Distorted Perceptions of Colombia’s Conflict
Source: Colombia Journal
Date: 01 Jun 2008
By Garry Leech
In a civil conflict such as the one in Colombia, propaganda is an important weapon. It is difficult for journalists and analysts to independently investigate the reality on the ground and so statistics and information are obtained from a variety of sources in order to draw conclusions. However, the mainstream media in the United States is often over-reliant on two sources: Colombian and US government officials. Not surprisingly then, it is the perspectives of the Colombian and US governments that inevitably dominate most news reports. By comparing conflict trends and human rights statistics with media coverage of Colombia’s violence, it is possible to understand why and how the public’s perception of the conflict has been distorted.
After assuming office in August 2002, President Alvaro Uribe immediately set about strengthening the Colombian military and taking the offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). There is little doubt that he has been successful on both counts. The question is: To what degree has he been successful? Most mainstream media reports suggest that the FARC has been pinned back and is on the defensive, even in its traditional rural strongholds; that the FARC’s ranks have shrunk by as much as half over the past five years; and that the amount of political violence perpetrated by the guerrillas has diminished dramatically, thereby making the country much safer. Some analysts even go so far as to suggest that the FARC is now on its last legs and the conflict will soon be over.
However, a review of available statistics suggests that the picture is not as clear-cut as Colombian and US officials and mainstream media reports suggest. Firstly, increased security in urban areas has dramatically curtailed common crime including murders, but much of the country’s political violence has traditional occurred in rural regions where the armed conflict is being fought. The Bogotá-based Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), a leading think tank that monitors Colombia’s conflict and political violence, recently released data on the intensity of the armed conflict between 1990 and 2007. The data shows the frequency of combat engaged in by government forces, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. The statistics show a steady decline in the number of combat incidents between 2002 and 2006. However, as Adam Isacson of the Washington, DC-based Center for International Policy points out, ‘This decline only brought the intensity of the fighting back to levels seen in the late 1990s, not exactly a golden age of peace and security for Colombia.’
And then, in 2007, a sharp upturn occurred in combat involving the Colombian military and the FARC. As a result, the frequency of combat last year surpassed all but two years (2001 and 2002) of the 18 years covered by the data. Media reports often imply that a principal difference in the nature of the combat occurring under the Uribe administration when compared to prior years is that much of the fighting is now initiated by the newly-strengthened military and that the guerrillas are primarily engaging in combat in order to defend themselves. CINEP’s data, however, suggests that this is only partially true. CINEP shows the number of combats initiated by each armed actor in each year of the data period. In 2007, the military was clearly on the offensive as it attacked the guerrillas on 713 occasions—more than in any of the previous 18 years with the exceptions of 2002 and 2003. However, the numbers suggest that the FARC was also on the offensive as it initiated combat on 653 occasions—more than in all but four years of the data period. These statistics suggest that, while the military has indeed become more offensive-minded on the battlefield, the FARC is far from being defeated and is still capable of launching attacks in rural Colombia.
Human Rights Trends
Another interesting aspect of the CINEP data is its documentation of the number of violations of international humanitarian law (killings of civilians, forced displacements, disappearances, kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, etc.) perpetrated by each armed actor. Throughout the 1990s, the paramilitaries were by far the largest violator of human rights, accounting for 53 percent of the 6,059 documented violations between 1990 and 1998 that were attributed either to them, the military or the FARC. During the same period, the FARC was responsible for 27 percent and the military for the remaining 20 percent—although the military and the paramilitaries regularly colluded with each other, according to human rights groups.
During the ensuing four years, the number of violations by all three armed actors increased with the paramilitaries and the FARC showing the greatest proliferation. According to statistics reported by the Colombian NGO Fundación País Libre, the increase in human rights violations committed by the FARC coincides with a dramatic rise in kidnappings perpetrated by the guerrilla group and the handing over of a demilitarized zone to the rebels by the government of President Andrés Pastrana. Interestingly, there was a significant decline in the number of kidnappings perpetrated by the FARC in 2003, the year following the Pastrana government’s termination of the peace process and the demilitarized zone.
The recent reduction in kidnappings by the FARC has largely been attributed to the security policies of the Uribe administration, but the timing of the increase and then decline in abductions suggests that the guerrilla group’s loss of a safe-haven in which to hide hostages was also a significant contributing factor. Meanwhile, according to CINEP, overall human rights violations perpetrated by the FARC declined from 40 percent of the national total in 2002—before the drop in kidnappings—to only 10 percent in 2006. These numbers suggest that kidnapping constituted the principal human rights abuse perpetrated by the guerrillas and its reduction meant that the FARC was responsible for fewer violations of international law in 2006 than in any year since 1990.
