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. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture and arbitrary detention by government security forces and armed groups; rape and abuse of women and children, as well as unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by armed groups; criminalization of libel; widespread government corruption; violence against and forced displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; killings and other violence against trade unionists; and child labor.
The government generally took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, although some cases continued to experience long delays. The government generally implemented effectively laws criminalizing official corruption. The government was implementing police reforms focused on enhancing community-police relations, accountability, and human rights.
Armed groups, including dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, National Liberation Army, and drug-trafficking gangs, continued to operate. 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
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 26, there were 28 cases of “intentional deaths of civilians committed by state agents.”
According to government and NGO reports, police officers killed multiple civilians during nationwide protests that began on April 28. The NGO Human Rights Watch collected information linking 25 civilian deaths during the protests to police, including 18 deaths committed with live ammunition. For example, according to Human Rights Watch and press reports, protester Nicolas Guerrero died from a gunshot wound to the head on May 3 in Cali. Witness accounts indicated a police shooter may have been responsible for Guerrero’s death. As of July 15, the Attorney General’s Office opened investigations into 28 members of the police for alleged homicides committed during the protests, and two police officers were formally charged with homicide. Police authorities and the Attorney General’s Office opened investigations into all allegations of police violence and excessive use of force.
Armed groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), committed numerous unlawful killings, in some cases politically motivated, usually in areas without a strong government presence (see section 1.g.).
Investigations of past killings proceeded, albeit slowly due to COVID-19 pandemic and the national quarantine. From January 1 through July 31, the Attorney General’s Office registered six new cases of alleged aggravated homicide by state agents. During the same period, authorities formally charged four members of the security forces with aggravated homicide or homicide of a civilian.
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 1,437 members of the security forces in cases related to false positive cases since 2008. Many of those convicted in the ordinary and military justice systems were granted conditional release from prisons and military detention centers upon transfer of their cases to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). The military justice system developed a protocol to monitor the whereabouts of prisoners granted conditional release and was responsible for reporting any anomalies to the JEP’s Definition of Juridical Situation Chamber to take appropriate action.
The Attorney General’s Office reported there were open investigations of five retired and active-duty generals related to false positive killings as of July 31. The Attorney General’s Office also reported there were 2,535 open investigations related to false positive killings or other extrajudicial killings as of July 31.
In addition the JEP, the justice component of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Nonrepetition provided for in the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (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” largely committed by the First, Second, Fourth, and Seventh Army Divisions. In a February 18 ruling, the JEP concluded that, from 2002 to 2008, the army killed at least 6,402 civilians and falsely presented them as enemy combatants in a “systematic crime” to claim rewards in exchange for increased numbers of for combat “enemy” casualties. Several former soldiers and army officers, including colonels and lieutenant colonels convicted in the ordinary justice system, admitted at the JEP to additional killings that had not previously been investigated nor identified as false positives.
On July 6, the JEP issued charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes against a retired brigadier general, nine other army officers, and one civilian in a case concerning the alleged extrajudicial killing and disappearance of at least 120 civilians in Norte de Santander in 2007 and 2008. The killings were allegedly perpetrated by members of Brigade 30, Mobile Brigade 15, and Infantry Battalion 15 “General Francisco de Paula Santander.” On July 15, the JEP issued a second set of war crimes and crimes against humanity indictments against 15 members of the Artillery Battalion 2 “La Popa” for killings and disappearances that took place in the Caribbean Coast region between 2002 and 2005.
In 2019 there were allegations that military orders instructing army commanders to double the results of their missions against guerillas, criminal organizations, and 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 July 31, 15 police officials were formally accused of having ties with armed groups.
According to a February 22 report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 133 human rights defenders were killed in 2020, but the OHCHR was only able to document 53 of those cases, due to COVID-19 pandemic-related movement restrictions. According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the cases of more than 400 killings of human rights defenders from January 2016 to August 2021, the government had obtained 76 convictions. According to the OHCHR, 77 percent of the 2020 human rights defender killings occurred in rural areas, and 96 percent occurred in areas where illicit economies flourished. The motives for the killings varied, and it was often difficult to determine the primary or precise motive in individual cases. For example, on August 21, two armed men entered the motorcycle shop of Eliecer Sanchez Caceres in Cucuta and shot him multiple times, killing him. Sanchez was the vice president of a community action board and had previously complained to authorities about receiving threats from armed groups. Police officials immediately opened an investigation into the killing, which was underway as of October 31.
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 regarding human rights defenders through the Lead Life campaign, in partnership with civil society, media, and international organizations. Additionally, there was an elite Colombian National Police (CNP) corps, 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, except for conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP (see section 1.c. for additional information regarding investigations and impunity).
According to the Attorney General’s Office, there were six formal complaints of forced disappearance from January 1 through July. As of December 2020, the National Institute of Forensic and Legal Medicine registered 32,027 cases of forced disappearance since the beginning of the country’s armed conflict. Of those, 923 persons were found alive and 1,975 confirmed dead. According to the Attorney General’s Office, as of July 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 19 cases of torture, including 40 victims. Members of the military and police accused of torture generally were tried in civilian rather than military courts. NGOs including Human Rights Watch reported that police beat and sexually assaulted demonstrators during the nationwide April-June protests. Human Rights Watch documented 17 cases of beatings, including one that resulted in death. The human rights Ombudsman’s Office and multiple NGOs reported at least 14 cases of alleged sexual assault by police officers during the protests. Police launched internal investigations of all allegations of excessive use of force.
The Attorney General’s Office reported it convicted six members of the military or police force of torture between January and July 31. In addition the Attorney General’s Office reported 50 continuing investigations into alleged acts of torture committed by police or the armed forces through July.
