With markedly improved security conditions, a market of 50 million people, an abundance of natural resources, and an educated and growing middle-class, Colombia continues to be an attractive destination for foreign investment in Latin America. In the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Report, Colombia ranked 67 out of 190 countries in the “Ease of Doing Business” index.
In 2020, the Colombian economy will likely experience its first recession since 1999 after suffering the dual shocks of a long national quarantine to control the spread of the coronavirus and a related collapse of oil prices. (Note: A summary of macroeconomic statistical updates due to the COVID-19 crisis is included at the end of this summary. End Note.) However, due to strong macroeconomic institutions and relatively robust pre-coronavirus economy, Colombia is better positioned than many countries in the region to return to growth in 2021.
Colombia’s legal and regulatory systems are generally transparent and consistent with international norms. The country has a comprehensive legal framework for business and foreign direct investment (FDI). The U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA), which took effect on May 15, 2012, has strengthened bilateral trade and investment. Through the CTPA and several international conventions and treaties, Colombia’s dispute settlement mechanisms have improved. Weaknesses include protection of intellectual property rights (IPR), as Colombia has yet to implement certain IPR-related provisions of the CTPA. Colombia was on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 Watch List in 2020. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) invited Colombia to join its ranks in 2018, and in April, 2020 the country became its 37th member. With this comes the expectation Colombia will adhere to OECD norms and standards in economic operations.
The Colombian government has made a concerted effort to develop efficient capital markets, attract investment, and create jobs. President Ivan Duque took office on August 7, 2018. The administration made tax reform a priority, succeeding in lowering the tax obligation of some companies while extending income tax to a broader group of individuals, but has struggled to secure approval of other changes from the national congress. Restrictions on foreign ownership in specific sectors still exist. FDI increased 7.1 percent from 2017 to 2018, with a third of the 2018 inflow dedicated to the extractives sector. Roughly half of the Colombian workforce in metropolitan areas is in the informal economy, a share that increases to four fifths in rural areas. Unemployment registered at 12.6 percent in March, 2020 before rising sharply due to the COVID19 crisis.
Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, with kidnappings down from 10 cases daily in 2000 to 88 cases for all of 2019. Since the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the country’s largest terrorist organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia has experienced a significant decrease in terrorist activity. Negotiations between the National Liberation Army (ELN), another terrorist organization, and the government have stalled, and the ELN continues its attacks on energy infrastructure and security forces. The ELN is one of several powerful narco-criminal operations that poses a threat to commercial activity and investment, especially in rural zones outside of government control. Despite improved security conditions, coca production was at a record high in 2019.
Corruption remains a significant challenge in Colombia. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index (2019) ranked Colombia 57 out of 141 countries. The Colombian government continues to work on improving its business climate, but U.S. and other foreign investors have voiced complaints about non-tariff and bureaucratic barriers to trade and investment at the national, regional, and municipal levels. Also of concern for investors has been ridged judicial interpretations of the right of indigenous communities to prior consultation (consulta previas) on projects within their territories, as well as a heavy reliance by the national competition and regulatory authority (SIC) on decrees to remedy perceived problems.
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
The Colombian government actively encourages foreign direct investment (FDI). In the early 1990s, the country began economic liberalization reforms, which provided for national treatment of foreign investors, lifted controls on remittance of profits and capital, and allowed foreign investment in most sectors. Colombia imposes the same investment restrictions on foreign investors that it does on national investors. Generally, foreign investors may participate in the privatization of state-owned enterprises without restrictions. All FDI involving the establishment of a commercial presence in Colombia requires registration with the Superintendence of Corporations (Superintendencia de Sociedades) and the local chamber of commerce. All conditions being equal during tender processes, national offers are preferred over foreign offers. Assuming equal conditions among foreign bidders, those with major Colombian national workforce resources, significant national capital, and/or better conditions to facilitate technology transfers are preferred.
ProColombia is the Colombian government entity that promotes international tourism, foreign investment, and non-traditional exports. ProColombia assists foreign companies that wish to enter the Colombian market by addressing specific needs, such as identifying contacts in the public and private sectors, organizing visit agendas, and accompanying companies during visits to Colombia. All services are free of charge and confidential. Business process outsourcing, software and IT services, cosmetics, health services, automotive manufacturing, textiles, graphic communications, and electric energy are priority sectors. ProColombia’s “Invest in Colombia” web portal offers detailed information about opportunities in agribusiness, manufacturing, and services in Colombia (www.investincolombia.com.co/sectors).
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Foreign investment in the financial, hydrocarbon, and mining sectors is subject to special regimes, such as investment registration and concession agreements with the Colombian government, but is not restricted in the amount of foreign capital. The following sectors require that foreign investors have a legal local representative and/or commercial presence in Colombia: travel and tourism agency services; money order operators; customs brokerage; postal and courier services; merchandise warehousing; merchandise transportation under customs control; international cargo agents; public service companies, including sewage and water works, waste disposal, electricity, gas and fuel distribution, and public telephone services; insurance firms; legal services; and special air services, including aerial fire-fighting, sightseeing, and surveying.
According to the World Bank’s Investing Across Sectors indicators, among the 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean covered, Colombia is one of the economies most open to foreign equity ownership. With the exception of TV broadcasting, all other sectors covered by the indicators are fully open to foreign capital participation. Foreign ownership in TV broadcasting companies is limited to 40 percent. Companies publishing newspapers can have up to 100 percent foreign capital investment; however, there is a requirement for the director or general manager to be a Colombian national.
