The Narco News Bulletin
Name of Our Country is América"
Tim Johnson Responds
to Our "Fact Check" on his Story
Miami Herald Colombia Correspondent Writes to Narco
"The funny thing
about it is, I agree with much of what you say."
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."
Text of Johnson's Response appears below on this page
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
a journo who also reports from Latin America, I can sympathize
with the Miami Heralds 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 Johnsons rage is directed
at the guerrilla movements. And its 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. Hes 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-balls 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 nations 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
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 correspondents
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,
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
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
Johnsons report, and often have been.
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 dont
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 dont exist in Johnsons
its about me tirade.
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 guerrillas 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
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 Johnsons
``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 Corps 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.
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.
Johnsons 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.
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
If nightly newscasts, the
CIA and the US Defense Secretary are Johnsons sources for
his claims along with his neighbors among the kidnapables
then no wonder Johnsons coverage is so biased and
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
Hes 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 cant have it both ways
Even so, the magnitude
of the upheaval escapes many Colombians
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 Johnsons
adios letter comes in his apologetic defense of the brutal paramilitary
regime and its leader Carlos Castaño.
Johnson isnt alone here: when Larry
Rohter of the NY Times should have been writing about Februarys
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
``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.
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 hasnt 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 hes hardly the only or worst offender among the badly
informing US press corps in Colombia and all Latin America.
Ill take Alfredo Molanos version
of the facts over Tim Johnsons. Hes 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,
The Narco News Bulletin
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.
Former Bogota Bureau Chief
Miami Herald Publishing Company
Which begs another
Johnson and Narco News can have an honest conversation like this
one, why won't Washington participate in peace talks in Colombia?
Stand Up Journalism