<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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The Guardian Covers (Up) Colombia’s Reality

London’s “Left Leaning” Newspaper Props Up Latin America’s Most Authoritarian Government

By Joe Emersberger
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

May 5, 2008

Colombia received more detailed attention than usual from the daily Guardian of the UK during the months of March and April of this year for many reasons:

1) On March 1 Colombia’s military violated Ecuadorian sovereignty to kill Raul Reyes, a leftist (FARC) guerrilla leader, and thereby provoked a regional crisis.

2) In mid March a minor scandal erupted due to UK Foreign Minister Kim Howells’ aggressive support for UK arms exports to Colombia

3) Rumors were reported in late March that a high profile hostage of the FARC rebels, Ingrid Betancourt, was gravely ill.

4) Mark Penn resigned on April 6 from Hillary Clinton’s campaign because of his lobbying work on behalf of Colombia in support of a trade agreement with the US.

During these two months the Guardian published 38 articles that discussed Colombia in significant detail. It is a very revealing exercise to scan these articles for information that is readily available on the website of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW is a prominent organization with a track record of being disproportionately hard on US enemies (Hizbullah, Hamas, Venezuela) and soft on the US allies (Israel, Haiti under Gerard Latortue). [1] It is not a group likely to exaggerate the crimes of a US and UK ally.

One might expect that a supposedly left leaning newspaper like the Guardian would, at the very least, tell readers what HRW has been reporting.

In February of 2008, in an article for the Progressive magazine, two senior HRW officials wrote:

“For years, the Bush administration in the United States has stood by the government of President Álvaro Uribe in Colombia unconditionally, turning a blind eye to Colombia’s serious human rights problems. The Blair government in the UK, for the most part, quietly followed suit, providing substantial assistance to Colombia’s military with no strings attached.

Colombia presents one of the worst human rights records in the world. At nearly three million, Colombia’s population of internally displaced persons is second only to that of Sudan. ” [2]

In the 38 articles examined, not a single word (out of roughly 25,000) appeared about Colombia’s internally displaced people. No doubt, unconditional support for Colombia is easier to maintain when the magnitude of its human rights disaster is completely hidden by the Liberal media, but the Guardian did not just bury the scale of the crimes. It kept the leading perpetrators mostly out of sight.

HRW’s summary reports about Colombia from 1989-2002 frequently pointed out that the vast majority of political murders have been perpetrated by the military and rightwing paramilitary groups that operate with the tolerance and even direct support of the military. In 2002, HRW reported that the largest paramilitary death squad (AUC) was responsible for 50% of political killings compared to 8% for the FARC, the largest of the leftist rebel groups.[3]

In more recent years, HRW has shied away from identifying the leading perpetrators of political murders. Instead it has reported qualitative conclusions regarding a limited subset of crimes. For example, it has reported that leftist rebels are responsible for most recruitment of child soldiers while paramilitaries are usually responsible for murdering trade unionists.[4]

However, according to the Jesuit-run Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), whom HRW has cited in past reports, as of 2006 the majority of human rights abuses continued to be perpetrated by the Colombian military and the paramilitaries. [5]

HRW’s recent reports give no reason to doubt CINEP’s conclusions. In 2005 HRW produced an extensive report exposing the fraudulence of the Colombian government’s “demobilization” of the paramilitaries. The report, entitled “Smoke and Mirrors: Colombia’s demobilization of paramilitary groups” summarized the situation of the paramilitaries as follows:

“Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups are immeasurably powerful. Through drug trafficking and other illegal businesses, they have amassed enormous wealth. They have taken over vast expanses of the country’s territory to use for coca cultivation or as strategic corridors through which they can move drugs and weapons. In recent years, they have succeeded in expelling left-wing guerrillas and strengthening their own control of many parts of the country. And thanks to this power, they now exert a very high degree of political influence, both locally and nationally…..paramilitaries have historically enjoyed the collaboration, support, and toleration of units of the Colombian security forces, a fact that has led many to refer to the paramilitaries as a ‘sixth division’ of the army. Today, paramilitaries have made major gains in consolidating this impunity, along with their economic and political power, with the collusion of the Colombian government.” [6]

To what extent did the Guardian convey any of this during the months of increased attention on Colombia?

In the 38 Guardian articles the word “FARC” appears 135 times; only 17 times do the words “paramilitary” or “paramilitaries” appear. There were 13 articles that mentioned Colombia’s baseless allegations of Venezuelan collaboration with the FARC [7] – only five articles that mentioned the well documented collaboration between the Colombian government and the paramilitaries. But even these lopsided numbers understate the extent to which the Guardian covered up Colombia’s human rights record.