According to the Colombian constitution and foreign investment regulations, foreign investment in Colombia receives the same treatment as an investment made by Colombian nationals. Any investment made by a person who does not qualify as a resident of Colombia for foreign exchange purposes will qualify as foreign investment. Foreign investment is permitted in all sectors, except in activities related to defense, national security, and toxic waste handling and disposal. There are no performance requirements explicitly applicable to the entry and establishment of foreign investment in Colombia.
Foreign investors face specific exceptions and restrictions in the following sectors:
Media: Only Colombian nationals or legally constituted entities may provide radio or subscription-based television services. For National Open Television and Nationwide Private Television Operators, only Colombian nationals or legal entities may be granted concessions to provide television services. Colombia’s national, regional, and municipal open-television channels must be provided at no extra cost to subscribers. Foreign investment in national television is limited to a maximum of 40 percent ownership of the relevant operator. Satellite television service providers are obliged to include within their basic programming the broadcast of government-designated public interest channels. Newspapers published in Colombia covering domestic politics must be directed and managed by Colombian nationals.
Accounting, Auditing, and Data Processing: To practice in Colombia, providers of accounting services must register with the Central Accountants Board; have uninterrupted domicile in Colombia for at least three years prior to registry; and provide proof of at least one year of accounting experience in Colombia. No restrictions apply to services offered by consulting firms or individuals. A legal commercial presence is required to provide data processing and information services in Colombia.
Banking: Foreign investors may own 100 percent of financial institutions in Colombia, but are required to obtain approval from the Financial Superintendent before making a direct investment of ten percent or more in any one entity. Portfolio investments used to acquire more than five percent of an entity also require authorization. Foreign banks must establish a local commercial presence and comply with the same capital and other requirements as local financial institutions. Foreign banks may establish a subsidiary or office in Colombia, but not a branch. Every investment of foreign capital in portfolios must be through a Colombian administrator company, including brokerage firms, trust companies, and investment management companies. All foreign investments must be registered with the central bank.
Fishing: A foreign vessel may engage in fishing and related activities in Colombian territorial waters only through association with a Colombian company holding a valid fishing permit. If a ship’s flag corresponds to a country with which Colombia has a complementary bilateral agreement, this agreement shall determine whether the association requirement applies for the process required to obtain a fishing license. The costs of fishing permits are greater for foreign flag vessels.
Private Security and Surveillance Companies: Companies constituted with foreign capital prior to February 11, 1994 cannot increase the share of foreign capital. Those constituted after that date can only have Colombian nationals as shareholders.
Telecommunications: Barriers to entry in telecommunications services include high license fees (USD 150 million for a long-distance license), commercial presence requirements, and economic needs tests. While Colombia allows 100 percent foreign ownership of telecommunication providers, it prohibits “callback” services.
Transportation: Foreign companies can only provide multimodal freight services within or from Colombian territory if they have a domiciled agent or representative legally responsible for its activities in Colombia. International cabotage companies can provide cabotage services (i.e. between two points within Colombia) “only when there is no national capacity to provide the service,” according to Colombian law. Colombia prohibits foreign ownership of commercial ships licensed in Colombia and restricts foreign ownership in national airlines or shipping companies to 40 percent. FDI in the maritime sector is limited to 30 percent ownership of companies operating in the sector. The owners of a concession providing port services must be legally constituted in Colombia and only Colombian ships may provide port services within Colombian maritime jurisdiction; however, vessels with foreign flags may provide those services if there are no capable Colombian-flag vessels.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
In the past three years, the government has not undergone any third-party investment policy reviews (IPRs) through a multilateral organization such as the OECD, WTO, or UNCTAD.
New businesses must register with the chamber of commerce of the city in which the company will reside. Applicants also register using the Colombian tax authority’s portal at www.dian.gov.co to obtain a taxpayer ID (RUT). Business founders must visit DIAN offices to obtain an electronic signature for company legal representatives. Also obtained through DIAN – in person or online – is an authorization for company invoices. In 2019, Colombia made starting a business a step easier by lifting a requirement of opening a local bank account to obtain invoice authorization. Companies must submit a unified electronic form to self-assess and pay social security and payroll contributions to the Governmental Learning Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, or SENA), the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, or ICBF), and the Family Compensation Fund (Caja de Compensación Familiar). After that, companies must register employees for public health coverage, affiliate the company to a public or private pension fund, affiliate the company and employees to an administrator of professional risks, and affiliate employees with a severance fund.
Colombia does not incentivize outward investment nor does it restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.
2. Bilateral Investment and Taxation Treaties
Bilateral Investment Treaties and Free Trade Agreements: Colombia has free trade agreements or treaties with investment provisions with the United States, the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, MERCOSUR, and Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, South Korea, and Venezuela. Colombia has subscribed trade agreements with Panama and Israel, but they are not yet in effect. Additionally, Colombia has stand-alone bilateral investment treaties in force with China, Japan, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Bilateral Taxation Treaties: Colombia has double taxation treaties with Bolivia, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. Colombia is currently negotiating double taxation agreements with Germany, the Netherlands, and Panama, and has expressed interest in renewing negotiations with the United States.
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
The Colombian legal and regulatory systems are generally transparent and consistent with international norms. The commercial code and other laws cover broad areas, including banking and credit, bankruptcy/reorganization, business establishment/conduct, commercial contracts, credit, corporate organization, fiduciary obligations, insurance, industrial property, and real property law. The civil code contains provisions relating to contracts, mortgages, liens, notary functions, and registries. There are no identified private-sector associations or non-governmental organizations leading informal regulatory processes. The ministries generally consult with relevant actors, both foreign and national, when drafting regulations. Proposed laws are typically published as drafts for public comment.