President Uribe’s first four-year term in office (2002-2006) also saw a significant decrease in human rights abuses perpetrated by paramilitaries, most likely as a result of the demobilization process the government initiated with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in 2003. While the actual number of human rights violations perpetrated by paramilitaries more than halved between 2002 and 2006, the percentage of abuses that the right-wing militias were responsible for remained fairly constant—31 percent in 2002 and 29 percent four years later—even though they were supposedly engaged in a cease-fire and a demobilization during this period.
The Uribe administration claims that the paramilitaries have now demobilized, but according to many analysts the disbandment of the AUC represented little more than a restructuring of the militia group. The Bogotá-based Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ), for instance, reported in 2006 that 43 new paramilitary groups totaling almost 4,000 fighters had formed in 23 of the country’s 32 departments. Meanwhile, the following year, the Organization of American States (OAS) estimated that there were 20 new paramilitary groups with 3,000 fighters operating in Colombia.
While the Uribe administration dismisses these new militias as criminal organizations and not actors in the armed conflict, one of Colombia’s leading human rights lawyers, Alirio Uribe of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, disagrees: ‘There are forty-three new paramilitary groups but, according to the Ministry of Defence, these new paramilitary groups have nothing to do with the old ones. But the truth is, they are the same. Before they were the AUC, now they are called the New Generation AUC. They have the same collusion with the army and the police. It’s a farce.’
Perhaps the most startling statistic with regard to violations of international humanitarian law is the dramatic escalation in the direct role played by the Colombian State. When President Uribe assumed office in 2002, the State was responsible for 17 percent of all human rights violations. Four year’s later—at the end of Uribe’s first term—the State was responsible for 56 percent of human rights abuses; almost double the number of violations perpetrated by government agents in 2002.
Ultimately, in 2006, the Colombian State was responsible for 56 percent of the country’s human rights violations, with the paramilitaries and FARC accounting for 29 percent and 10 percent respectively. These statistics often stand in stark contrast to the picture presented in the media where an endless stream of quotes by Colombian and US officials repeatedly refer to the ‘brutality’ of the FARC ‘terrorists.’
Media Portrayal of the Conflict
Whenever killings of civilians occur, Colombian officials immediately blame the FARC, and the mainstream media often then dutifully report the accusations without investigating the crimes for themselves. And in those cases in which evidence finally emerges that it was actually the Colombian military or the paramilitaries that committed the killings, the mainstream media rarely reports the new findings, thereby leaving the impression that the FARC was the guilty party.
This propaganda strategy utilized by the Colombian government—with the acquiescence of the mainstream media—has led to people’s perception of the conflict becoming disconnected from the human rights reality on the ground. People are overwhelmed with news stories about killings allegedly perpetrated by the guerrillas while there are significantly fewer accounts of ongoing abuses by the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies.
A study of the killings of civilians in recent years clearly illustrates the chasm between the reality on the ground and the media’s portrayal of the violence. During President Uribe’s first term in office (2002-2006), the New York Times published 21 news reports that referred to the killing of civilians in Colombia. Seventeen of the reports held the guerrillas responsible for the killings referred to in the respective articles while the paramilitaries were blamed in two cases, the military in one, and both the rebels and paramilitaries in the remaining instance. In every one of the seventeen articles in which the guerrillas were held responsible, the only sources cited were Colombian government or military officials.
According to the Times’ articles, the guerrillas were responsible for 80 percent of the killings. Meanwhile, paramilitaries were responsible for 10 percent of the murders and the military for 5 percent. However, when compared to a report published last year by the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), the New York Times is presenting a skewed portrayal of the conflict in rural Colombia. According to the CCJ report, the guerrillas were responsible for 25 percent of the killings of civilians during President Uribe’s first term in office rather than the 80 percent suggested by the Times´ reporting. Meanwhile, the CCJ held the paramilitaries responsible for 61 percent of the deaths and the Colombian military for the remaining 14 percent.
An over-reliance on official sources and the resulting distorted portrayal of the conflict is not unique to the New York Times; it is evident in most mainstream US media coverage. Official press junkets, regularly organized by the Colombian military and the US embassy, are a convenient way for all foreign correspondents based in Bogotá to visit remote rural regions affected by the civil conflict. The problem with this arrangement, however, is that the journalists are flown to a specific destination chosen by the authorities where they spend a few hours with officials and get presented with a pre-packaged story. Inevitably, the official line dominates the published account.
