Propagandizing Human Rights in Colombia

It happens time and time again. Following the killing of Colombian peasants, the government immediately blames guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the mainstream media in both Colombia and the United States dutifully report the allegations. In most cases, evidence later emerges showing that the Colombian military or its right-wing paramilitary allies were the actual perpetrators of the crime. The media, however, rarely reports the new evidence with the same vigor with which it reported the original claims holding the FARC responsible — if they report the new findings at all. Consequently, the Colombian government’s propaganda campaign has successfully created the impression in many people’s minds that the FARC are responsible for a majority of Colombia’s human rights abuses despite the fact that statistics released by human rights organizations year after year contradict popular sentiment.

The disconnect between what people believe and the human rights reality in Colombia has again been made evident by the recent issuance of arrest warrants for Colombian soldiers responsible for the February 2005 massacre of eight peasants in the peace community of San José de Apartadó. Immediately following the massacre, community members had claimed that the Colombian army was operating in the area at the time. The Colombian Defense Ministry immediately denied these claims, stating that the army was not involved in the killings and that “no army troops were closer than two days’ distance” from where the massacre occurred.

Vice-President Francisco Santos then quickly sought to shift blame for the massacre to the guerrillas by stating, “The Government has evidence that leads to the FARC as authors of this horrible crime.” According to this alleged evidence, the victims were FARC collaborators who were killed for trying to leave the guerrilla group. And then, several weeks after the massacre, President Alvaro Uribe accused leaders of the peace community of San José de Apartadó of “helping the FARC” and “wanting to use the community to protect this terrorist organization.” By publicly aligning the victims with the guerrillas — a common strategy of the Colombian government — the president sought to redirect attention away from the possible perpetrators and onto the victims by holding them responsible for their own deaths.

While the mainstream media dutifully reported all of the government’s accusations, the fact that the massacre occurred in San José de Apartadó posed a problem for the Uribe administration. The peace community has achieved a relatively high profile with international solidarity and human rights organizations over the past decade, which led to the mainstream media in this particular case also reporting claims by community members that the Colombian army was involved in the massacre.

Finally, last week — more than three years after the massacre — Colombia’s attorney general’s office issued arrest warrants for 15 soldiers accused of perpetrating the killings. The warrants were issued following testimony given by a demobilized paramilitary fighter named Jorge Luis Salgado. According to Salgado, he and other paramilitaries acted as guides for the Colombian army patrol that committed the massacre in the hamlet of Mulatos in San José de Apartadó.

In his testimony, Salgado described the massacre: “The children were under the bed. The girl, about five or six years old, was very nice and the boy was smart as well. We suggested to the officers that they be left in a nearby house, but they said they were a threat, that they would become guerrillas in the future.” Salgado then claimed that an army officer, who went by the nickname Cobra, “grabbed the [five or six-year-old] girl by the hair and cut her throat with a machete.”

Salgado’s account of the massacre not only corroborates the long-standing claims of community members, it also illustrates how collusion between the Colombian army and right-wing paramilitaries was ongoing almost three years after President Uribe assumed office. Unfortunately, the majority of Colombians killed by the military and paramilitaries meet their fate in remote communities that lack the international exposure of San José de Apartadó. Consequently, the government’s propaganda strategy of blaming the FARC often proves far more successful in those instances.

In one such case, five indigenous Awa were massacred in the early morning hours of August 9, 2006 in the village of Ataquer in the southern department of Nariño. The gunmen, partially-uniformed and hooded, arrived at four o’clock in the morning on World Indigenous Day and dragged the indigenous leaders out of bed and shot them to death.

I flew to the city of Pasto the day after the killings and in my hotel room that evening watched a Colombian army general declare on the nightly news that the FARC had committed the massacre. All of Colombia’s mainstream media outlets dutifully reported the Colombian army’s accusations. A couple of days later, army Colonel Juan Pablo Amaya Kerguelen publicly declared, “We are open to all investigations, but we know it was the guerrillas in retaliation to the indigenous for not being informers.”

