On June 15, guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) massacred 34 coca farmers in Norte de Santander. The rebels woke the victims in the middle of the night, tied their hands and feet, and then executed them with automatic weapons. Most U.S. mainstream media outlets immediately broadcast the news of this brutal act. While the FARC were rightfully condemned in the media for this slaughter of civilians, coverage of two recent large-scale paramilitary massacres was virtually non-existent. Following a long established pattern, the mainstream media continues to emphasize human rights abuses by leftist guerrillas, while often ignoring those perpetrated by right-wing paramilitaries allied with the Colombian military.
On April 18, in the department of La Guajira in northern Colombia, paramilitaries massacred 12 Wayuu indigenous people and “disappeared” 30 more, at least 20 of who were children. According to Amnesty International, another 300 Wayuu fled across the border to Venezuela. “They burned [my two sons] alive inside my pick up. Also, they beheaded my mother and cut my nephews to pieces. They didn’t shoot them; they tortured them so we would hear their screams, and they cut them up alive with a chainsaw,” said one of the survivors. There was little mention of the La Guajira massacre in the U.S. mainstream media, even though the final tally likely totaled more than 40 victims.
Last month, paramilitaries massacred at least 13 peasants and “disappeared” six more in the department of Arauca in eastern Colombia. According to the Arauca Department Campesino Community (ADUC), soldiers from the Colombian Army’s 18th Brigade and 5th Mobile Brigade routinely collude with paramilitaries in the region. As was the case with the La Guajira massacre, the U.S. mainstream media barely mentioned the May 20 slaughter in Arauca.
The lack of coverage of the two recent paramilitary massacres stands in stark contrast to the virtual media blitzkrieg about the FARC’s massacre. The emphasis on the rebel atrocity comes as no surprise to longtime observers of U.S. media coverage of Colombia’s conflict. Mainstream journalists repeatedly cover issues raised by official sources. They routinely attend press conferences held by Colombian government, military and U.S. embassy officials. They are regular recipients of government, military and embassy press releases and junkets, after which they dutifully report on the topics that these officials deem to be newsworthy.
This modus operandi is evident in the coverage of the recent massacres. Like the media, the administration of President Alvaro Uribe did not highlight the two paramilitary massacres. But immediately following the FARC's massacre, Uribe criticized Amnesty International for not condemning the rebels. Even though Amnesty had responded by saying it does not issue condemnations before conducting investigations, the Colombian president again attacked the human rights group only three days after the massacre: “While [Amnesty International], through its words and actions, wants terrorism to triumph in Colombia, we are going to craft … the most beautiful victory: security for the Colombian people.”
While the total number of massacres—defined as three or more people killed at the same time in the same place for the same reason—has diminished, large-scale slaughters appear to be on the rise. There were 317 massacres in 2003, according to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CPDH), a Colombian non-governmental organization. This compares to 544 the previous year. However, most of the massacres in 2002 and 2003 were smaller in scale than those perpetrated in recent months.
According to CPDH, right-wing paramilitaries—the majority of who were allegedly participating in a unilateral ceasefire and negotiations with the Uribe government—were responsible for 70 percent of last year’s massacres, compared to 27 percent by the guerrillas. Despite the fact that the paramilitaries are responsible for an overwhelming percentage of Colombia’s massacres, the mainstream media still focuses on guerrilla atrocities. Clearly, the magnitude of the FARC's massacre made it newsworthy, but the paramilitary massacre in La Guajira—with its corresponding forced disappearances—was on the same scale, and yet it was virtually ignored by the media.
While atrocities by the FARC, such as the massacre in Norte de Santander, need to be brought to the public’s attention by the media, so do paramilitary abuses. The mainstream media continues to shine its bright lights primarily on the issues that the U.S. and Colombian governments want highlighted. As a result, the U.S. public gets a distorted vision of the Colombian conflict. Furthermore, while human rights workers tirelessly attempt to shed light on paramilitary atrocities, President Uribe places their lives in danger by repeatedly accusing them of being sympathetic to leftist terrorists. There is little chance of any such accusation being leveled against U.S. mainstream media organizations. To the contrary, their coverage routinely focuses on guerrilla atrocities, while often deeming right-wing terrorism to be non-newsworthy.
Garry Leech is the editor of Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared (www.colombiajournal.org), and author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention.
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