Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Government Overview: The Republic of Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty democracy under the constitution of July 1991. A unitary republic with a strong presidential regime, the national government has executive, legislative, and judicial branches established with separation of powers and with checks and balances. In the May 2006 presidential election, President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a Liberal Party dissident, became the first president in 100 years to be reelected, thanks to a constitutional amendment authorizing re-election for consecutive terms. Moreover, he won by a record majority (62 percent, or 7.4 million votes) in the first round. With this strong electoral mandate and a working majority in Congress, President Uribe began his second term in August 2006. His congressional alliance includes independents and former Liberal Party members, as well as the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador—PC).

Although constitutional order and institutional stability have prevailed despite endemic violence stemming from guerrilla, paramilitary, and narcotics-trafficking activities, the violence and corruption associated with the enormous wealth created by the drug cartels have undermined the country’s political and social foundations. Most Colombian government institutions have a reputation for inefficient, corrupt, and bureaucratic management. In particular, the military has been in the spotlight in recent years for corruption at high levels within the chain of command. Links between Colombia’s various mini-trafficking organizations and its supposedly professional military continue to surface. Notable exceptions are reported to include the central bank, Ministry of Finance, and some other agencies responsible for economic policy formulation. With U.S. aid contingent on fighting corruption, the Uribe government reportedly has been making an effort to attack this pervasive problem. In 2005 perceptions of corruption improved slightly. However, Colombia ranked 59th of 163 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2006 (it ranked 55th in the 2005 survey).

Executive Branch: As chief of state and head of government, the president has executive power and strong policy-making authority. Until 2005, the president was elected for a nonrenewable four-year term. That October the Constitutional Court endorsed the bill approved by Congress in December 2004 to incorporate presidential re-election into the 1991 constitution. Since May 2006, it has been possible for a president to be reelected for a second term. The constitution reestablished the position of vice president, who is elected on the same ticket as the president. By law, the vice president will succeed in the event of the president’s resignation, illness, or death. The president heads and is assisted by a cabinet.

Legislative Branch: The bicameral Congress consists of a 102-member Senate (Senado) and a 166-member House of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes), which includes 161 members elected to represent the 32 departments and one to represent the Capital District, as well as an additional two members to represent the Afro-Colombian population, one member to represent the indigenous population, one to represent Colombians living abroad, and one for other political minorities. Members of both chambers are popularly elected for a four-year term with no re-election limit. Senators are elected by nationwide ballot; representatives are elected in multimember districts collocated within the 32 national departments. The Congress meets semiannually, and the president has the power to call it into special session, if required. Bogotá, as a separate federal district, elects its own representatives.

Judicial Branch: Colombia’s judicial system is composed, at the highest level, of the coequal Supreme Court of Justice, Council of State, Constitutional Court, and Superior Judicial Council. The 23-member Supreme Court, which is divided into four chambers—civil cassation, criminal cassation, labor cassation, and constitutional procedure—rules on civil, criminal, and labor appeals and on constitutional procedure and administers various district superior, circuit, municipal, and lower courts. The 27-member Council of State supervises a system of administrative courts that scrutinize acts and decrees issued by executive and decentralized agencies. The nine-justice Constitutional Court is responsible for guarding the integrity and supremacy of the national constitution and reviewing the constitutionality of proposed legislation and international treaties before they are adopted officially. The 13-member Superior Judicial Council administers and disciplines the civilian justice system. Specialized circuit courts within the civil jurisdiction try cases involving particularly sensitive crimes such as narcotics trafficking and terrorism. The judicial system also includes the Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía General de la Nación), which is an independent judicial agency headed by an independent attorney general (fiscal), who is elected for a four-year term by the Congress and is tasked with investigating criminal offenses and prosecuting the accused. At lower levels, the judicial system includes superior and municipal courts. Although the judicial branch is largely independent of the executive and legislative branches, Congress elects senior justices for eight-year terms on the basis of nominations made by judicial bodies or the president of the republic.

As part of the Ministry of Defense, the military justice system falls under the executive branch. The director of the military criminal justice system reports directly to the civilian minister of defense. The military justice system consists of the Supreme Military Tribunal, which serves as the court of appeals for all cases tried in military courts, and 40 military trial courts. The civilian Supreme Court serves as a second court of appeals for cases in which sentences of six or more years in prison are imposed. Although authorities rarely have brought to trial high-ranking officers of the security forces charged with human rights offenses, civilian courts tried a number of military personnel accused of human rights violations. The military judiciary may investigate and prosecute active-duty military and police personnel for crimes “related to acts of military service.”