Enforcement mechanisms exist, but historically the judicial system has not taken an active role in adjudicating commercial cases. The Constitution establishes the principle of free competition as a national right for all citizens and provides the judiciary with administrative and financial independence from the executive branch. Colombia has transitioned to an oral accusatory system to make criminal investigations and trials more efficient. The new system separates the investigative functions assigned to the Office of the Attorney General from trial functions. Lack of coordination among government entities as well as insufficient resources complicate timely resolution of cases.
Colombia is a member of UNCTAD’s international network of transparent investment procedures (see http://www.businessfacilitation.org and Colombia’s website http://colombia.eregulations.org). Foreign and national investors can find detailed information on administrative procedures applicable to investment and income generating operations including the number of steps, name, and contact details of the entities and people in charge of procedures, required documents and conditions, costs, processing time, and legal bases justifying the procedures.
Information on Colombia’s public finances and debt obligations is readily available and is published in a timely manner.
International Regulatory Considerations
OECD countries agreed on May 25, 2018, to invite Colombia as the 37th member of the Organization. With Law 1950 of January 8, 2019, President Duque ratified accession to the OECD and Colombia became the 37th member of the Organization on April 28, 2020. Colombia is part of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The government generally notifies all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade. In December 2017, the legislature ratified the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). The TFA is now also pending Constitutional Court review before Colombia can deposit its letter of acceptance with the WTO. Regionally, Colombia is a member of organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the Pacific Alliance.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Colombia has a comprehensive legal system. Colombia’s judicial system defines the legal rights of commercial entities, reviews regulatory enforcement procedures, and adjudicates contract disputes in the business community. The judicial framework includes the Council of State, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, and various departmental and district courts, which collectively are overseen administratively by the Superior Judicial Council. The 1991 Constitution provided the judiciary with greater administrative and financial independence from the executive branch. Colombia has a commercial code and other laws covering broad areas, including banking and credit, bankruptcy/reorganization, business establishment/conduct, commercial contracts, credit, corporate organization, fiduciary obligations, insurance, industrial property, and real property law. Regulations and enforcement actions are appealable through the different stages of legal court processes in Colombia.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
Colombia has a comprehensive legal framework for business and FDI that incorporates binding norms resulting from its membership in the Andean Community of Nations as well as other free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties. Colombia’s judicial system defines the legal rights of commercial entities, reviews regulatory enforcement procedures, and adjudicates contract disputes in the business community. The judicial framework includes the Council of State, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the various departmental and district courts, which are also overseen for administrative matters by the Superior Judicial Council. The 1991 Constitution provided the judiciary with greater administrative and financial independence from the executive branch. However, the judicial system in general remains hampered by time-consuming bureaucratic requirements and corruption.
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
The Superintendence of Industry and Commerce (SIC), Colombia’s independent national competition authority, monitors and protects free economic competition, consumer rights, compliance with legal requirements and regulations, and protection of personal data. It also manages the national chambers of commerce. The SIC has been strengthened in recent years with the addition of personnel, including economists and lawyers. The SIC has recently investigated companies, including U.S.-based technology firms, gig-economy platforms, and Colombian banks, for failing to protect customer data. Other investigations include those related to pharmaceutical pricing, “business cartelization” among companies supplying public entities, and misleading advertising by a major brewing company. U.S. companies have expressed concern about limited ability to appeal SIC orders and the SIC’s increasing reliance on orders to remedy perceived problems. Other U.S. companies have noted that similar to the judicial system in general, SIC investigations can be drawn-out and opaque.
Expropriation and Compensation
Article 58 of the Constitution governs indemnifications and expropriations and guarantees owners’ rights for legally-acquired property. For assets taken by eminent domain, Colombian law provides a right of appeal both on the basis of the decision itself and on the level of compensation. The Constitution does not specify how to proceed in compensation cases, which remains a concern for foreign investors. The Colombian government has sought to resolve such concerns through the negotiation of bilateral investment treaties and strong investment chapters in free trade agreements, such as the CTPA.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Colombia is a member of the New York Convention on Investment Disputes, the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency. Colombia is also party to the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The National and International Arbitration Statute (Law 1563), modeled after the UNCITRAL Model Law, has been in effect since 2012.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Domestic law allows contracting parties to agree to submit disputes to international arbitration, provided that: the parties are domiciled in different countries; the place of arbitration agreed to by the parties is a country other than the one in which they are domiciled; the subject matter of the arbitration involves the interests of more than one country; and the dispute has a direct impact on international trade. The law permits parties to set their own arbitration terms, including location, procedures, and the nationality of rules and arbiters. Foreign investors have found the arbitration process in Colombia complex and dilatory, especially with regard to enforcing awards. However, some progress has been made in the number of qualified professionals and arbitrators with ample experience on transnational transactions, arbitrage centers with cutting-edge infrastructure and administrative capacity, and courts that are progressively more accepting of arbitration processes.
There were 13 pending investment disputes in Colombia in 2020. The pending cases include:
A project management consultant contract with state-owned entity Refiería de Cartagena (Reficar) related to the refurbishment of an oil refinery. Claims arise out of a $2.4 billion liability imposed by the national comptroller general, with claimants contending they provided limited management consultancy services under contract with Reficar, the party responsible for the misconduct.
Concession contract for Puerto Nuevo, with claims arising out of the building and maintenance of an access channel to the port.
