The title of this article might startle many readers, but it is no more shocking than the contents of a recent Wall Street Journal column written by Mary Anastasia O’Grady that brazenly supports Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s accusations that human rights organizations in Colombia are “fronts” for terrorists. O’Grady goes so far as to claim that the tactics used by the Colombian military in its recent rescue of 15 hostages prove President Uribe’s accusations. Clearly, the title of this article spoofs O’Grady’s absurd claims by suggesting that her public endorsement of Uribe’s accusations make the Wall Street Journal a front for state terrorism, particularly in light of the fact that the Colombian military is responsible for the majority of the country’s human rights violations. In all seriousness though, O’Grady’s claims are not only irresponsible because they endanger the lives of human rights workers in Colombia, they also illustrate just how ignorant the author is of how the FARC operates in that country’s rural conflict zones.
In her July 7 Wall Street Journal column titled “FARC’s ‘Human Rights’ Friends,” O’Grady ludicrously suggests that the Colombian military’s recent rescue operation proved successful because the FARC and progressive NGOs are allies. She claims that it is this alleged alliance that made it possible for Colombian soldiers disguised as NGO workers and journalists to simply waltz into FARC territory and convince the guerrillas to handover the hostages. “How else to explain the fact that the FARC swallowed the line without batting an eye?” she writes. She later declared that, given the relationship between NGOs and the guerrillas, “It’s not surprising that the FARC thought a helicopter from an NGO was perfectly natural.” However, O’Grady’s unoriginal hypothesis is nice from a propagandistic perspective, but holds little water when the reality on the ground is taken into account.
For more than eight years I have worked as an independent journalist primarily focusing on US foreign policy in Colombia. Consequently, I have spent a significant amount of time working in that country’s remote rural conflict zones during which I have met and interviewed numerous rank-and-file guerrillas and several high-ranking FARC commanders — Raúl Reyes, Simón Trinidad, Ivan Ríos and Alfonso Cano. And yet, despite the familiarity that these FARC commanders have with both my name and my work as a lefty journalist, I still had to endure terrifying experiences whenever I encountered the rebel group.
For example, in 2001, FARC guerrillas in the city of Barrancabermeja in northern Colombia detained me in a poor barrio and accused me of being an informer for the military — it was no easy task to convince them otherwise. In 2004, I was detained overnight by the guerrillas in rural Caquetá while investigating displacement caused by the Colombian military’s Plan Patriota counter-insurgency operation. And, in August 2006, I was detained by the FARC in eastern Colombia, interrogated and held at gunpoint in a remote farmhouse for eleven hours as they sought to ensure that I was who I claimed to be. In each instance, I was detained by a local commander who was unwilling to make any decision regarding my fate without first conferring with higher-ranking FARC commanders.
The point I am trying to make here is that journalists and NGO workers who have encountered the FARC in rural Colombia know full well that the guerrillas do not take anybody’s claims about who they are at face value. Nor do they automatically assume that if you are a journalist or an NGO worker that you are in any way sympathetic to their cause. In fact, it is just the opposite. The FARC is paranoid about anyone who enters its territories — particularly with regard to journalists and NGO workers — and automatically assumes that such people are threats. And, to the same degree that the Wall Street Journal’s O’Grady and Colombia’s President Uribe accuse progressive NGOs of being fronts for the guerrillas, the FARC believes that the very same NGOs are fronts for capitalist imperialism — as difficult as that might be for O’Grady to accept.
If she had any understanding of how the FARC operates in rural Colombia, O’Grady would have known that César, the rebel commander in charge of the hostages, would had to have been convinced in advance — perhaps by undercover military operatives, as the government claims — that it was a legitimate mission that had been authorized by his superiors before he would hand over the hostages. No local FARC commander would simply assume that an NGO was working with the guerrillas just because they showed up in the region, which is precisely what O’Grady suggests occurred so she could claim it as proof that progressive NGOs work hand-in-hand with the guerrillas.
Consequently, the key aspect in the rescue operation — if it did unfold as the Colombian government claims — was not the fact that the undercover soldiers were impersonating NGO workers and journalists, but the convincing of César that higher-ranking rebel commanders had indeed authorized the hostage pick-up. Without receiving any such advance authorization, it would not have mattered who the undercover soldiers carrying out the operation were impersonating, the local FARC commander would have detained and investigated them. Therefore, while the rescue mission might illustrate the effectiveness of the Colombian military’s intelligence operations, it does not support O’Grady’s and President Uribe’s assertions that NGOs are fronts for the guerrillas.
Because I have had access to the FARC, I am regularly approached by NGOs — both Colombian and international — asking if I could help put them in contact with the guerrillas because they would like to discuss a variety of topics (i.e. child soldiers, kidnapping, landmines, hostage release and other human rights issues) with the rebels. If, as O’Grady and President Uribe claim, NGOs — particularly human rights groups — are fronts for the FARC, why would so many of them lack contact with the rebel group and need help from people like me? Most NGOs I have dealt with over the years, and there are many, do not like the guerrillas, which the FARC is fully aware of and why it is so distrusting of them and often refuses to engage with them. This distrust is illustrated by the fact that, while NGOs are active in rural regions being contested by all the armed actors — the guerrillas, the military and the paramilitaries — they have virtually no presence in the remote rural areas of eastern and southern Colombia that constitute the FARC’s traditional strongholds.
Ultimately, right-wingers like O’Grady and President Uribe want to have their cake and to eat it too. On the one hand, they claim that the FARC has no significant support among the Colombian population. And yet, on the other hand, they claim that all these NGOs support the guerrillas; that the thousands of peasants living in FARC-controlled regions that are victimized by the military’s counter-insurgency operations are sympathetic to the rebels; that the thousands of leftist politicians, NGO workers and community leaders who have been arbitrarily arrested by the Uribe government in recent years are all guerrillas; that many of the leaders and members of the country’s unions are rebels; and that the Colombia’s universities are full of guerrilla sympathizers. These claims represent a contradiction repeatedly voiced by the right that has gone unchallenged for far too long.
The right cannot have it both ways. If the FARC has no significant support, as they claim, then all of those sectors of civil society that are routinely repressed by the government cannot be guerrilla sympathizers. In which case, there must be alternative reason for the State repressing those sectors of the population; and that reason is simply that they dare to non-violently and democratically challenge the government’s security and economic policies. The government conveniently labels these sectors as guerrillas or “terrorists” in order to justify repressing them.
Finally, when people like O’Grady and President Uribe publicly label NGO workers as terrorists, they are endangering the lives of these people by increasing the possibility that the Colombian state security forces and their right-wing paramilitaries allies will target them — which, on second thoughts, perhaps does make the Wall Street Journal a front for state terrorists. Ultimately, such accusations by O’Grady and President Uribe are not only irresponsible, they also illustrate an unwillingness to tolerate the democratic and non-violent expression of political views that differ from their own.