Administrative Divisions: The 1991 constitution converted Colombia’s four intendancies (intendencias) and five commisaryships (comisarías) into administrative departments (departamentos administrativos), thereby increasing the number of departments to 32. They are: Amazonas, Antioquia, Araúca, Atlántico, Bolívar, Boyacá, Caldas, Caquetá, Casanaré, Cauca, César, Choco, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, Guainía, Guaviare, Huila, La Guajira, Magdalena, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Quíndio, Risaralda, San Andrés and Providencia, Santander, Sucre, Tolima, Valle del Cauca, Vaupés, and Vichada. These departments are divided into municipalities (municipios), each headed by a mayor (alcalde). Colombia had 1,061 municipalities in the 1993 census, but by 2005 that number had grown to 1,098. The charter also allows the creation of indigenous territories as self-governing territorial entities. The country’s capital, Bogotá, is a separate capital district (Distrito Capital de Bogotá).

Provincial and Local Government: Under the 1991 constitution, citizens directly elect governors, deputies, mayors, municipal and district councils, and members of local administrative boards. Department governors are popularly elected for a four-year term and may not serve the subsequent term. Each department has a popularly elected Departmental Assembly (Asamblea Departamento) and a popularly elected corporation (Corporación) that oversees the actions of the governors. Each municipality has a popularly elected mayor and an administrative corporation, both of whom are elected for four-year terms and may not be reelected for the following term. The charter allows governors and mayors to hold popular consultations on issues within their purview. Departmental, district, and municipal comptrollers exercise, within their jurisdiction, functions similar to those of the comptroller general of the republic, that is, oversight of fiscal matters. As a separate capital district, Bogotá elects its own representatives, who may be reelected indefinitely. An important item on President Uribe’s second-term agenda is to reduce the central government’s very large deficit (more than 5 percent of gross domestic product) by limiting transfers of funds to regional governments, which accounted for 4.9 percent of gross domestic product in 2005.

Judicial and Legal System: The 1991 constitution strengthened the administration of justice by providing for the introduction of an oral, accusatory system to replace the traditional system, which was based on Spanish law and the Napoleonic Code, in order to expedite the judicial process and reduce the enormous backlog of cases. The transition to this U.S.-model system continues, and most of Colombia’s major cities already have adopted it. The objective is for the whole system to be installed nationwide by 2008. The 1991 constitutional reforms also established the Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía General de la Nación), which investigates and charges offenders. In addition, a people’s defender (Defensor del Pueblo) oversees the Office of the Attorney General and ensures the protection of human rights. The legal system also includes an independent “control organ” called the Office of the Inspector General (Procuraduría), which directs the Public Ministry, an independent agency that investigates allegations of misconduct by public employees, including members of the state security forces. The people’s defender is also under the Office of the Inspector General.

The government generally respects the rights, as provided by law, of freedom of speech, the press, assembly and association, religion, movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, repatriation, granting of asylum or refugee status, and free and fair elections. In practice, the judicial system is overburdened, inefficient, and hindered by the suborning and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses. Impunity remains a serious problem. The Supreme Court itself has acknowledged that perpetrators are punished in less than 1 percent of crimes. The civilian judiciary suffers from a backlog of cases to be processed, and these backlogs have led to large numbers of pretrial detainees.

Electoral System: Colombia has a democratically elected representative system with universal adult suffrage; the minimum voting age is 18. The National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral—CNE) and the National Registrar’s Office (Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil) control the electoral process. The constitution allows citizens to directly elect, at the national level, the president and vice president of the republic as well as senators and representatives. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a runoff election between the two leading competitors is held about three weeks later. At the departmental and local levels, the constitution allows for citizens to directly elect governors, deputies, mayors, municipal and district council members, members of local administrative juntas, members of the Constituent Assembly, and other authorities and officials as the constitution may indicate. The most recent congressional elections were held in March 2002 and March 2006 and presidential elections, in May 2002 and May 2006. Legislative elections are next scheduled for March 2010 and the presidential election for May 2010. Regional elections for mayors and governors were held in October 2003, when independents were elected in the three largest cities, including Bogotá, and are scheduled for October 28, 2007.