Investments in the construction of Meritage, a luxury real-estate development, with claims arising out of the government’s seizure of property from investors, resulting from claims prior investors used the property for criminal activity.
Two separate shareholder claims related to the Colombian bank Granahorrar, which Colombia put under new management and ultimately seized in 1998.
Three separate claims related to ownership and mining rights related to the Constitutional Court’s decision to ban mining in the paramos, a range of high-altitude wetlands.
Investment and mining rights in Sergovia and Marmato, with claims alleging the government failed to address civil strikes and other disruptions to the mining project caused by illegal artisanal miners and guerilla groups.
Ownership of a mobile communications subsidiary, with claims arising out of the government’s order that certain assets revert to State control on expiration of a concession.
Majority shareholder claims arising out of the government’s decision to seize and liquidate Electricaribe, an electricity provider.
Ownership of a cellular communications subsidiary, with claims arising out of measures claimants contend prevented use or sale of assets after the termination of a concession contract.
Interests in a gold mining concession, with claims arising out of the establishment of a national park that entailed cessation of a mining exploration and exploitation concession.
According to the Doing Business 2020 report, the time from the moment a plaintiff files a lawsuit until actual payment and enforcement of the contract averages 1,288 days. Traditionally, most court proceedings are carried out in writing and only the evidence-gathering stage is carried out through hearings, including witness depositions, site inspections, and cross-examinations. The government has accelerated proceedings and reduced the backlog of court cases by allowing more verbal public hearings and creating alternative court mechanisms. The new Code of General Procedure that entered into force in 2014 also establishes oral proceedings that are carried out in two hearings, and there are now penalties for failure to reach a ruling in the time limit set by the law. Enforcement of an arbitral award can take between six months and one and a half years; a regular judicial process can take up to seven years for private parties and upwards of 15 years in conflicts with the State. Thus, arbitration results are cheaper and much more efficient. According to the Doing Business report, Colombia has made enforcing contracts easier by simplifying and speeding up the proceedings for commercial disputes. In 2020, Colombia’s ranking in the enforcing contracts category of the report held at 177.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Foreign judgments are recognized and enforced in Colombia once an application is submitted to the Civil Chamber of the Supreme Court. In 2012, Colombia approved the use of the arbitration process when new legislation based on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law was adopted. The statute stipulates that arbitral awards are governed by both domestic law as well as international conventions (New York Convention, Panama Convention, etc.). This has made the enforcement of arbitral awards easier for all parties involved. Arbitration in Colombia is completely independent from judiciary proceedings, and, once arbitration has begun, the only competent authority is the arbitration tribunal itself. The CTPA protects U.S. investments by requiring a transparent and binding international arbitration mechanism and allowing investor-state arbitration for breaches of investment agreements if certain parameters are met. The judicial system is notoriously slow, leading many foreign companies to include international arbitration clauses in their contracts.
Colombia’s 1991 Constitution grants the government the authority to intervene directly in financial or economic affairs, and this authority provides solutions similar to U.S. Chapter 11 filings for companies facing liquidation or bankruptcy. Colombia’s bankruptcy regulations have two major objectives: to regulate proceedings to ensure creditors’ protection, and to monitor the efficient recovery and preservation of still-viable companies. This was revised in 2006 to allow creditors to request judicial liquidation, which replaces the previous forced auctioning option. Now, inventories are valued, creditors’ rights are taken into account, and either a direct sale takes place within two months or all assets are assigned to creditors based on their share of the company’s liabilities. The insolvency regime for companies was further revised in 2010 to make proceedings more flexible and allow debtors to enter into a long-term payment agreement with creditors, giving the company a chance to recover and continue operating. Bankruptcy is not criminalized in Colombia. In 2013, a bankruptcy law for individuals whose debts surpass 50 percent of their assets value entered into force.
Restructuring proceedings aim to protect the debtors from bankruptcy. Once reorganization has begun, creditors cannot use collection proceedings to collect on debts owed prior to the beginning of the reorganization proceedings. All existing creditors at the moment of the reorganization are recognized during the proceedings if they present their credit. Foreign creditors, equity shareholders including foreign equity shareholders, and holders of other financial contracts, including foreign contract holders, are recognized during the proceeding. Established creditors are guaranteed a vote in the final decision. According to the Doing Business 2020 report Colombia is ranked 32nd for resolving insolvency and it takes an average of 1.7 years – the same as OECD high-income countries – to resolve insolvency; the average time in Latin America is 2.9 years.
4. Industrial Policies
The Colombian government offers investment incentives, such as income tax exemptions and deductions in specific priority sectors, including the so-called “orange economy,” which refers to the creative industries, as well as agriculture and entrepreneurship. More recently, the government has offered additional incentives in an effort to generate investments in former conflict municipalities. Investment incentives through free trade agreements between Colombia and other nations include national treatment and most favored nation treatment of investors; establishment of liability standards assumed by countries regarding the other nation’s investors, including the minimum standard of treatment and establishment of rules for investor compensation from expropriation; establishment of rules for transfer of capital relating to investment; and specific tax treatment.
The government offers tax incentives to all investors, such as preferential import tariffs, tax exemptions, and credit or risk capital. Some fiscal incentives are available for investments that generate new employment or production in areas impacted by natural disasters and former conflict-affected municipalities. Companies can apply for these directly with participating agencies. Tax and fiscal incentives are often based on regional, sector, or business size considerations. Border areas have special protections due to currency fluctuations in neighboring countries which can impact local economies. National and local governments also offer special incentives, such as tax holidays, to attract specific industries.
