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The Narco News Bulletin

"The Name of Our Country is América"

-- Simón Bolívar

Tim Johnson Responds to Our "Fact Check" on his Story

Former Miami Herald Colombia Correspondent Writes to Narco News:

"The funny thing about it is, I agree with much of what you say."

Narco News Salutes Tim Johnson for his Intellectually Honest Reply:

"If Sam Dillon of the New York Times were as self-reflective as Johnson, maybe his Pulitzer would not be at stake."

Full Text of Johnson's Response appears below on this page

This was our August 22nd "Fact Check" story:

Miami Herald Colombia correspondent Tim Johnson wrote an August 20th column about why he is leaving that country

We ran the story through our fact-checking department, and found numerous errors and untruths about what is really happening in our América

by Al Giordano

As a journo who also reports from Latin America, I can sympathize with the Miami Herald’s Tim Johnson and respect his personal decision to leave Colombia at this key moment.

But Johnson throws a few bombs of his own on his way out the door. A fact-check is in order.

All of Johnson’s rage is directed at the guerrilla movements. And it’s this kind of bias – unworthy of serious journalism – that keeps the US public so poorly informed on the events in Latin America.

Shallow reports like those that Johnson has filed for four years are what led to the $1.3 billion “Plan Colombia” (that is to say, “Plan District of Columbia”), the US military aid package that has begun to make a bad situation worse. Yes, I can understand very well why Johnson is leaving at this historic moment.

Judging from his four years of mouthing the Washington party line in the name of journalism – and he is not alone in this practice among US correspondents – in a way, he is now fleeing a boomerang that he tossed with his own bare hands. He’s getting out safely, but his boomerangs will continue to land on Colombian heads.

Meanwhile, for all but the wealthiest Colombians, the rest of the citizens do not have an escape hatch. They must continue to live with the consequences of poor reporting by the official US press corps.

Too many US correspondents for major dailies come South and live among the upper castes in lands of grave poverty and injustice. These are lands where mansions surrounded by armed guards and high walls sit but a golf-ball’s whack from cardboard shacks and crowded slums. In Colombia, in particular, the wealth gap has been enforced at the point of a gun, through the rampant use of torture and terror by the nation’s armed forces and police agencies. The official forces have historically been utilized not merely against stealing bread, but also against organizing unions, or peasant groups, or political parties (the last great political effort by the organized Left in Colombia was squashed through a wave of assassinations, kidnappings, and disappearances orchestrated by the US-backed State and its paramilitary forces).

Now, here comes the FARC, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, a guerrilla movement made possible by the lack of spaces for real democratic participation.

The US-imposed drug war – and the huge underground economy that prohibition creates – is precisely what has made it more profitable for a peasant farmer to grow coca instead of coffee.

And so I find the Herald correspondent’s parting words to be disingenuous when he complains that, like journos, the guerrilla soldiers now wield laptop computers as arms. Like Marcos in Mexico, some of them make better reporters, too.

Johnson writes:

“In the countryside, the landscape of terror has shifted. Once drug barons were feared. Now, it is the armed outlaw bands. Guerrilla roadblocks are common. Rebels stop cars to hunt for potential kidnap victims. Toting laptop computers, rebels check banking records to calculate possible ransom demands.”

Obviously, the great majority of Colombian citizens, without bank accounts, have little to fear from the laptop-toting guerrilla member. Johnson's screed exclusively reflects the fears of the upper classes; the same fear of kidnapping that drove so much of the organized political Left into armed insurgent combat in the first place. But the fears of the poor, of the worker, of the brave Colombian journalists who choose to live and walk among the mass of people, are excluded from Johnson’s report, and often have been.

Johnson writes:

“The largest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), may number 15,000 to 20,000 mostly rural adolescent combatants. Few have finished elementary school.”

Many of these youths (15 is the minimum age to join the insurgents), had they stayed in their communities, would not have finished elementary school. Many towns don’t even have an elementary school. In fact, the FARC soldiers are among the few rural youths who can and do learn to read and write. Young women who are FARC combatants speak of the main “educational opportunity” they left back home when they joined the insurgents: working as prostitutes to serve the growing military and police complex. These complexities don’t exist in Johnson’s “it’s about me” tirade.

Johnson writes:

“The group, loosely Marxist, has enriched itself through extortion, kidnapping and protection of the drug trade. The world's leading source of cocaine, Colombia produced 520 metric tons of it last year, the CIA says.”

At least, here, Johnson honestly quotes the official sources out of Langley that his reporting has served so well. But again, he misses the details, the shades of gray. The guerrilla’s link to the drug trade is largely based on protecting the campesinos who grow the crops, and some jungle drug labs. The trafficking end of the cocaine trade – where the larger profits lie – is managed by the police, the military, the paramilitaries, the cocaine cartels that fund them, and the highest of government officials, including - as the case of Colonel James Hiett demonstrated - high US embassy and DEA officials as well.