Political Parties: Historically, Colombia maintained a two-party system in which two dominant but rival political parties alternated in power—the Liberals and the Conservatives, that is, the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal—PL) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador—PC). However, since the March 2002 congressional elections independent political forces have been gaining influence as the credibility of the two main parties has been tarnished by corruption and as distinctions between the two have been weakened. Thus, Colombia has become a multiparty system. In May 2002, Álvaro Uribe Veléz was elected the first independent president in Colombian history. In the March 2006 congressional elections, the winners were the parties associated with President Uribe, which included the Conservative Party in an alliance with two “Uribista” groupings: Radical Change (Cambio Radical—CR) and Social Party of National Unity (Partido de la Unidad Nacional, or more commonly Partido de “la U”). Although the center-left Liberal Party is still the largest party in Congress, it remains a relatively powerless opposition party, along with the leftist Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Alternativo—PDA). However, the Liberal Party has been moving to the center, while the PDA has been consolidating its ranks and expanding its grassroots support.

As a result of the March 2006 legislative elections, Colombia has 15 formally recognized political parties. In order to be recognized by the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral—CNE), a party must garner at least 2 percent of the vote in elections for the House of Representatives or the Senate. If a recognized party fails to gain at least 50,000 votes in a general election, it is dissolved automatically but may reincorporate at any time by presenting 50,000 signatures to the CNE. Political parties generally operate freely and without government interference. Members of independent parties may be elected to regional or local office and may also win seats in Congress. Dissidents from the two main parties also have chances to win elections.

Politics: Álvaro Uribe Vélez (president, 2002–6, 2006– ), an independent, has proven to be a strong, capable, and exceptionally popular leader. He has consistently maintained popularity ratings of 70 to 80 percent, according to Gallup polls, since being elected in 2002, owing to his success in improving domestic security and socioeconomic conditions. In his first term in office, Uribe’s accomplishments included containing the guerrillas, significantly reducing the high rates of criminal and political violence, and reviving economic growth. In order to address the need for a long-term national security strategy and to reinstate the rule of law and regain control over the country, the Uribe administration developed a “Democratic Security and Defense Policy,” which is designed to combat the insurgency by providing internal security within a framework of democratic protections and guarantees. Uribe’s hard-line strategy made him immensely popular, and he easily won re-election on May 28, 2006. In addition to focusing on security and military aspects of the security situation, the Uribe government has been spending time on international trade, supporting alternative means of development, and reforming the judicial and tax systems. Whether President Uribe achieves his second-term legislative priorities, including fiscal reforms and the ratification of the free-trade agreement with the United States, may depend on his ability to hold his congressional alliance together. This could prove difficult if the unity of the pro-Uribe (Uribista) coalition weakens during his second term. In a possible early indication of an apparent weakening political alliance in anticipation of the March 2010 elections, the Uribistas failed to gain control of the National Electoral Council in board elections in August 2006.

Mass Media: The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally has respected these rights in practice. Although security forces generally have not subjected journalists to harassment, intimidation, or violence, there have been exceptions, as well as reports of threats and violence against journalists by corrupt officials. Colombian journalists practice self-censorship to avoid reprisals by corrupt officials, criminals, and members of illegal armed groups. In the fifth annual Reporters Without Borders Worldwide Press Freedom Index published in October 2006, Colombia ranked 131 of a total of 168 countries, a decline from its 2005 ranking of 128. More than 80 journalists have been murdered in the past decade for doing their jobs.

Major international wire services, newspapers, and television networks have a presence in the country and generally operate free of government interference. Media ownership remains concentrated in the hands of wealthy families, large national conglomerates, or groups associated with one or the other of the two dominant political parties. The first foreign media owner in the country is the Spanish media conglomerate Prisa, which acquired majority ownership of the country’s largest radio network. There are public television and radio networks and two news agencies (Ciep–El País and Colprensa).

Colombia has many national and regional television channels. The National Television Commission oversees television programming. Radio and Television of Colombia (Radio y Televisión de Colombia—RTVC), Colombia’s principal television and radio operator, oversees three national television stations (two commercial and one educational) and five radio companies (which operate about a dozen principal networks). Television stations include Cadena Uno; Telecaribe; RCN TV, which is operated by Radio Cadena Nacional; and Caracol TV, a private commercial network. The country has two major national radio networks: Radiodifusora Nacional de Colombia, a state-run national radio; and Radio Cadena Nacional (RCN Radio), a medium-wave (AM) network with many affiliates. There are nine other principal networks, including Cadena Super, which includes Radio Super and Super Stereo FM; and Caracol, which runs several stations, including the flagship station Caracol Colombia. Many hundreds of radio stations are registered with the Ministry of Communications.

