Apr 1 2001

New York Times Changes Take on Colombian Death Squads

Extra! Update April 2004

In January, the already bleak human rights situation in Colombia was reported to be in a state of “alarming degradation,” according to United Nations human rights observers (Associated Press, 1/20/01). A joint report from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America (“Colombia Human Rights Certification II,” 1/01) found that “political violence has marked­ly increased” since the first installment of the U.S.’s $1.3 billion Plan Colombia aid package was dispersed in August.

There were 26 massacres in the first half of January alone, claiming the lives of perhaps 170 people (Associated Press, 1/20/01). The killings were overwhelm­ingly the work of right-wing paramili­taries like the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), who maintain close ties to the Colombian military.

Not a single such attack was reported in the New York Times during the month of January. Far from documenting the wave of paramilitary terror, the Times told precisely the opposite story. Juan Forero’s January 22 dispatch from the city of Barrancabermeja, headlined “Paramilitaries Adjust Attack Strategies,” gave a highly distorted version of events, blaming left-wing rebels like the FARC for most of the violence.

Forero reported that “the militia members are killing fewer people than the rebels, who have responded to the threat in neighborhoods they long con­trolled with a furious assault on those they accuse of supporting the paramili­taries,” and that the New Granada battal­ion of the Colombian military “is sending specially trained urban commandos into the neighborhoods to restore order.”

The notion that the rebels in Barrancabermeja have been responsible for more killings than the paramilitaries contradicts all available evidence, some of which was already available to Times readers. An opinion piece by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D.—Minn.) that appeared in the paper (12/26/00) reported that “this year so far, violence in Barranca has killed at least 410 people. According to local human rights groups, most of those killed were the victims of right-wing para­military death squads.”

Human Rights Watch reported in its 2001 report that nationwide, “paramili­tary groups are considered responsible for at least 78 percent of the human rights violations recorded in the six months from October 1999.”

Some historical perspective is needed, too: Members of the New Granada battal­ion were implicated in a grisly massacre in Barrancabermeja on May 16, 1998. It is alleged that nine soldiers waved paramili­tary vehicles through an army checkpoint in advance of and after the attack on civilians (Washington Post, 8/13/98; Amnesty International, 5/99).

“Instead of mass killings,” Forero’s January 22 article reported, “the paramil­itaries have, for the most part, been selec­tively killing rebels. Instead of terrorizing residents, the paramilitaries are paying handsomely to rent houses in battle­ground neighborhoods, as well as for supplies and information that can be used against the rebels.”

The assertion that the paramilitaries are “selectively” killing rebels is difficult to substantiate. About two weeks before Forero’s article was printed, paramili­taries were suspected of killing 20 civil­ians in northern Colombia in a matter of days, including eight in Barrancabermeja (Agence France Presse, 1/10/01).

Forero’s claim that the death squads are renting houses instead of terrorizing residents is also dubious. Amnesty International’s January 26 action alert warned that death squads “reportedly held the local population at gunpoint and told them: ‘We have come to stay. We are creating employment … and any­one who doesn’t want to work for us, sim­ply won’t be forced to, but will be killed. The reported raid took place one day before Forero wrote his article.

A February 9 FAIR Action Alert gener­ated hundreds of letters to the New York Times, calling on the paper to improve its Colombian coverage by reporting paramilitary intimidation and violence. A subsequent story in the Times (2/16/01), also written by Forero, did tell the story of community activists and human rights groups that were under threat from right-wing paramilitaries. Under the some­what tentative headline “Colombia Rightists Said to Harass Social Workers,” Forero focused on the Popular Women’s Organization in Barrancabermeja, which was threatened by members of the AUC and told to abandon its community center.

The timing of the piece is notable. The threats against the Popular Women’s Organization were reported to have taken place on January 27, just days after Forero’s first article. The fact that the Times would publish the details almost three weeks later—but only a week after the action alert—suggests that speaking up can make a difference.