Feb 9 2001

New York Times Covering for Colombian Death Squads

The human rights situation in Colombia is in a state of “alarming degradation,” according to United Nations human rights observers (Associated Press, 1/20/01), but you won’t learn about it in the New York Times.

According to a joint report from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), “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, with the average number of deaths from combat and political violence rising to 14 per day (“Colombia Human Rights Certification II”, 1/01).

There were at least 27 massacres in the month of January alone, claiming the lives of as many as 200 civilians. The killings are overwhelmingly the work of right-wing paramilitaries with close ties to the Colombian military, such as the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

Despite the dramatic nature of the attacks and the U.S.’s heavy financial involvement in the war, the New York Times did not report on a single massacre during the month of January. The findings of the human rights groups’ “Certification” report, including its recommendation that the U.S. cease military funding to Colombia, also went unmentioned.

Far from documenting the recent wave of paramilitary terror, the Times has 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.

Forero claims 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. A recent dispatch from Inter Press Service (1/15/01) reported that “one of the top complaints of human rights groups in the [Barrancabermeja] area is that a leading cause of violence is the attitude of the armed forces, which have facilitated– by inaction or omission– the advance of the paramilitaries, who are responsible for 80 percent of the massacres perpetrated in and around the city, according to several reports.”

In fact, less than a month before Forero’s dispatch, an article (12/26/00) on the New York Times‘ own op-ed page by Senator Paul Wellstone, who had just returned from a visit to the town, 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.”

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

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 (see Washington Post, 8/13/98; Amnesty International, 5/99). That sort of relationship between the military and paramilitaries is at the center of the objections raised by countless human rights groups to the U.S. aid to Colombia.

“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 flies in the face of all credible evidence from journalists and human rights observers in Colombia. 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. In a January 26 action alert, Amnesty International reported a January 20 paramilitary raid in Barrancabermeja. The 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. Other human rights monitors have reported similar threats against trade unionists and other civilians.

The Times‘ distortions come in the midst of an almost surreal silence about Colombia from much of the mainstream press. None of the network news broadcasts did a single story on the war in the month of January, though ABC‘s Peter Jennings did find time for a light-hearted piece about the “crazy” hijinks of a British man who was kidnapped by guerrillas while visiting Colombia in search of rare orchids (ABC World News Tonight, 2/8/01).

Not all media outlets have done such a poor job of informing the public. The Washington Post, for instance, ran an excellent account (1/28/01) of the AUC’s January 17 massacre of two dozen civilians at Chengue, interviewing survivors who had fled the village. The Post raised important questions the New York Times has chosen to ignore, such as why the Colombian security forces took no action to prevent a massacre they had been warned about, and why their intelligence apparatus was apparently unable to either intercept radio traffic in the area (a tactic they have used against the guerrillas) or respond to the massacre in a timely fashion.

Readers of the New York Times, however, would be hard-pressed to know that anything had happened at all.

ACTION: Call on the New York Times to investigate stories of paramilitary massacres. Encourage the Washington Post to print more of its in-depth reporting on the situation. Given the level of U.S. military aid dedicated to Colombia, American citizens deserve a full accounting of the human rights situation there.

CONTACT:New York Times229 West 43rd St.New York, NY 10036-3959nytnews@nytimes.comToll free comment line: 1-888-NYT-NEWS

Washington PostForeign Deskforeign@washpost.com

Read the Washington Post‘s “Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold” at:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A56760-2001Jan27.html