Several major newspapers and news magazines circulate nationally, and there are many influential regional publications. The press includes five main newspapers in Bogotá: El Espacio, an evening daily; El Espectador, a weekly; El Nuevo Siglo, a Conservative daily; La República, a business daily; and El Tiempo, a Liberal Party national daily. Other popular papers include Cali’s El País and Medellín’s El Colombiano, both Conservative dailies. Weekly news magazines published in Bogotá include Cromos and Semana.

Foreign Relations: Colombia has generally adopted a low profile, relying on international law and regional and international security organizations to pursue its interests. The country traditionally has had good relations with the United States, its most important foreign relationship. Although relations were strained during the presidency of Ernesto Samper (1994–98) because of his alleged drug connections, they have been excellent since the administration of Andrés Pastrana Arango (president, 1998–2002). In January 2000, the administration of President Bill Clinton pledged US$1.3 billion of mainly military assistance to Colombia to assist the antidrug component of Pastrana’s six-year strategy to end the insurgency, eliminate drug trafficking, and promote economic and social development. In addition to increasing Colombia’s counternarcotics capabilities by providing helicopters and training, this U.S. aid (known as Plan Colombia) was designed to support human rights, humanitarian assistance, alternative development, and economic and judicial reforms. Relations with the United States have been the foreign policy priority of President Uribe, who is an important ally in President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” and “war on drugs.” In addition to the challenge posed to the United States by Colombian drug trafficking, illegal Colombian immigrants in the United States are an issue in U.S.-Colombian relations. In early 2003, Colombia ranked among the world’s top seven exporters of illegal aliens to the United States.

Regional relations remain good despite occasional issues with neighbors, especially regarding spillover from Colombia’s civil conflict, including cross-border guerrilla crossings, the flow of refugees, and the spread of drug crops. These issues are of particular concern to the bordering countries of Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela. For example, although cooperation between Colombia and Ecuador on border security issues has increased in recent years, Colombia’s U.S.-financed aerial drug-eradication program created new tensions in bilateral relations over Ecuador’s complaint that sprayed chemicals were drifting over the border and destroying agriculture on the Ecuadorian side. In response, Colombia suspended spraying along the border in January 2006. However, a new row erupted in December 2006 over Colombia’s renewed spraying. Peru has been concerned over incursions of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) units into Peruvian territory, reports that the FARC has made contact with the Shining Path rebels in Peru, and satellite images showing that there are drug cultivations springing up along the Colombia–Peru border.

Brazil, which is now the second-largest market in the world for Colombian cocaine after the United States, is known to be a major outlet for Colombian cocaine and a source for weapons for Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary groups. The Brazilian government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in contrast to its predecessors, cooperated with Colombian security forces in joint antiguerrilla operations along the Brazil–Colombia border in an attempt to control this cross-border trafficking. Brazil is also concerned about FARC drug links with the ultraviolent Brazilian prison gang called the First Command of the Capital.

Panama also has been affected by cross-border terrorism and other activities by Colombian armed groups, such as a raid by paramilitary forces against Panamanian border settlements and the resulting killings of several leaders of indigenous communities in early 2003. In addition, Panama has had to forcibly repatriate Colombian refugees. In an attempt to improve border security, Colombia and Panama signed a bilateral agreement in April 2003.

Relations with Nicaragua and Venezuela have been strained over territorial disputes. The International Court of Justice at The Hague continues to review Nicaragua’s claim of sovereignty rights over the Colombian islands of San Andrés y Providencia and the archipelago’s surrounding Caribbean waters. In July 2002, the dispute flared up when Nicaragua began offering offshore oil concessions near the disputed waters. The Colombian navy began increasing its patrolling activity around San Andrés. Bilateral committees also are negotiating with Venezuela over waters in the Gulf of Venezuela. Other issues with Venezuela include the ambivalent stance of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez Frías, toward the Colombian guerrillas, who have long had camps on the Venezuelan side of the border and use Venezuela as a logistics base; the presence of undocumented Colombians in Venezuela; and activities in Venezuela of Colombian narcotics traffickers.

Under the Uribe administration, Colombia’s relations with the European Union (EU) have been cool, and the EU has been critical of President Uribe’s hard-line, United States–supported counterinsurgency strategy. The EU is particularly concerned that President Uribe’s approach, such as granting amnesty to right-wing paramilitaries, increases the potential for human rights abuses within Colombia. In 2004 the EU withheld its support of the Uribe government’s peace initiative with paramilitaries for lack of a credible and comprehensive peace strategy, and EU aid to Colombia has been limited to social investment. Since José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero became prime minister in March 2004, Spain’s diplomatic stance toward Colombia also has been cool.