For their part, the Colombian government and the US embassy are fully aware of the mainstream media’s over-reliance on official sources, and as such, they regularly hold press conferences or dispatch officials to public events such as the launching of a new military operation. Government officials realize that the media will obediently cover these events because they provide convenient stories for reporters working under tight deadlines.
The foreign correspondents based in Colombia often attend the same event or press junket in order to avoid being the only reporter not covering that particular ‘story.’ Consequently, several almost-identical versions of the same article are frequently published the following day by various US media outlets. Government officials know that if they keep the media occupied daily with pre-packaged stories that portray government policy in a positive light, then reporters may be too busy to conduct deeper investigative journalism.
Consequently, in its coverage of Colombia’s conflict, the mainstream media has tended to reflect the perspective of the country’s dominant political, social and economic sectors. For example, the issue of kidnapping has received widespread media coverage because leftist guerrillas are the principal perpetrators and the victims are primarily politicians, members of the state security forces, and civilians from the urban middle and upper classes. While kidnapped Colombians are clearly victims of the country’s violence and their plight deserves attention, their numbers pale in comparison to the number of poor peasants who have been forcibly displaced by the military and right-wing paramilitaries.
In 2000, at the outset of Plan Colombia, approximately three thousand Colombians were being kidnapped annually. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of a million peasants were being forcibly displaced from their homes and land every year. And yet, most people were oblivious to the fact that Colombia had one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. While the number of people kidnapped dropped to 521 in 2007, the number of Colombians being forcibly displaced has been rising. According to the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), 305,966 people were forcibly displaced in 2007—a startling 38 percent increase over the previous year.
Despite this reality, media coverage remains firmly focused on the plight of the kidnapped because the Uribe administration has successfully kept the spotlight on the FARC’s hostages and away from displaced Colombians, increasing numbers of who have been forced from their homes by the Colombian military’s counter-insurgency operations. As a result, the plight of Colombia’s rural poor has been mostly ignored.
There are large discrepancies between the portrayal of Colombia´s conflict provided by the Colombian and US governments and that presented by many NGOs, human rights groups and rural community leaders. Due to its over-reliance on official sources, the mainstream media is primarily responsible for ensuring that the official story is the dominant narrative, thereby distorting the reality of Colombia’s conflict.
Mainstream media correspondents in Colombia appear to view their journalistic responsibility in much the same way that New York Times reporter Judith Miller did in the lead up to the war in Iraq. When asked why her articles often did not include the views of experts skeptical of the Bush administration’s weapons of mass destruction claims, Miller replied: ‘My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought of Iraq’s arsenal.’ Unfortunately, in many cases, the media has displayed a similar lack of inquisitiveness about some of the larger factors at play in Colombia’s civil conflict. And, as a result, has contributed to a significantly distorted portrayal of Colombia’s conflict.
1. Adam Isacson, ‘CINEP: Colombia’s Conflict Is Far from Over,’ Center for International Policy, April 10, 2008.
3. For an excellent report on military-paramilitary collusion during this period, see, ‘The Sixth Division: Military-Paramilitary Ties and US Policy in Colombia,’ Human Rights Watch, September 2001.
4. ‘Estadisticas secuestro a 2006,’ Fundación País Libre, 2007.
5. ‘Paramilitary Demobilization,’ U.S. Office on Colombia, 15 December 2007.
6. ‘Colombia’s New Armed Groups,’ International Crisis Group, May 10, 2007.
7. Interview with author, Riohacha, La Guajira, Colombia, August 9, 2006.
8. Adam Isacson, ‘CINEP: Colombia’s Conflict Is Far from Over,’ Center for International Policy, April 10, 2008.
9. Ibid. The percentage of violations committed by the paramilitaries (29 percent), military (56 percent) and the FARC (10 percent) do not total 100 percent because the ELN and other small rebel groups were responsible for the remaining 12 percent of abuses in 2002 and the remaining 5 percent in 2006.
10. Review of the online archive of the New York Times conducted by the author in April 2007.
11. ‘Colombia 2002-2006: Situación de derechos humanos y derechos humanitario,’ Comisión Colombiana de Juristas (CCJ), January 2007.
12. Kevin Whitelaw, ‘Inside Colombia’s War on Kidnapping,’ US News and World Report, February 27, 2008.
13. ‘Departamentos de llegada, años 2006-2007,’ Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), February 13, 2008.