During his upcoming visit to Colombia, Senator John McCain should not be blinded by the government’s spin that human rights and democracy are on the right track, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to McCain made public today. According to press reports, McCain will visit Colombia on July 1.

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth distinguished Colombia from the repressive government of Cuba, noting that Colombia is formally a democracy. However, Colombia’s democratic institutions are facing serious threats, not only from abusive left-wing guerrillas, but also from paramilitaries, which have infiltrated much of the government.

“Key institutions like the Colombian Congress are now undergoing a major crisis of legitimacy, one that is unprecedented not only in Colombia but in all of Latin America,” Roth said in the letter. “We urge you to make protecting and defending Colombian democratic institutions, particularly its institutions of justice, a top priority in your meetings.”

More than 60 members of President Álvaro Uribe’s coalition in the Colombian Congress – representing approximately 20 percent of the Congress – are under investigation for rigging elections or collaborating with paramilitaries, considered terrorists by the United States. The Colombian Supreme Court, which started the investigations, has repeatedly come under attack from high-level government officials, including Uribe himself.

The letter goes on to describe in detail six serious human rights problems that the Colombian government tends to minimize, including the continuing violence by paramilitary groups. Despite the recent extradition to the United States of several top paramilitary commanders, the letter notes that new groups have cropped up all over the country, are actively recruiting new members, and are threatening and killing civilians. The letter also highlights the rise of internally displaced civilians, as well as an increase in recent years of extrajudicial executions of civilians by the Colombian army – a problem that Uribe has repeatedly refused to recognize.

Roth also noted with concern that 26 trade unionists were killed from January to May 2008, an increase from the same time in 2007. Nearly all trade unionist killers have gone free. Roth pointed out that the ongoing violence and impunity are central issues in the debate over the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

“While withholding FTA approval may be an exceptional measure, Colombia is an exceptional case,” Roth said in the letter. “[T]he United States should not grant permanent duty-free access to goods that are, in many cases, produced by workers who cannot exercise their rights without fear of being killed.”