Membership in International Organizations: The major organizations in which Colombia is a member include: the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, Andean Pact, Caribbean Development Bank, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Group of 3, Group of 11, Group of 24, Group of 77, Inter-American Development Bank, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Chamber of Commerce, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), International Development Association, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labor Organisation, International Maritime Organization, International Maritime Satellite Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, International Organization for Standardization, International Telecommunication Union, International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, Latin American Economic System, Latin American Integration Association, Non-Aligned Movement, Organization of American States, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Rio Group, United Nations, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, Universal Postal Union, World Confederation of Labor, World Federation Of Trade Unions, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Meteorological Organization, World Tourism Organization, and World Trade Organization.

Major International Agreements and Treaties: Defense treaties to which Colombia is a party include the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance of 1947 (the Rio Treaty). Regional treaties include the Andean Pact, now known as the Andean Community, which also includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela and the bodies and institutions making up the Andean Integration System (AIS). Colombia has also signed, adhered to, and ratified 105 international treaties or agreements relating to the environment. These include the Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Life Conservation, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, and Wetlands conventions or agreements. Colombia has signed, but not ratified, the Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Law of the Sea, and Marine Dumping. Colombia is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and is also a party to the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America (the Tlatelolco Treaty). By 1975 signatories to the 1974 Declaration of Ayacucho, including Colombia, had decided on limitations to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.


Armed Forces Overview: Under the constitution, the president is commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia—FAC), which consists of the army (Ejército Nacional); navy (Armada Nacional), including naval aviation, marines, and coast guard; air force (Fuerza Aérea Colombiana); and paramilitary National Police (Policía Nacional—PN). The civilian-led Ministry of National Defense is responsible for internal and external security and oversees the armed forces. It also has organizational control over the National Police. In practice, however, the president exercises direct command over the military and the police, leaving the minister of defense with only administrative duties. The commanders of the three services (army, navy, and air force) are responsible to the commander general of the armed forces, who reports directly to the Ministry of Defense. The Superior Council of Defense and Security (Consejo Superior de Defensa y Seguridad—CSDS) and the Security Council advise the president. The FAC is responsible for maintaining order and security in rural areas and supports the PN in urban areas when called upon. In 2005 the active armed forces totaled 209,000, including 74,700 conscripts. The armed forces strength by service was as follows: army 180,000, including 63,800 conscripts; navy 22,000, including 100 naval aviation, 14,000 marines, and 7,000 conscripts; and air force 7,000, including some 3,900 conscripts. Reservists totaled an additional 238,700 (army, 232,700; navy, 4,800; and air force, 1,200).

Foreign Military Relations: Since the late 1980s, the United States has been the primary provider of military training and equipment to Colombia. Other important suppliers have included Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and Israel. Many Colombian military personnel have received training in the United States or U.S. training in Colombia; the United States has provided equipment to the Colombian military and police through the military assistance program, foreign military sales program, and international narcotics control program. In 1999–2001 the U.S. government approved a US$1.3 billion aid package called Plan Colombia, most of which was earmarked for military hardware for antidrug efforts, such as a fleet of 71 helicopters for spraying coca fields. In March 2002, in response to a request from President George W. Bush, the U.S. Congress lifted restrictions on U.S. assistance to Colombia to allow it to be used for counterinsurgency in addition to antidrug operations. U.S. support for Colombia’s counternarcotics efforts included slightly more than US$2.5 billion in aid between 2000 and 2004, making Colombia the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt. Although Plan Colombia ended in 2005, the United States has continued funding it with aid for counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts averaging US$600 million per year through 2007.

U.S. military aid is devoted primarily to training units of the Special Forces and Rapid Deployment Force. The “cap” on U.S. troops and contractors in Colombia was raised in October 2004 from about 320 U.S. military trainers and 400 U.S. civilian contractors to 800 military personnel and 600 civilian contractors. These U.S. personnel help the Colombian armed forces to develop commando squads dedicated to capturing or killing rebel commanders. With U.S. assistance, President Uribe has been attempting to make the armed forces more professional, to build a countrywide civilian informant network, and to try to involve the civilian population in his Democratic Security and Defense Policy.

External Threat: Colombia does not face any known foreign threats. Venezuela is the only neighbor that might pose a potential military challenge over as-yet unresolved territorial disputes relating to the maritime boundary, where there may be oilfields. The largely state-controlled Venezuelan media portray Colombia as an external aggressor with U.S. backing. However, since the two nations concluded a bilateral free-trade agreement in 1991, Colombia and Venezuela have not allowed the occasional security incidents involving Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries along their long common border to escalate into a serious issue.