The Colombian government introduced a variety of incentives for specific sectors as part of the 2019 tax reform. Included are:
Income from hotels built, renovated, or extended through January 1, 2029 in municipalities of less than 200,000 inhabitants will be taxed at nine percent for 20 years. The same facilities in larger municipalities will be taxed at nine percent for 10 years.
New theme parks, ecotourism and agrotourism enterprises, and boat docks put into operation through January 1, 2029 in smaller municipalities will also be taxed at nine percent for 20 years. The same facilities in municipalities greater than 200,000 population put into service until 2023 will be taxed at nine percent for 10 years.
Income normally taxed at 33 percent that is invested in agricultural projects or orange (creative) economy initiatives will be tax free.
Income from the sale of electric power generated by wind, biomass, solar, geothermal, or tidal movement will be tax free provided carbon dioxide emission certificates are sold in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, and 50 percent of the income from the certificate sale is invested in social projects benefiting the region where the power was generated.
Income from river transportation services using low-draft vessels is tax free.
Foreign investors can participate without discrimination in government-subsidized research programs, and most Colombian government research has been conducted with foreign institutions. Investments or grants to technological research and development projects are fully tax deductible in the year the investment was made. R&D incentives include Value-Added Tax (VAT) exemptions for imported equipment or materials used in scientific, technology, or innovation projects, and qualified investments may receive tax credits.
In a tax reform passed in 2016, the Colombian government created two tax incentives to support investment in the 344 municipalities most affected by the armed conflict (ZOMAC). Small and microbusinesses that invest in ZOMACs and meet a series of other criteria will be exempt from paying any taxes through 2021, pay 25 percent of the general rate through 2024, and 50 percent through 2027. Medium and large-sized businesses will pay 50 percent of their normal taxes through 2021 and 75 percent through 2024. The second component is entitled “works for taxes” (“Obras por Impuestos”), a program through which the private sector can directly fund social investments and infrastructure projects in lieu of paying taxes.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
To attract foreign investment and promote the importation of capital goods, the Colombian government uses a number of drawback and duty deferral programs. One example is free trade zones (FTZs). While DIAN oversees requests to establish FTZs, the Colombian government is not involved in their operations. Benefits under the FTZ regime include a single 20 percent tax rate and no customs value-added taxes or duties on raw material imports for use in the FTZ. Each permanent FTZ must meet specific investment and direct job creation commitments, depending on their total assets, during the first three years. Special FTZs are required to generate a certain number of direct jobs depending on the economic sector.
Colombia also has initiated Special Economic Zones for Exports in the municipalities of Buenaventura, Cucuta, Valledupar, and Ipiales in order to encourage investment. These zones receive the same import benefits of FTZs, while operators are also exempted from some payroll taxes and surcharges. In addition, infrastructure projects in the zones are exempt from some income taxes.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
Performance requirements are not imposed on foreigners as a condition for establishing, maintaining, or expanding investments. The Colombian government does not have performance requirements, impose local employment requirements, or require excessively difficult visa, residency, or work permit requirements for investors. Under the CTPA, Colombia grants substantial market access across its entire services sector.
The SIC, under the Deputy Office for Personal Data Protection, is the Data Protection Authority (DPA) and has the legal mandate to ensure proper data protection and has issued a circular defining adequate data protection and responsibilities with respect to international data transfers. The SIC requires data storage facilities that hold personal data to comply with government requirements for security and privacy, and data storage companies have one year to register. The SIC enforces the rules on local data storage within the country through audits/investigations and imposed sanctions.
Software and hardware are protected by IPR. There is no obligation to submit source code for registered software.
5. Protection of Property Rights
The 1991 Constitution explicitly protects individual rights against state actions and upholds the right to private property.
Secured interests in real property, and to a lesser degree movable property, are recognized and generally enforced after the property is properly registered. In terms of protecting third-party purchasers, existing law is inadequate. The concepts of a mortgage, trust, deed, and other types of liens exist, as does a reliable system of recording such secured interests. Deeds, however, present some legal risk due to the prevalence of transactions that have never been registered with the Public Instruments Registry. According to a survey made shortly before the signing of the 2016 FARC peace accord, some eight million hectares of land – 14 percent of the country – had been abandoned or acquired illegally. The Colombian government is working to title these plots and has started a formalization program for land restitution.
Intellectual Property Rights
In Colombia, the granting, registration, and administration of IPR are carried out by four primary government entities. The SIC acts as the Colombian patent and trademark office. The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) is in charge of issuing plant variety protections and data protections for agricultural products. The Ministry of Interior administers copyrights through the National Copyright Directorate (DNDA). The Ministry of Health and Social Protection handles data protection for products registered through the National Food and Drug Institute (INVIMA).
The Intersectoral Intellectual Property Commission (CIPI) serves as the interagency technical body for IPR issues, and at its annual meeting in 2019 discussed a new national policy for Intellectual Property to be drafted in 2020, progress toward ratifications of the Treaty of Marrakech and the Beijing Treaty, the reactivation and update of the Anti-Piracy Agreement for Colombia, and the possible accession of Colombia to the Hague System on Industrial Designs. The last comprehensive interagency policy for IPR issues (Conpes 3533) was issued by the National Planning Department in 2008. Colombia is subject to Andean Community Decision 486 on trade secret protection, which is fully implemented domestically by the Unfair Competition Law of 1996.
