Colombia stands out in the region as a militarized country whose armed forces are second in size in Latin America only to those of Brazil. With an estimated population of 46,700,000 as of July 2015, Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico.
Colombia is an ethnic melting pot in which some 60% acknowledge that they have mixed Spanish/indigenous roots, 20% claim direct European descent, 18% are of Afro-Colombian origin, and 2% belong to indigenous communities. There are tiny Christian and Muslim Arab minorities, small and declining Jewish communities in the major cities, and a small group claiming Romany roots.
The human rights situation in Colombia continues to cause significant concern. Ordinary Colombians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. A wide range of Colombians, including human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, teachers and indigenous communities, continue to be the target of threats, intimidation, kidnappings, murders and forced displacement.
Colombia declared independence from Spain in 1810 but was unable to secure a lasting separation from its colonial master until 1819 when Simon Bolivar defeated the loyalists at Boyacá. The resulting federation of Gran Colombia - Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama - did not last very long. In 1830 both Ecuador and Venezuela seceded to form independent countries and in 1903 Panama declared its independence from Colombia to become a de-facto United States protectorate.
The deep divisions in Colombian politics that were to shape the country's modern development emerged shortly after independence, being a battle between the conservative right and the free-thinking left. This rivalry between the conservatives and the liberals continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and came to a head in "La Violencia" (1948-1958), a period during which an estimated 250,000 people lost their lives. "La Violencia" was resolved by the formation of a (bipartisan) National Front in which the two parties agreed to rotate the presidency and share cabinet positions. Presidential rotations continued until 1974 when the National Front lapsed, although the parties have continued to share power.
Colombian military personnel often receive training in the United States or from U.S. instructors in Colombia. The United States provides training and equipment to the Colombian military and police through military assistance programs, foreign military sales, and the international narcotics control program.
Colombia remains one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cocaine, as well as a source country for heroin and marijuana. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2010 Cocaine Signature Program, 95.5% of the cocaine seized in the United States originates in Colombia. Colombia’s marijuana is typically not sent to the United States, but feeds internal and Latin American consumption. The Colombian Government, with U.S. support, has made progress in weakening drug trafficking organizations, disrupting the supply of illicit drugs to the United States, and establishing a security presence in former conflict regions. The United States Government found that the area devoted to coca cultivation in 2010 was down 14% compared to 2009, from 116,000 to 100,000 hectares (ha). Crediting sustained aerial and manual eradication operations and aggressive enforcement activity in 2010, the U.S. Government also reported a decline in potential pure cocaine production of 7.4%, from 290 metric tons (MT) in 2009 to 270 MT in 2010--and a 60% drop from the 700 MT estimated pure cocaine production potential in 2001.
The United States and Colombia continue to enjoy a close counternarcotics partnership. Under Plan Colombia, significant U.S. funding, technical assistance, and material support has been provided to Colombian-led counternarcotics programs aimed at interdicting and eradicating drugs at the source as well as expanding the capacity of Colombian police, military, and judicial institutions.
Colombia’s counter-insurgency/counternarcotics efforts show promise that they will free up areas previously influenced by narco-trafficking and terrorism. Strong eradication and interdiction programs continue to be essential for disrupting narco-trafficking networks and for thwarting cultivation in Colombia’s more remote areas. The Colombian Government’s National Consolidation Plan, which the U.S. Government supports, is helping to bring the civilian elements of the state to remote, previously ungoverned parts of the national territory. As the state extends its reach, more rural citizens are enjoying access to basic services and protection from FARC influence and intimidation. Some farmers previously forced to grow coca can now safely plant legal, alternative crops without fear of guerrilla retribution.
The United States supports locally-led programs designed to confront multiple aspects of the drug trade and assists the Government of Colombia in re-establishing control and the rule of law in areas threatened by drug-related violence. Primary elements of this comprehensive assistance include illicit crop eradication, interdiction operations, alternative livelihoods programs, institution building, and justice sector reform. Eradication efforts are aimed at preventing and destroying illicit cultivation, while alternative livelihoods projects implemented by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provide economic alternatives to illicit crop production through projects, enterprise development, natural resource protection, institutional strengthening, and promoting access to markets. Work with government and civil society to advance drug demand prevention programs in schools and communities is also an important part of U.S. assistance programs in Colombia.
The United States also provides support to improve the efficiency of Colombia’s accusatory judicial system. U.S. programs help train judges, prosecutors, and police; promote timely and effective investigations and prosecutions of human rights violations; and support the identification and return of missing remains.
The United States and Colombia have an excellent relationship with regard to the extradition of narco-criminals. In 2009, 186 criminals were extradited to the United States, including former AUC leader Hebert Veloza-Garcia (aka “HH”) and FARC member Gerardo Antonio Aguilar Ramirez (aka “Cesar”). In 2010, 119 criminals were extradited to the United States, and 195 criminals were extradited in 2011.
While recognizing that challenges remain, specifically regarding activity by armed criminal groups (BACRIMs), the Santos administration has maintained positive trends in security consolidation and has announced a revised counter-insurgency strategy aimed at further reducing the already-diminished capacity of the FARC. The Colombian police and military successfully coordinated operations that resulted in the death of top FARC military commander “Mono Jojoy,” ER-PAC (neo-paramilitary group) leader “Cuchillo,” and FARC Supreme Commander “Alfonso Cano.”
In early 2011, the Colombian Government acknowledged that BACRIMs (a contraction of “bandas criminales”) are one of Colombia’s most serious security challenges. These groups--which emerged in the previous 5 years and contain some members of former paramilitary groups--are active throughout much of the country. As recently as January 2012, the criminal gang of the Urabenos imposed a 48-hour strike in six northern departments. The violence associated with BACRIMs has spilled over into many of Colombia’s major cities, leading to an increase in the murder rates in some urban centers since 2009. International organizations have expressed concern over the impact of BACRIMs on civilian populations, particularly Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, including social control, displacement, and the recruitment of children and adolescents. Several human rights NGOs reported receiving threats from these groups. There are also reports of corruption and co-opting of local officials. President Santos has outlined a public security plan that seeks to address violence in Colombia’s urban centers, including funding for youth job programs and additional police.
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