Defense Budget: As a result of U.S. aid under Plan Colombia, the defense budget, as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), expanded during the 2000–6 period from 3.2 percent of GDP in 2000 to 6 percent of GDP in 2006. In dollar terms, estimates for the defense budget for 2006 ranged from US$4.1 billion to nearly US$4.5 billion. President Uribe’s defense budget increases have gone toward expanding the armed forces, mainly the number of professional soldiers and counterguerrilla battalions.

Major Military Units: The army is organized into six divisions consisting of 17 brigades (six mechanized, two air-portable, and nine infantry), the Army Aviation Brigade, the Antinarcotics Brigade, the Special Forces Brigade, the Training Brigade, and two artillery battalions. The infantry includes 47 infantry battalions—four air-transportable, three antinarcotics, one ceremonial, 22 counterinsurgency, five high-mountain, four jungle, three mechanized, four military police, and one special forces. Armor consists of nine cavalry groups, including one air-transportable; artillery, nine battalions, including one air defense; engineers, 10 battalions; and logistics, 15 battalions. The navy is organized into four fleet commands (including five marine battalions), a coast guard, and a naval air arm. The 14,000-member Colombian Marine Corps is organized into a single division with two brigades (one amphibious assault brigade and one riverine brigade), each with two battalions. The air force is organized into four functional commands: combat, transport, training, and logistical support. The Combat Air Command includes six combat groups—two fighter squadrons, a tactical air support command, a utility/armed helicopter command, a military air transport command, and an air training command.

Major Military Equipment: The army inventory includes 12 light tanks, 182 reconnaissance vehicles, about 200 armored personnel carriers, 20 antitank guided weapons, and about 100 helicopters. The navy has four submarines, eight principal surface combatants, 27 patrol and coastal combatants, five offshore patrol vessels, nine coastal/inshore patrol vessels, and 13 riverine patrol boats. The navy inventory also includes at least three Orca-class fast intercept craft and three sail training ships. The air force inventory includes 57 combat aircraft and 23 armed helicopters. In 2006 the air force signed for 25 Brazilian Embraer EMB–314 Super Tucano light attack aircraft and took delivery of the first five in December. The air force’s fleet of Israel Aerospace Industries Kfir C2s and C7s and Dassault Aviation Mirage 5 COAs and CODs, which have been in service more than 30 years, need to be upgraded or replaced. The paramilitary National Police force has 28 aircraft and 10 helicopters.

Military Service: Under the 1991 constitution, all nonstudent males reaching the age of 18 must present themselves for military service of one to two years (normally 24 months). However, those from well-off families can buy their way out of serving, and those with high-school diplomas are exempt from combat. In effect, mostly the poor with little education actually serve. After completing active service, conscripts become part of the reserves. In 2005 an estimated 389,735 males aged 18 to 49 reached military service age. In this age-group, a total of 10,212,456 males were available for military service, and an estimated 6,986,228 were deemed fit for military service. As of 1993, females may volunteer for military service, which could be required if warranted by circumstances. In 2005 an estimated 383,146 females aged 18 to 49 reached military service age. In this age--group, 10,561,562 females were available for military service, and an estimated 8,794,465 were deemed fit for military service.

Military Forces Abroad: Colombia has one infantry battalion in Egypt in support of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an independent international peacekeeping organization established by Egypt and Israel to monitor the security arrangements of their 1979 Treaty of Peace. The paramilitary National Police deployed personnel to serve with United Nations peacekeeping forces in Croatia and El Salvador.

Security Forces: In 2005 the security forces totaled 129,000 personnel, including 121,000 members of the paramilitary National Police (Policía Nacional—PN) and 8,000 members of the rural militia. Although the PN and the military forces are formally independent institutions, with their own budgets and personnel, the PN is organizationally subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. In addition to supporting the army in its internal security role, the PN shares law enforcement duties, with the exception of investigative functions, with the Administrative Department of Security (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad—DAS) and the Attorney General’s Technical Investigation Corps (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación—CTI). The highly trained Groups of Unified Action for Personal Freedom (Grupos de Acción Unificada por la Libertad Personal—Gaula) have long enjoyed U.S. support and have a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters and aircraft for the tasks of drug crop eradication and antikidnapping and urban hostage-rescue operations. One of Colombia’s most effective counternarcotics forces, the 200-member Directorate of the Judicial Police and Investigation (Dirección de Policía Judicial e Investigación—DIJIN) is a U.S.-trained and -funded force. Under the January 2007 reorganization of the National Police, the DIJIN was renamed the Criminal Investigation Directorate (Dirección de Investigación Criminal—DIC).

