May 1 2000

Colombia’s Cocaine Shell Game

Media are leading the U.S. into a civil war in the name of the

After the crash of a U.S. Army reconnaissance plane in July 1999 that killed seven people (including five U.S. military personnel), the question of U.S. involvement in Colombia re-emerged on the media radar screen. Journalists wondered whether “the U.S. could wind up in a fight it doesn’t want” (NBC Nightly News, 1/16/00), with many reporters acknowledging a certain inattention to the story: “It may not be widely known, but the United States is already engaged in the Colombian civil war,” NPR reported (7/26/99).

Early in 2000, Congressional debate has centered on a two-year, $1.7 billion aid package for the Latin American country, what the New York Times (3/10/00) characterized as an attempt “to shore up Colombia’s tottering democracy and enable its military to step up its war against narcotics traffickers”–a description that virtually echoes the official White House position on aid to Colombia.

In the minds of supporters in Congress and the White House, the aid package is intended to stem the flow of drugs into the United States, since, as countless media reports point out, Colombia is the origin of between 80 and 90 percent of the cocaine that ends up in the United States, and a majority of the heroin.

But the coverage of Colombia either ignores or distorts the facts on a range of issues: the long-standing relationship between the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitaries, the responsibility of those paramilitaries for the majority of the violence in Colombia, and the real politics of cocaine in Colombia.

Some of these seldom-reported facts are remarkable. For example, a February 1998 report by the Government Accounting Office found that only one-third of the counter-narcotics aid sent to Colombia was actually used to fight drugs, while the rest went to general military expenses (Dallas Morning News, 8/19/98).

The report passed without much notice in the press, because the conventional wisdom on Colombia is so ingrained. U.S. News & World Report (8/9/99) actually issued a correction to a July 26 piece that described the aid sought by the Colombian government as “counterinsurgency assistance,” saying that they should have written “counternarcotics assistance” instead. One could argue that the “incorrect” report probably bore more resemblance to reality than the corrected version; former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White admitted as much when he said on CNN (2/27/00), “There’s nobody in Colombia that believes that this is a counternarcotics operation. They all believe it’s a military war against the FARC,” one of Colombia’s leading guerrilla armies.

How “narco” are guerrillas?

In February of this year, at a critical moment in the negotiations over aid to Colombia, the Central Intelligence Agency released new estimates that Colombia’s cocaine production had increased to more than 500 metric tons a year, three times more than the previous calculations (Time, 1/31/00).These new numbers were cited throughout the media, often as proof of a growing crisis for America and its neighbors.

The story of a booming drug trade and a rebel movement on the rise were linked by many reporters, echoing the fears of congressional hawks like Dan Burton (R.-Ind.) and Ben Gilman (R.-N.Y.), who were both featured heavily in TV news coverage. Their comments, which occasionally bordered on the extreme (Burton, for example, claimed that “Colombia is on the verge of becoming a narco-guerrilla state”–CBS Evening News, 9/7/99), were for the most part aired without any opposing viewpoint.

While drug money fuels all sides of the civil war, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) rebels are most associated with the drug trade in the media. These guerrilla groups do collect “taxes” from drug growers, just as they do from other landowners in areas they control. Despite little evidence that their relationship to the drug economy is deeper than that of other sectors of society, many reports refer to the rebels as “narcoguerrillas” or “narcotraffickers.”

The term “narcoguerrilla” has its roots in the Colombian military, who began using it as a cover for diverting drug-war aid for counterinsurgency purposes (New York Times, 10/25/97). Nonetheless, the media in the United States have, with rare exceptions, adopted the term without explaining its origin.

Calling the rebels “narcotraffickers” is nearly impossible to support. The U.S. State Department has gone to some lengths to dispute the notion that the FARC are heavily involved in the drug business at all (New York Times, 6/22/98): Donnie Marshall, chief administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency, testified to the House subcommittee on crime and drugs that “we haven’t come close to the conclusion that this group has been involved as a drug trafficking organization.” His comments were almost invisible in the mainstream media (CounterPunch, 9/1/99).

Colombian president Andres Pastrana also agrees: “The guerrillas are financed by drugs, but we don’t have any evidence that they’re involved directly in drugs,” Newsweek quoted him (2/14/00). But the very same Newsweek piece begins with a reference to “narco-guerrillas.”