The CTPA improved standards for the protection and enforcement of a broad range of IPR. Improvements include state-of-the-art protections for digital products such as software, music, text, and videos; stronger protection for U.S. patents, trademarks, and test data; and prevention of piracy and counterfeiting by criminalizing end-use piracy. However, Colombia has outstanding CTPA commitments related to IPR. Colombian officials continue discussing with the United States draft legislation regulating internet service providers on issues such as compulsory takedown of online content and the protection of intermediaries with “safe harbor” provisions for unintentional copyright infringement. The legislation has not yet been introduced to Congress. Colombia did not make progress in 2019 on an international agreement that it needs to sign: the International Union for the Protection of NewVarieties of Plants (UPOV 91). Colombia maintains that the existing Andean Community Decision 345 is in effect and equivalent to UPOV 91, but this is not an interpretation shared by the United States. Colombia is a member of the Inter-American Convention for Trademark and Commercial Protection.
Colombia reformed its copyright law under Decree 1915 of July 2018. The bill extends the term of copyright protection, imposes civil liability for circumvention of technological protection measures, and strengthens enforcement of copyright and related rights. On July 31, 2019 the Colombian Constitutional Court issued ruling C-345-19 that recognizes the constitutionality of statutory damages for copyright infringement.
Colombia’s success combating counterfeiting and IPR violations, and enforcement in the digital space, remains limited. A 2015 law increased penalties for those involved in running contraband, but more effective implementation is needed. Key agencies do not have the requisite authorities or sufficient numbers of trained personnel to effectively inspect and seize merchandise and to investigate smugglers and counterfeiters. Positive recent developments in enforcement include the seizure of 122 containers with footwear, clothing, toys, toiletries, medicines, textiles, and perishables worth more than USD 32 million between August 2018 and October 2019, and the dismantling of 78 criminal structures and prosecution of 436 people over the same period. However, counterfeit goods remain widely available in Colombia’s “San Andresitos” markets. Minister of Commerce, Industry and Trade Jose Manuel Restrepo established a high-level anti-contraband working group in 2018 that is chaired by the Customs Office and includes representatives of the Fiscal and Customs Police. The group meets biweekly.
For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/.
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
The Colombian Securities Exchange (BVC after its acronym in Spanish) is the main forum for trading and securities transactions in Colombia. The BVC is a private company listed on the stock market. The BVC, as a multi-product and multi-market exchange, offers trading platforms for the stock market, along with fixed income and standard derivatives. The BVC also provides listing services for issuers.
Foreign investors can participate in capital markets by negotiating and acquiring shares, bonds, and other securities listed by the Foreign Investment Statute. These activities must be conducted by a local administrator, such as trust companies or Financial Superintendence-authorized stock brokerage firms. Direct and portfolio foreign investments must be registered with the Central Bank. Foreigners can establish a bank account in Colombia as long as they have a valid visa and Colombian government identification.
The market has sufficient liquidity for investors to enter and exit sizeable positions. The central bank respects IMF Article VIII and does not restrict payments and transfers for current international transactions. The financial sector in Colombia offers credit to nationals and foreigners that comply with the requisite legal requirements.
Money and Banking System
In 2005, Colombia consolidated supervision of all aspects of the banking, financial, securities, and insurance sectors under the Financial Superintendence. Colombia has an effective regulatory system that encourages portfolio investment, and the country’s financial system is strong by regional standards. Commercial banks are the principal source of long-term corporate and project finance in Colombia. Loans rarely have a maturity in excess of five years. Unofficial private lenders play a major role in meeting the working capital needs of small and medium-sized companies. Only the largest of Colombia’s companies participate in the local stock or bond markets, with the majority meeting their financing needs either through the banking system, by reinvesting their profits, or through credit from suppliers.
Colombia’s central bank is charged with managing inflation and unemployment through monetary policy. Foreign banks are allowed to establish operations in the country, and must set up a Colombian branch in order to do so. The Colombian central bank has a variety of correspondent banks abroad.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
There are no restrictions on transferring funds associated with FDI. Foreign investment into Colombia must be registered with the central bank in order to secure the right to repatriate capital and profits. Direct and portfolio investments are considered registered when the exchange declaration for operations channeled through the official exchange market is presented, with few exceptions. The official exchange rate is determined by the central bank. The rate is based on the free market flow of the previous day. Colombia does not manipulate its currency to gain competitive advantages.
The government permits full remittance of all net profits regardless of the type or amount of investment. Foreign investments must be channeled through the foreign exchange market and registered with the central bank’s foreign exchange office within one year in order for those investments to be repatriated or reinvested. There are no restrictions on the repatriation of revenues generated from the sale or closure of a business, reduction of investment, or transfer of a portfolio. Colombian law authorizes the government to restrict remittances in the event that international reserves fall below three months’ worth of imports. International reserves have remained well above this threshold for decades.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
In 2012, Colombia began operating a sovereign wealth fund called the Savings and Stabilization Fund (FAE), which is administered by the central bank with the objective of promoting savings and economic stability in the country. The fund can administer up to 30 percent of annual royalties from the extractives industry. The government transfers royalties not dedicated to the fund to other internal funds to boost national economic productivity through strategic projects, technological investments, and innovation.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
Since 2015, the Government of Colombia has concentrated its industrial and commercial enterprises under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance. According to the latest annual report issued in 2019, the number of state-owned companies is 105, with a combined value of USD 20 billion. The government is the majority shareholder of 39 companies and a minority shareholder in the remaining 66. Among the most notable companies with a government stake are Ecopetrol (Colombia’s majority state-owned and privately-run oil company), ISA (electricity distribution), Banco Agrario de Colombia, Bancoldex, and Satena (regional airline). SOEs competing in the Colombian market do not receive non-market-based advantages from the government. The Ministry of Finance updates their annual report on SOEs every June.
