died during a failed escape attempt at La Modelo Prison in Bogota. The attempted escape took place during coordinated riots with 19 other prisons that occurred in apparent response to the health and sanitation conditions exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown and suspension of prison visits. A November Human Rights Watch report alleged the deaths were consistent with intentional homicide. The attorney general and inspector general launched investigations into the prison authority’s use of force during the attempted escape and overall handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Physical abuse by prison guards, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and authorities’ failure to maintain control were problems. INPEC’s office of disciplinary control continued to investigate allegations that some prison guards routinely used excessive force and treated inmates brutally. As of July 29, INPEC reported disciplinary investigations against 135 prison guards for such actions as physical abuse and inhuman treatment.
INPEC reported 392 deaths in prisons, jails, pretrial detention, or other detention centers through July 29, including 37 attributed to internal fights.
Many prisoners continued to face difficulties receiving adequate medical care. Nutrition and water quality were deficient and contributed to the overall poor health of many inmates. Inmates stated authorities routinely rationed water in many facilities, which officials attributed to city water shortages.
INPEC’s physical structures were generally in poor repair. The Inspector General’s Office noted some facilities had poor ventilation and overtaxed sanitary systems. Prisoners in some high-altitude facilities complained of inadequate blankets and clothing, while prisoners in tropical facilities complained that overcrowding and insufficient ventilation contributed to high temperatures in prison cells. Some prisoners slept on floors without mattresses, while others shared cots in overcrowded cells.
Administration: Authorities investigated credible prisoner complaints of mistreatment and inhuman conditions, including complaints of prison guards soliciting bribes from inmates, but some prisoners asserted the investigations were slow.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local and international human rights groups. INPEC required a three-day notice before granting consular access. Some NGOs complained that authorities, without adequate explanation, denied them access to visit prisoners. In March the government suspended prison visits to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were allegations, however, that authorities detained citizens arbitrarily. CINEP reported 31 cases of arbitrary detention committed by state security forces through August 19.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Authorities must bring detained persons before a judge within 36 hours to determine the validity of the detention, bring formal charges within 30 days, and start a trial within 90 days of the initial detention. Public defenders contracted by the Office of the Ombudsman assisted indigent defendants but were overloaded with cases. Detainees received prompt access to legal counsel and family members as provided for by law. Bail was generally available except for serious crimes such as murder, rebellion, or narcotics trafficking. Authorities generally respected these rights.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, this requirement was not always respected. NGOs characterized some arrests as arbitrary detention, including arrests allegedly based on tips from informants about persons linked to guerrilla activities, detentions by members of the security forces without a judicial order, detentions based on administrative authority, detentions during military operations or at roadblocks, large-scale detentions, and detentions of persons while they were “exercising their fundamental rights.” For example, NGOs alleged that on May 20, members of the army’s Seventh Division arbitrarily detained and searched crop substitution leader Ariolfo Sanchez Ruiz along with a group of rural farmers in the department of Antioquia. According to media reports, army soldiers killed Sanchez. Army officials stated that soldiers were in the area to eradicate illicit crops and that the killing was under investigation.
Pretrial Detention: The judicial process moved slowly, and the civilian judicial system suffered from a significant backlog of cases, which led to large numbers of pretrial detainees. Of the 106,700 prison detainees, 29,450 were in pretrial detention. The failure of many jail supervisors to keep mandatory detention records or follow notification procedures made accounting for all detainees difficult. In some cases detainees were released without a trial because they had already served more than one-third of the maximum sentence for their charges.
Civil society groups complained that authorities subjected some community leaders to extended pretrial detention.