Internal Threat: Colombia’s principal internal threats are posed by illegal armed organizations, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC), but also paramilitary groups and narcotics-trafficking syndicates. These organizations cannot be neatly separated because the insurgent and paramilitary groups are heavily involved in the illegal narcotics trade, and the narcotics traffickers have been known to use the guns-for-hire services of the paramilitaries. Although the country’s largest paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia—AUC), was formally demobilized in 2006, basically on its own terms, critics complained that many of the demobilized “paramilitaries” proved to be common criminals taking advantage of the lenient amnesty to clean their records. Even after having won immunity from prosecution from previous crimes, many reportedly have continued their illegal operations by simply being recycled into new paramilitary groups or signing up to staff the armed wings of the drug traffickers. In August 2006, an estimated 2,000 paramilitaries belonged to other groups that have remained outside the peace process altogether.

The main guerrilla organizations that continue to be active are the FARC, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—ELN), and the much smaller People’s Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular—EPL). The FARC is the best-equipped, -trained, and -organized guerrilla force in Latin America and poses the primary insurgency threat to the Colombian government. It has an estimated 16,000 active rural combatants and between 4,000 and 5,000 urban militants. The ELN, with an estimated 3,200 members plus an urban militia of undetermined size, continues to be a significant threat, specializing in economic sabotage, particularly of the oil industry but also the transportation and communications infrastructure. The EPL has an estimated 300 members.

The Uribe government has rejected guerrilla demands for prisoner exchanges and demilitarized zones as a precondition for peace talks. After repeated efforts to initiate a peace process with the FARC failed, the Uribe government, with the support of the United States under Plan Colombia, sought a more confrontational approach through a sustained military offensive against the FARC in its rural strongholds. It is generally believed that the left-wing guerrillas have little chance of taking power in Colombia. Nevertheless, the FARC and ELN remain well funded and well equipped and are capable of carrying out effective guerrilla attacks against the military and security forces, as well as occasional acts of urban terrorism in Bogotá. The FARC’s failure to disrupt the presidential election of May 2006 demonstrated that it lacks the military capacity to destabilize much less overthrow the government. Nevertheless, the continuing stalemate also has shown that the government lacks the ability to defeat the FARC through military means.

In contrast with the FARC, the more politically inclined ELN has agreed to meet government representatives, such as in Havana, Cuba, in December 2005, to discuss the possibility of a peace process. As a result, more serious negotiations between the ELN and the Uribe government were expected to be held during President Uribe’s second term. On October 26, 2006, after several rounds of exploratory talks in Havana, the Colombian government and the ELN announced the start of formal peace negotiations to take place in November and December 2006.

According to Colombian government figures, at least 2,387 guerrillas (1,558 FARC members and 359 ELN members) and 470 AUC members deserted their respective organizations in 2006 under Colombia’s program to rehabilitate former combatants. The deserters included 384 minors and 425 women. As of the end of 2006, 11,264 irregulars had laid down their arms on an individual basis since President Uribe took office in August 2002.

In addition to the aforementioned insurgent and paramilitary threats, violent crime by common criminals is rampant in Colombia’s major cities and often carried out with impunity. Homicide levels are among the highest in the world, fueled by high unemployment, growing poverty, the ready availability of guns, and the growth of drug trafficking and organized crime. Unlike the guerrilla groups, the narcotics traffickers are more active in urban areas, spawning many homicides among competing groups. Criminal bands specializing in kidnapping, extortion, and robbery target businesses and civilians. Kidnapping exceeded a record 3,700 reported cases in 2000; guerrilla and paramilitary groups were responsible for about three-quarters of them. According to the Ministry of Defense, in 2006 the number of kidnapping cases totaled 249, compared with 376 in 2005. In addition to improved law enforcement, the decline resulted from the government’s offensive against the guerrillas and the demobilization of many paramilitaries. Approximately the same number of kidnappings (800) were reported in 2005. Guerrilla and paramilitary groups may still be responsible for more than two-thirds of kidnappings; organized crime, for about one-third. The most vulnerable targets are campesinos and local businessmen. The insurgency has left much of the Colombian countryside planted with guerrilla landmines, which killed 1,100 people in the year ending in June 2006, the highest landmine casualty rate in the world. Although most of the casualties are soldiers, 30 percent are civilians, almost all of them campesinos.