CINEP reported organized-crime gangs and armed groups were responsible for four documented cases of torture including seven victims through August. CINEP reported another 19 cases of torture in which it was unable to identify the alleged perpetrators. According to government and NGO reports, protesters kidnapped 12 police officials during the nationwide protests, torturing some.
According to NGOs monitoring prison conditions, there were numerous allegations of sexual and physical violence committed by guards and other inmates.
The Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, except for 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 goal of identifying those most 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.
President Duque signed three decrees in March to modernize the military justice system. The decrees transfer the court system from the Ministry of Defense to a separate jurisdiction with independent investigators, prosecutors, and magistrates. This was a step toward transitioning the military justice system from the old inquisitorial to a newer accusatory justice system. Transition to the new system continued slowly, and the military had not 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.
In June, President Duque announced police reform plans focused on enhancing community-police relations, accountability, and human rights. Since the announcement, the CNP established a human rights directorate that responds directly to the director general of police and hired a civilian to oversee it. In partnership with a local university, the CNP also developed a human rights certification course for the entire police force and began training 100 trainers to replicate this 200-hour academic and practical course throughout the country. The CNP also enhanced police uniforms with clear and visible identifiable information to help citizens identify police officers who utilize excessive force or violate human rights protocols.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Apart from 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 99,196 persons incarcerated in 132 prisons at a rate of approximately 17 percent over capacity. The government made efforts to decrease the prison population in the context of COVID-19.
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 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.
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 31, INPEC reported 14 disciplinary investigations against prison guards for such actions as physical abuse and personal injuries. The Inspector General’s Office reported 46 disciplinary investigations of INPEC officials from January through August 5.
INPEC reported 159 deaths in prisons, jails, pretrial detention, or other detention centers through July 31, including four 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.
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 85 cases of arbitrary detention involving 394 victims committed by state security forces through August 1. Other NGOs provided higher estimates of arbitrary detention, reporting more than 2,000 cases of arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, or illegal deprivations of liberty committed in the context of the national protests.
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.” Multiple NGOs alleged that police abused a temporary protection mechanism during the national protests to detain protesters arbitrarily. For example, NGOs and press reported that police in Cali arbitrarily detained protester Sebastian Mejia Belalcazar on May 28 for more than 24 hours. Mejia alleged police beat and threatened him before releasing him. According to NGOs, there was no official record of the arrest.
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 99,196 prison detainees, 26,651 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 authorities subjected some community leaders to extended pretrial detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Much of the judicial system was overburdened and inefficient, and subornation, corruption, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses hindered judicial functioning.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. While the government began implementing an accusatory system of justice in 2005, the use of delay tactics by defense lawyers to slow or impede proceedings, prosecutors’ heavy caseloads, and other factors, diminished the anticipated increased efficiencies and other benefits of adopting the adversarial model. Under the criminal procedure code, the prosecutor presents an accusation and evidence before an impartial judge at an oral, public trial. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and have the right to confront the trial evidence and witnesses against them, present their own evidence, and communicate with an attorney of their choice or have one provided at public expense. Defendants had adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right to appeal their proceedings. Although defendants have the right to an interpreter, the court system lacked interpreters for less commonly encountered languages. Crimes committed before 2005 are processed under the prior written inquisitorial system in which the prosecutor investigates, determines evidence, and makes a finding of guilt or innocence. In those cases the trial consists of the presentation of evidence and finding of guilt or innocence to a judge for ratification or rejection.
In the military justice system, military judges preside over courts-martial. Counsel may represent the accused and call witnesses, but most fact finding takes place during the investigative stage. Military trial judges are required to issue rulings within eight days of a court-martial hearing. Representatives of the civilian Inspector General’s Office are required to be present at a court-martial.
Criminal procedure within the military justice system includes elements of the inquisitorial and accusatory systems. The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty and have the right to timely consultation with counsel.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government declared it did not hold political prisoners; nevertheless, authorities held some members of human rights advocacy groups on charges of conspiracy, rebellion, or terrorism, which the groups described as government harassment against human rights advocates. According to INPEC, the government held 107 persons on charges of rebellion or of aiding and promoting insurgency and had convicted 34. The government provided the International Committee of the Red Cross regular access to these prisoners.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Citizens may sue a government agent or entity in the Administrative Court of Litigation for damages resulting from a human rights violation. Although critics complained of delays in the process, the court generally was considered impartial and effective. Cases involving violations of an individual’s human rights may be submitted through petitions by individuals or organizations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in turn may submit the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court may order civil remedies, including fair compensation to the individual injured.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The 2011 Victims’ and Land Restitution Law continued to provide a legal basis for assistance and reparations to victims of the conflict, including victims of government abuses, but the government acknowledged that the pace of restitution was slow. From January through July, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent and autonomous public institution, assisted in 1,425 cases related to land reclamation, i.e., requests for restitution.
The Land Restitution Unit, a semiautonomous entity in the Ministry of Agriculture, is responsible for returning land to displaced victims of conflict. The unit reported that as of July 15, it had received 1,845 requests, 68 of them for collective restitution of territories of ethnic communities. From January through July 15, courts issued 212 rulings ordering restitution of 229 land titles.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively, although officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices without punishment. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, particularly at the local level. Revenues from transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking, exacerbated corruption.
Corruption: Through July 31, the Attorney General’s Office registered 8,414 allegations related to corruption and 51 active investigations. In August press reports alleged government contractors embezzled a $17 million advance from the Ministry of Technology and Communications in connection with a project to connect rural schools to the internet. The contractors allegedly failed to comply with the commitments in the contract, and the Inspector General’s Office opened an investigation.