On March 26, HRW, along with 22 other international human rights organizations that included Amnesty International, signed an open letter to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe after four unionists were murdered who were involved with protests against paramilitary violence that took place on March 6. Many other protest organizers were attacked and received death threats. The open letter stated:

“Shortly before the attacks, presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria made a series of statements on national radio linking renowned victims’ representative Ivan Cepeda and other organizers of the March 6 protest to the notoriously abusive guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On February 11, one day after Gaviria first made the statements, the supposedly demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group released a statement echoing Gaviria’s allegations.” [8]

The letter called on Uribe to denounce the baseless allegations and break the links between the paramilitaries and his government. Neither the open letter nor the March 6 protests were reported by the Guardian.

It is worth looking closely at one of the five Guardian articles that did actually mention collaboration between the government and rightwing paramilitaries. The article, “Colombia’s ‘parapolitics’ scandal casts shadow over president”, by Sibylla Brodzinsky was published April 23. Brodzinsky wrote:

“Mario Uribe was the latest in a string of more than 30 politicians elected to Congress in 2006 who have been arrested on charges related to conspiracy with the paramilitary death squads that controlled huge swathes of the nation before they began demobilizing in 2003.”

This neglects to mention that most of the politicians are from Uribe’s coalition and that the paramilitary power has been left untouched by the “demobilization”. A week before Brodzinsky’s article appeared HRW had reported:

“Nearly all the 30,000 ‘demobilized’ paramilitaries are free and have never been investigated” and that “scores of ‘new’ groups closely linked to the paramilitaries are operating all over the country, engaging in extortion, killings, forced displacement, and drug trafficking. “ [9]

Brodzinsky also wrote:

“President Uribe has said that it is thanks to his policies that Colombia has been able to go through the collective catharsis.”

This argument stood unchallenged even though HRW had recently provided a strong counter argument:

“....these investigations are the result of an initiative by the Colombian Supreme Court – not the Uribe Administration. While Uribe has funded the court, he has often taken steps that could undermine the investigations, lashing out against Supreme Court Justices and even, at one point, floating a proposal to let the politicians avoid prison.” [10]

Brodzinsky then made the following outlandish claim:

“Despite repeated journalistic and judicial investigations into alleged links between the president and paramilitary groups, no evidence has ever come forth.”

There is, of course, overwhelming evidence of very strong links between the Colombian government (which has been run by Uribe for several years) and the paramilitaries. Some of the evidence is even reported in Brodzinsky’s article. The Guardian appears to employ an unique definition of the word “evidence” for politicians supported by Washington.

Brodzinsky’s article also cited Urine’s 84% approval rating, but failed to convey the risks that journalists, activists and politicians take with their lives if they challenge Uribe. It would be wrong to deny that Uribe has significant popular support, but it would also be wrong to deny that his government makes eroding that support through peaceful means is a very dangerous task.

Moreover, there is good reason to believe Urine’s approval rating exaggerates his level of support. In presidential elections Uribe has captured the vote of roughly 25 percent of the eligible voters. In 2003, Uribe campaigned very aggressively for the passage of a “yes” vote on a referendum that made fifteen sweeping proposals. He failed to convince 25 percent of the electorate to turn out for it – the minimum turnout required for it to pass – despite having a 75 percent approval rating at the time.[11]
The Guardian’s coverage of Colombia explains why UK Foreign Minister Kim Howells dared to be photographed with Colombian soldiers (in fact, with a unit accused of murdering trade unionists), and why Howells had the audacity to lash out maliciously at Justice For Colombia, a UK based solidarity group. [12]If newspapers like the Guardian do not even report much of what establishment friendly groups like HRW have to say then it should come as no surprise that backing Colombia’s worst criminals comes with negligible consequences.

Write to the Guardian readers editor Siobhain Butterworth

Write to Guardian Journalists Sibylla Brodzinsky and Rory Carroll (Latin America Correspondent)


[1] http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/emersberger240208.html

[2] http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/02/01/colomb17975.htm

[3] http://www.hrw.org/doc?t=americas&c=colomb&document_limit=120,20

[4] http://hrw.org/englishwr2k7/docs/2007/01/11/colomb14884.htm

[5] http://www.cipcol.org/?p=580

[6] http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/colombia0805/

[7] http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/04/16/colomb18630.htm

[8] http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/04/16/colomb18630.htm

[9] see note 8

[10] http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2008/04/16/colomb18630.htm
Also, for a great summary of the “parapolitics” scandal see: http://www.cipcol.org/?p=542

[11] The referendum results are here

[12] http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/mar/17/foreignpolicy.tradeunions

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America