And the largest profits, still, are made by the banking and financial industries, in the suit-and-tied world of money laundering, by many of the same economic powers that brought us Plan Colombia to do their dirty work for them.

That, too, is missing from Johnson’s report.

Johnson writes:

``These are not dewy-eyed romanticists that have in mind the welfare of the Colombian people,'' Defense Secretary William Cohen said in April as he pushed for a $1.3 billion U.S. counter-drug package to Colombia.”

Ahem. Bill Cohen is not much of a “dewy-eyed romanticist” either (or does his spy thriller authored with Gary Hart now count as a romance novel?), and Cohen has shown zero concern for “the welfare of the Colombian people.”

If Johnson wants to see tears, he ought to stick around for when the Sikorsky Corp’s Black Hawk helicopters – lobbied into Plan Colombia by Capitol Hill lobbyists and Connecticut senators – begin their campaign of terror and herbicide poisoning over the peasant lands.

Johnson writes:

“While some Colombians fret that the counter-narcotics aid will intensify their nation's war, others hope new U.S. helicopters and other assistance will boost their army's efforts to combat rebels. Barely 3 to 5 percent of Colombians support the FARC, polls show.”

I guess the peasants weren't answering their telephones on the night that the pollsters called. What? They don't have telephones? The telephone lines don't even reach their villages? What percent of Colombians have telephones? Might make an interesting Miami Herald story. We'll call them up and ask them: "Why don't you have telephones?"

There's lots to be angry about regarding Colombia. But Johnson's anger blinds him to the complexities. I hope that never happens to me.

Johnson’s political analysis here is contrary to that offered by exiled Colombian journalist Alfredo Molano, who I interviewed on July 31st in Barcelona. Molano, popular Sunday columnist for El Espectador, like many journos, was forced to leave the country due to direct threats against his family by the paramilitary organizations.

For journos outside of Colombia who want a more balanced and expert view of what Colombians think of Plan Colombia, I strongly recommend they read what Molano has to say:

Our colleague Alfredo Molano, unlike Tim Johnson, can't go home.

Johnson writes:

“Nightly newscasts carry images of massacres, weeping relatives of kidnap victims, and rubble-strewn towns where rebels have showered homemade mortars indiscriminately. Our two children are told to leave the room when the news comes on.”

No mention by Johnson, here, of the military forces who opened fire just the other day on a group of schoolchildren, killing six of them. To Johnson, it's all the guerrilla's fault. Not the political and economic conditions that create the guerrilla, mind you. It's much easier to make scapegoats than to do serious journalism.

If “nightly newscasts,” the CIA and the US Defense Secretary are Johnson’s sources for his claims – along with his neighbors among the “kidnapables” – then no wonder Johnson’s coverage is so biased and superficial.

Johnson writes:

“Uprooted peasants present the most pitiful images. Some 1.3 million of Colombia's 40 million people have been torn from their homes in the last decade. For all their brutality, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary forces cowardly prefer to kill unarmed civilians rather than clash in direct confrontation.”

I'll refrain from speculating on Johnson's wisdom, at this moment in his career, of bandying about the word "cowardly" too loudly. But on the facts: As Alfredo Molano points out, many of these peasants are displaced by official policy, by the large landowners and their paramilitary troops, to make room for a new Atlantic-Pacific canal in the Darien region, for oil company exploration, or the aims of the ranchers backed by agri-business.

He’s correct when he writes that the paramilitaries kill innocent civilians. It's part of their stated strategy of terror: If you're not with them, you are labled a "guerrilla sympathizer." It's also a great way to influence public opinion poll results -- who would answer "yes" to a stranger asking "do you support the guerrilla?" when the paramilitaries have announced that sympathizers will be rounded up and shot. Ah, but these are all complex questions, frowned upon by the central offices of US journalism and their steady diet of polls and scapegoats.

Johnson is dead wrong about the guerrilla's supposed "cowardice" in taking on the soldiers and the police. I'll bet he's even filed a few stories about those battles, which happen daily.

In fact, Johnson contradicts his own claim when he mentions that “The FARC and a second leftist insurgency, the National Liberation Army, hold a huge trove of human booty. To strengthen their bargaining power, the two groups have amassed 528 captured police and soldiers as hostages.”

Capturing 528 police and soldiers comes from the not-so-cowardly act of combating against thousands of armed police and soldiers. Johnson can’t have it both ways here.

Johnson writes:

“Even so, the magnitude of the upheaval escapes many Colombians… Colombians are among Latin America's most courteous and polite people, yet the crisis has highlighted an astonishing lack of solidarity.”