When I interviewed a spokesperson for the Grupo Cabal Mechanized Battalion—the army unit operating in the region where the massacre occurred — he reiterated the claim that the guerrillas were responsible for the killings. And, as had occurred following the San José de Apartadó massacre, the government issued a statement suggesting that some of the indigenous victims might have been guerrillas, thereby implying that it was “terrorists” that had been killed.

The second day after the massacre, I traveled from Pasto to Ataquer and soon discovered that no foreign correspondents had visited to investigate the story. As usual, foreign journalists were reporting on the massacre from the country’s capital, Bogotá, and again illustrating their over-reliance on official sources, which claimed that the FARC was responsible.

Given that, according to locals, the heavy military presence in the village that I witnessed was in place at the time of the killings, it was clear to me that the guerrillas could not have committed the massacre. I also learned that the indigenous Awa and many locals had drawn the same conclusion as myself: that the army was responsible for the killings. It was also the army that had forcibly displaced 1,700 Awa only a month earlier. I wrote up my findings in an article that was published by World Indigenous News. Meanwhile, local and national indigenous organizations pressured the attorney general’s office into investigating the army’s role in the massacre.

One year later, the attorney general’s investigation identified eleven suspects in the killing of the five Awa leaders. Six of the suspects were army officers and five civilians. Not surprisingly, given that the Awa lack the international profile of San José de Apartadó, the media did not report the new findings and the general population was left believing that FARC guerrillas had committed the massacre.

These two massacres illustrate the propaganda strategy that the Colombian government uses on a daily basis. Whenever killings occur, officials immediately blame the FARC and the mainstream media dutifully report the accusations without investigating the crimes for themselves. And when 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 — some details of past crimes revealed in testimony by demobilized paramilitaries are being published.

Meanwhile, Colombian and international human rights organizations that routinely document human rights violations have repeatedly shown over the years that the guerrillas are responsible for only a minority of the killings of civilians. For example, the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) reported last year that during President Uribe’s first term in office (2002-2006), the guerrillas were responsible for 25 percent of the killings of civilians. Meanwhile, the paramilitaries accounted for 61 percent of the deaths and the Colombian military for the remaining 14 percent.

Because most people do not read annual human rights reports, the news stories ultimately influence the opinions of a far greater number of people. Consequently, President Uribe’s accusations that human rights groups are spokespersons for the guerrillas seems plausible to many because the human rights statistics they present contradict most people’s perception that the FARC is the principal abuser.

The same propaganda strategy is evident in other areas of human rights in Colombia. For instance, 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. However, because the Colombian military and paramilitaries are responsible for a majority of the forced displacements, and because the victims are poor Colombian peasants, there is little government focus on this human rights issue — and by extension little media emphasis of the humanitarian crisis.

In stark contrast, there is an enormous focus both in Colombia and internationally on kidnapping. In contrast to displaced persons, most kidnap victims are members of the middle and upper classes and it is the guerrillas that have violated their rights. The disproportionate media coverage of the plight of several hundred kidnap victims helps the government focus attention on human rights abuses perpetrated by the FARC. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of a million poor Colombians are displaced annually — the majority by state security forces — and their dilemma is mostly ignored.

The propaganda strategies of the Colombian government have proven very effective with regard to distorting the country’s human rights reality. Government officials blaming the FARC on an almost daily basis for killings committed throughout the country and a disproportionate focus on kidnapping has convinced most people that the guerrillas are the principal perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses. The fact that such perceptions stand in such stark contrast to the reality on the ground illustrates just how successfully the Colombian government has propagandized human rights.

Finally, the mainstream media in both Colombia and the United States are complicit in this psychological warfare by continuing to dutifully report the allegations of government officials even though reporters are fully aware of the fact that the claims are often false. It does not seem to matter to reporters and media outlets that the same officials have repeatedly manipulated them in the past—and are likely doing so again. Representatives of the mainstream media claim that they are simply reporting what a particular government official has said—and that the allegations by officials are, in and of themselves, news. However, by dutifully and unquestioningly reporting any statement issued by government officials, the mainstream media reduces itself to little more than a propaganda tool for the state.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and editor of the online publication Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared, which analyzes US foreign policy in Colombia. He also teaches international politics at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Read other articles by Garry, or visit Garry's website.