After drug trafficking, the main illicit industries are contraband, forgery (principally of clothing, books, CDs, and audio- and video-cassettes), and, more recently, theft of gasoline. Contraband is a major industry. A significant amount of foreign exchange is believed to be from illegal trade in gold and emeralds, in addition to drugs. In 1999 the value of contraband in Colombia increased to US$2.2 billion, more than doubling in a decade. The amount accounted for about 25 percent of total imports and 50 percent of total exports. According to a study by the U.S. Treasury Department, Colombia and North Korea are the largest producers of counterfeit U.S. banknotes, and Colombia is also the number-one source of counterfeit money in the United States, accounting for about 15 percent of the 56.2 million counterfeit dollars in circulation in 2005.

Narcotics Production and Trafficking: Other than kidnapping and extortion, the principal activities of organized crime and the armed groups in Colombia are narcotics production and trafficking, mainly of cocaine and heroin, and these activities also have involved the guerrilla and paramilitary forces. Trafficking in processed cocaine and other illicit drugs accounts for more than US$5 billion a year and represents between 2.0 percent and 2.5 percent of gross domestic product a year. Only an estimated half of these illicit revenues return to Colombia. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—ELN) control all aspects of the drug trade in their areas of influence. For example, they levy taxes at all levels of the narcotics production chain. Since 2004 many Colombian drug traffickers have been joining or buying their way into the paramilitary militias in order to qualify for an immunity program.

Latin America’s largest exporter of illegal drugs, Colombia is the world’s leading coca cultivator and supplier of refined cocaine. More than 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States is produced, processed, or transshipped in Colombia. The country is also a growing source for heroin. Although opium poppy cultivation fell 50 percent to 2,100 hectares between 2003 and 2004, it yielded a potential 3.8 metric tons of pure heroin, mostly for the U.S. market. Despite tactical successes (such as the dismantling of the big cartels in the 1980s), large amounts of U.S. military and financial support for the government’s war on drugs, and an active aerial eradication program, coca cultivation more than doubled between 1995 and 1999. Increased aerial spraying under Plan Colombia reduced the coca-growing area under cultivation by one-half between 2001 and 2004, but aggressive replanting allowed this area to expand in 2005. As much coca reportedly was being cultivated in Colombia in 2006 as when aerial spraying of the drug crop began in 2000. Coca cultivating simply has been redistributed into smaller, harder-to-reach crops. For these reasons, an investigative report published in the New York Times in August 2006 described the US$4.7 billion Plan Colombia as a failure, pointing out that, despite counternarcotics efforts since the mid-1980s, the supply of cocaine on U.S. streets has remained virtually unchanged, prices have fallen, and purity has increased.

Human Rights: The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Individuals criticize the government both publicly and in private. The media express a wide spectrum of political viewpoints and often sharply criticize the government, all without fear of government reprisal. However, Colombia is one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to practice the profession of journalism; a number of journalists are killed almost every year, and journalists continue to work in an atmosphere of threats and intimidation, in some instances from corrupt local officials in collaboration with paramilitary groups, but primarily from terrorist groups. Journalists practice self-censorship to avoid retaliation and harassment by criminals and members of illegal armed groups.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2006 human rights report, the government’s respect for human rights continued to improve, despite the persistence of serious problems. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the military and security forces, but there were instances in which elements of the security forces acted in violation of state policy. President Uribe generally has been quick to hold senior military officials accountable for criminal incidents within the ranks, causing considerable turnover in the military high command. Amnesty International charged in September 2006 that there had been no substantive improvement in the human rights situation, that human rights conditions had worsened in several conflict zones, and that collusion between the armed forces and illegal paramilitary groups was continuing. The government has taken steps to improve the human rights situation. Government statistics noted that, in 2005, killings decreased by 10 percent, terrorist massacres by nearly 4 percent, killings of trade union leaders by 67 percent, and forced displacements by more than 27 percent. According to authorities, the number of homicides during 2005 was the lowest in 18 years.

The National Penitentiary Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario—INPEC) manages the country’s 139 national prisons and is responsible for inspecting municipal jails. Many of INPEC’s 8,757 prison guards in 2005 were poorly trained or corrupt. Police, prison guards, and military forces routinely mistreat detainees. Conditions in the severely overcrowded and underfunded prisons are harsh, especially for prisoners without significant outside support, and prisoners frequently rely on bribes for favorable treatment. The government does not hold political prisoners, although in 2005 it held 4,721 prisoners accused of terrorism, rebellion, or aiding and abetting insurgency.

Index for Colombia:
Overview | Government


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