In other words, not all Colombia agrees with his biased analysis.

But the most troublesome part of Johnson’s adios letter comes in his apologetic defense of the brutal paramilitary regime and its leader Carlos Castaño.

Johnson isn’t alone here: when Larry Rohter of the NY Times should have been writing about February’s El Salado massacre by paramilitaries, who were protected by the official military forces during that bloodbath against civilians, Rohter instead published a puff-piece on the narco-soldier Castaño. And as Cynthia Cotts pointed out last week in the Village Voice, Rohter finally did write about the El Salado massacre – the day after Clinton signed the Plan Colombia package.

Against all historical evidence, Johnson writes:

“A desire for vengeance has fueled the brutal paramilitary forces led by Carlos Castaño, a warlord who lost his father to FARC bullets and now runs an outlaw right-wing military force of some 6,000 to 10,000 fighters… These days, rampant hatred, huge narcotics profits and the inertia of a 36-year war figure more than ideology in Colombia's conflict. Castaño says all armed groups draw income from the illegal drug trade… ``The Colombian conflict is economic. It has stopped being political. It is based on the illicit economy,'' Castaño said in a recent fit of candor.”

The paramilitaries were not born out of “a desire for vengance” nor are they recent converts to “the illicit economy.” The paramilitaries were founded and armed by large landowners, with support from the Colombian government, precisely to assassinate, kidnap and terrorize peaceful political activists and peasant labor organizers. They began as mercenaries and have always been. Castaño is a war criminal. And Johnson, like Rohter of the Times, has become the war criminal's accomplice in public relations.

Former Colombia Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff tells me that the Colombian government participated in the formation of the paramilitary squads. He can hardly be called a guerrilla sympathizer – his brother-in-law was just kidnapped by the FARC and released by a military action – but De Greiff says he tried to warn Colombian officials that they were making a grave mistake in creating the paramilitaries. “If you create them,” he told Colombian officials, “they will grow out of your control.”

The paramilitaries are not avengers. They are mercenaries; a Frankenstein of US-Colombia policy and Pentagon manuals on "low-intensity warfare" published in Spanish. Nor does Johnson tell us that Plan Colombia is explicit in that it will not attack the paramilitaries. As Alfredo Molano reports, they will be the foot soldiers of Plan Colombia, while Washington runs the air war.

Johnson writes:

“Guerrilla commanders in southern Colombia already are doling out rifles to civilians, and speaking of a ``patriotic war'' against U.S. intervention.”

Again, Johnson contradicts his own bad claims: If the guerrilla has no public support, then why would it hand out arms to the populace? To arm its own enemies? The guerrilla hasn’t survived for 40 years in Colombia for being stupid, nor with a lack of popular support. Johnson, in his anger, is not telling the truth even in those cases where he knows it. And he’s hardly the only or worst offender among the “badly informing” US press corps in Colombia and all Latin America.

I’ll take Alfredo Molano’s version of the facts over Tim Johnson’s. He’s a better journalist who really does care for his people. He has more right to be angry than Johnson -- it's his country -- but he offers us a more balanced and profound analysis, worthy of an authentic journalist.

Johnson chose to toss his grenades of untruth and bad journalism as he split town, and thus brought this fact-check upon himself. Good luck to him as a person. I wish him all safety and happiness. But Plan Colombia is underway, the human misery will only increase in Colombia and its neighboring countries, because Tim Johnson and other US correspondents did not do their jobs.

From somewhere in a country called América,

Al Giordano
The Narco News Bulletin

Publisher's August 27th Update: When we published this story, we sent a copy to Tim Johnson offering him uncensored space on this page for any response he wishes. Johnson has just sent this response, which we publish in full:

Hey, I read your email a couple of days ago. The funny thing about it is, I agree with much of what you say. Molano happens to be a personal acquaintance who was very useful while he still lived in Colombia. You should keep a couple of things in mind: the FARC is not like other groups such as the FMLN in Salvador, FSLN in Nicaragua, the Frente Patriotico in Chile. Regardless of what you have heard, this group is not seeking to win significant support from the populace. The paramilitaries have committed more atrocities than the FARC. The upper class is indifferent to the whole mess. There are no good guys in Colombia.

Tim Johnson
Former Bogota Bureau Chief
Miami Herald Publishing Company

Which begs another question:

If Tim Johnson and Narco News can have an honest conversation like this one, why won't Washington participate in peace talks in Colombia?

See the Narco News Daily Press Briefing on Plan Colombia

More News on Plan Colombia and Chiapas Post-Election Analysis

Interview with exiled Colombian journalist Alfredo Molano:

Stand Up Journalism for América