Last year, Newsweek (8/9/99) claimed that “Colombia’s guerrillas turn to drug trafficking to finance their 40-year-old struggle.” Other media outlets are equally careless in their descriptions: An article in Time (8/9/99) was headlined “A Carpet of Cocaine: Colombia’s jungles are teeming with rich, armed, drug-dealing rebels,” while CBS Evening News reported (8/10/99) that “these self-styled revolutionaries are strengthened greatly by their increasing control over cocaine and heroin traffic.”

Missing paramilitaries

While the real and imagined drug connections of the FARC are frequently reported, the very existence of right-wing paramilitaries is missing from many media accounts. But these groups, many of whom are aligned with the Colombian military in one way or another (see “Colombia’s Killer Networks,” Human Rights Watch, 10/96), are responsible for most of the non-combatant deaths in the war. The paramilitaries are also heavily involved in the drug trade, and have been for years. In the 1980s, the Medellin drug cartel took control of the largest paramilitary groups to protect its business interests (Progressive, 6/98).

Indeed, when Carlos Castano, leader of the Colombian United Self-Defense, the most notorious paramilitary group in Colombia, appeared on Colombian television and revealed the extent to which his own group was involved in the drug business, it hardly merited a passing word in the U.S. media. The New York Times’ Larry Rohter wrote a story about Castano’s “grilling” on Colombian TV (3/12/00) that skirted the drug issue altogether.

Rohter’s report stands in stark contrast to a Reuters story about the same appearance (3/2/00), which lead with the admission: “The leader of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary death squads has publicly admitted the drug trade finances most of the bloodletting committed by his ruthless militia force.” Castano also explained that “drug trafficking and drug traffickers probably finance 70 percent” of his total operations, another fact that the New York Times apparently found less important than the opinions of a waitress and a local magazine columnist, who felt that Castano had undergone a “surprising metamorphosis.” If Castano’s intent was to present a “human” face to the world, the New York Times at least seemed happy to help.

Violence in Colombia, a land with more than a million internally displaced refugees, can be distorted by the press to a remarkable extent, contradicting evidence that has existed for years. The Washington Post (3/15/00), for example, described Colombia as a place “where Marxist guerrillas have waged a civil war that has left 30,000 people dead since the 1960s.”

Virtually all credible evidence from human rights groups and independent monitors within Colombia indicates that paramilitary groups, not guerrillas, are responsible for the large majority of the non-combatant casualties in Colombia. A recent survey from the Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comision Colombiana de Juristas, CCJ) found that in 1999, paramilitaries were responsible for 78 percent of the human rights and international humanitarian law violations. Guerrillas were found responsible for 20 percent, and state forces were linked to 2 percent.

Nevertheless, the New York Times (7/29/99) took an almost dismissive tone when it noted that the military/paramilitary connections are “preoccupations” that “human rights groups have long complained about.” Meanwhile, alarmist rhetoric about the “combined drug and revolutionary lords” (CBS Evening News, 1/11/00) continues to dominate media discussion.


Rather’s Reality

The U.S. journalist who has shown the most interest in Colombia, and perhaps the least interest in pursuing critical questions about U.S. involvement, is CBS‘s Dan Rather. He spent three days in August 1999 (8/9 – 12/99) focusing on the “rapid rise of a Marxist-style guerrilla army, ” and the “explosive mix of guerrillas, guns and drug money.” But Rather’s reporting obscured the reality of the situation, instead theorizing (8/12/99) that “a new crisis like the Balkans could erupt, with small armies carving up the nation and spreading chaos to surrounding countries.”

For example, Rather spent the August 12 broadcast focused on Cali (“a city that drug billions built”), where he told the story of ELN rebels taking more than 100 people hostage in a Catholic church. Rather attempts to bring viewers “up to date” by “using a map and some history.”

But Rather’s story leaves out what happened after the hostage episode–the quick formation of the Calima Front, a paramilitary squad organized by active duty and reserve officers affiliated with the Colombian Army’s Third Brigade (“The Ties that Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links,” Human Rights Watch, 2/00). The pattern that followed was all too familiar: terror, civilian killings and hundreds of displaced Colombians. Much of this was documented by human rights groups, as well as the local media (Cali El Pais, 8/10/99).

In Rather’s world of “Marxist-style guerrillas,” paramilitary violence is virtually absent. ABC World News Tonight (9/21/99), to its credit, was able to report this obvious fact about life in Colombia, as were other outlets.