Colombia has privatized state-owned enterprises under article 60 of the Constitution and Law Number 226 of 1995. This law stipulates that the sale of government holdings in an enterprise should be offered to two groups: first to cooperatives and workers’ associations of the enterprise, then to the general public. During the first phase, special terms and credits have to be granted, and in the second phase, foreign investors may participate along with the general public. The government views stimulating private-sector investment in roads, ports, electricity, and gas infrastructure as a high priority. The government is increasingly turning to concessions and utilizing public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a means for securing and incentivizing infrastructure development.
In order to attract investment and promote PPPs, Colombian modified infrastructure regulations to clarify provisions for frequently-cited obstacles to participate in PPPs, including environmental licensing, land acquisition, and the displacement of public utilities. The law puts in place a civil procedure that facilitates land expropriation during court cases, allows for expedited environmental licensing, and clarifies that the cost to move or replace public utilities affected by infrastructure projects falls to private companies. However, infrastructure development companies considering bidding on tenders have raised concerns about unacceptable levels of risk that result from a law establishing a framework for public works projects. Interpretations of the law (Ley 80) do not establish a liability cap on potential judgments and views company officials equal to those with fiscal oversight authority when it comes to criminally liability for misfeasance.
Municipal enterprises operate many public utilities and infrastructure services. These municipal enterprises have engaged private sector investment through concessions. There are several successful concessions involving roads. These kinds of partnerships have helped promote reforms and create a more attractive environment for private, national, and foreign investment.
8. Responsible Business Conduct
In 2015, the Colombian government released its National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, which responds to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Colombia also adheres to the corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles outlined in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. CSR cuts across many industries and Colombia encourages public and private enterprises to follow OECD CSR guidelines. Beneficiaries of CSR programs include students, children, populations vulnerable to Colombia’s armed conflict, victims of violence, and the environment. Larger companies structure their CSR programs in accordance with accepted international CSR principles. Companies in Colombia have been recognized on an international level for their CSR initiatives, including by the State Department.
Overall, Colombia has adequate environmental laws, is proactive at the federal level in enacting environmental protections, and does not waive labor or environmental regulations to attract investors. However, the Colombian government struggles with enforcement, particularly in more remote areas. Geography, lack of infrastructure, and lack of state presence all play a role, as does a general shortage of resources in national and regional institutions. The Environmental Chapter of the CTPA requires Colombia to maintain and enforce environmental laws, protect biodiversity, and promote opportunities for public participation.
In parallel with its OECD accession, the Colombian government worked with the Organization in a series of assessments in order to develop the implementation the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas, especially related to gold mining. The Colombian government faces challenges in formalizing illegal gold mining operations throughout the country. Colombia ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury in 2018 and banned the use of mercury in mining. It will phase out mercury use from all other industries by 2023.
Buyers, sellers, traders, and refiners of gold may wish to conduct additional due diligence as part of their risk management regimes to account for the influx of illegally-mined Colombian gold into existing supply chains. Throughout the country, Colombian authorities have taken steps to dismantle illegal gold mining operations that are responsible for negative environmental, criminal, and human health impacts. The Colombian government has focused its efforts on transnational criminal elements involved in the production, laundering, and sale of illegally- mined gold, and the fraudulent documentation that is used to obscure the origin of illegally- mined gold.
Corruption, and the perception of it, is a serious obstacle for companies operating or planning to invest in Colombia. Analyses of the business environment, such as the WEF Global Competitiveness Index, consistently cite corruption as a problematic factor, along with high tax rates, inadequate infrastructure, and inefficient government bureaucracy. Transparency International’s latest “Corruption Perceptions Index” ranked Colombia 96th out of 180 countries assessed, assigned it a score of 37/100, unchanged from four years earlier. Among OECD member states, only Mexico ranked lower. Customs, taxation, and public works contracts are commonly-cited areas where corruption exists.
Colombia has adopted the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials and is a member of the OECD Anti-Bribery Committee. It also passed a domestic anti-bribery law in 2016. It has signed and ratified the UN Anticorruption Convention. Additionally, it has adopted the OAS Convention against Corruption. The CTPA protects the integrity of procurement practices and criminalizes both offering and soliciting bribes to/from public officials. It requires both countries to make all laws, regulations, and procedures regarding any matter under the CTPA publicly available. Both countries must also establish procedures for reviews and appeals by any entities affected by actions, rulings, measures, or procedures under the CTPA.
Resources to Report Corruption
Useful resources and contact information for those concerned about combating corruption in Colombia include the following:
The Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory is an interactive tool of the Colombian government aimed at promoting transparency and combating corruption available at http://www.anticorrupcion.gov.co/.
The National Civil Commission for Fighting Corruption, or Comisión Nacional Ciudadana para la Lucha Contra la Corrupción (CNCLCC), was established by Law 1474 of 2011 to give civil society a forum to discuss and propose policies and actions to fight corruption in the country. Transparencia por Colombia is the technical secretariat of the commission. http://ciudadanoscontralacorrupcion.org/es/inicio
The national chapter of Transparency International, Transparencia por Colombia: http://transparenciacolombia.org.co/
The Presidential Secretariat of Transparency advises and assists the president to formulate and design public policy about transparency and anti-corruption. This office also coordinates the implementation of anti-corruption policies. http://wsp.presidencia.gov.co/secretaria-transparencia/Paginas/default.aspx/.
10. Political and Security Environment
Security in Colombia has improved significantly over recent years. Colombia experienced a significant decrease in terrorist activity, due in large part to a bilateral ceasefire between government forces and Colombia’s largest terrorist organization, the FARC. On November 26, 2016, President Santos signed a peace agreement with the FARC to end half a century of confrontation. Congressional approval of a peace accord between the government and the FARC on November 30, 2016 put in motion a six-month disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process, which granted the FARC status as a legal political organization. Security forces estimate 1,200 combatants (FARC dissidents) have chosen not to participate in the process. Currently the peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), which began in 2017, are suspended. This terrorist group continues a low-cost, high-impact asymmetric insurgency. ELN attacks, alongside powerful narco-criminal group operations, are posing a threat to commercial activity and investment, especially in some rural zones where government control is weak. The ELN often focuses attacks on oil pipelines, mines, roads, and electricity towers to disrupt economic activity and pressure the government. The ELN also extorts businesses in their areas of operation, kidnaps personnel, and destroys property of entities that refuse to pay for protection.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
An OECD economic survey of Colombia was published in October 2019. The report mentions progress on labor market reforms, but cites a weakening of the labor market given decelerating economic growth, stalled progress on labor force participation, and high income inequality. In 2019, the unemployment rate according to government figures was 10.5 percent, an increase over the 2018 rate of 9.7 percent, and one of the highest in Latin America. According to DANE, 47.7 percent of the urban workforce was working in the informal economy at the end of 2019. A new National Development Plan, signed into law in May 2019, aims to reduce informality by formalizing hourly work, reform the pension system, and expand social protection. Colombia has made strong efforts to incorporate Venezuelan migrants into the formal economy. Colombia has a wide range of skills in its workforce, including managerial-level employees who are often bilingual, but faces large skills gaps.
Labor rights in Colombia are set forth in its Constitution, the Labor Code, the Procedural Code of Labor and Social Security, sector-specific legislation, and ratified international conventions, which are incorporated into national legislation. Colombia’s Constitution guarantees freedom of association and provides for collective bargaining and the right to strike (with some exceptions). It also addresses forced labor, child labor, trafficking, discrimination, protections for women and children in the workplace, minimum wages, working hours, skills training, and social security. Colombia has ratified all eight of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO’s) fundamental labor conventions, and all are in force. Colombia has also ratified conventions related to hours of work, occupational health and safety, and minimum wage.
The 1991 Constitution protects the right to constitute labor unions. Pursuant to Colombia’s labor law, any group of 25 or more workers, regardless of whether they are employees of the same company or not, may form a labor union. Employees of companies with fewer than 25 employees may affiliate themselves with other labor unions. Colombia has a low trade union density (9.5 percent). Where unions are present, multiple affiliation sometimes poses challenges for collective bargaining. The largest and most influential unions are composed mostly of public-sector employees, particularly of the majority state-owned oil company and the state-run education sector. Only 6.2 percent of all salaried workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), according to the OECD. The Ministry of Labor has expressed commitment to working on decrees to incentivize sectoral collective bargaining, and to strengthen union representation within companies and regulate strikes in the essential public services sector (i.e. hospitals).
Strikes, when held in accordance with the law, are recognized as legal instruments to obtain better working conditions and employers are prohibited from using strike-breakers at any time during the course of a strike. After 60 days of strike action, the parties are subject to compulsory arbitration. Strikes are prohibited in certain “essential public services,” as defined by law, although Colombia has been criticized for having an overly-broad interpretation of “essential.”
Foreign companies operating in Colombia must follow the same hiring rules as national companies, regardless of the origin of the employer and the place of execution of the contract. No labor laws are waived in order to attract or retain investment. In 2010, Law 1429 eliminated the mandatory proportion requirement for foreign and national personnel; 100 percent of the workforce, including the board of directors, can be foreign nationals. Labor permits are not required in Colombia, except for minors of the minimum working age. Foreign employees have the same rights as Colombian employees. Employers may use temporary service agencies to subcontract additional workers for peaks of production. Employers must receive advance permission from the Ministry of Labor before undertaking permanent layoffs. The Ministry of Labor typically does not grant permission to lay off workers who have enhanced legal protections (those with work-related injuries or union leaders, for example). The Ministry of Labor has been cracking down on using temporary or contract workers for jobs that are not temporary in nature.
Reputational risks to investors come with a lack of effective and systematic enforcement of labor law, especially in rural sectors. Homicides of unionists (social leaders) remain a concern. In January 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a public report of review in response to a submission filed under Chapter 17 (the Labor Chapter) of the CTPA by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations and five Colombian workers’ organizations that alleged failures on the part of the government to protect labor rights in line with CTPA commitments. In January 2018, the Department of Labor published the first periodic review of progress to address issues identified in the submission report. For additional information on labor law enforcement see:
12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance Programs
OPIC, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the predecessor to the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), made its first investment in Colombia in 1985. DFC has 10 active projects and is exploring more, with its new charter allowing investment in non-U.S. companies and to make loans in local currency. Priority segments for DFC are infrastructure, renewable energy, technology, and agriculture. DFC’s largest project in Colombia is a USD 350 million Puerta de Hierro toll road connecting the port cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena with the country’s interior. As of end 2019, DFC’s active investments in Colombia totaled nearly USD 1.1 billion. Additional information can be found at www.dfc.gov.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Colombia statistical source*
USG or international statistical source
USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other