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Interested Blindness

Media Omissions in Colombia’s War

by PHILLIP CRYAN

Villagarzon, Colombia.

Colombian military efforts against drug production and illegal armed actors have focused on the southern border province of Putumayo since 2000, when the U.S. began disbursing a multibillion dollar mostly military aid package known as Plan Colombia. Putumayo was declared Plan Colombia’s pilot region. Colombia’s military established its first U.S.-funded counter-narcotics brigade just outside this small central Putumayo city.

Three years later, Colombian national media provide almost no coverage of the pilot project’s on-the-ground results. In particular, the media fail to mention rightwing paramilitary groups’ control over urban areas with large contingents of military and police forces.

Colombia’s largest circulation newsweekly, Semana, often goes further in questioning U.S. and Colombian military initiatives than do most national media. Yet a review of Semana’s archives between January 1 and October 3 of this year yielded only three articles focused directly on Putumayo province. None of them were about the paramilitaries.

51 Semana articles mentioned Putumayo during those nine months. The most frequent subject-areas among the 51 articles were aerial eradication of coca crops, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, and the Colombian Armed Forces. Three articles focused on illegal armed actors (both guerrillas and paramilitaries) in general terms and four focused on paramilitaries.

In most of these articles, however, "Putumayo" simply appeared on a list of Colombian provinces.

Of the three articles that discussed events in Putumayo, one was a single-paragraph story on FARC bombing of an oil pipeline; one compared statistics on how much coca remains in the province; and one was a defense of Plan Colombia written by its former director, Gonzalo de Francisco. The three pieces cited a total of one Putumayo resident, the governor.

At one point in a long February 8 interview with Semana, Colombia’s former Human Rights Ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes Munoz described recent combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries in Putumayo. This rare direct reference was made less than impressive, however, when the article quoted Cifuentes describing the site of combat, the southern Putumayo municipality of La Hormiga, as "Puerto Hormiga."

In all four of the 51 articles that focused on paramilitaries, "Putumayo" appeared as an item on a list. Two of the four described paramilitary peace-making efforts.

Meanwhile, between 1998 and 2002, paramilitaries took control of most urban areas in Putumayo. Favored tactics included massacres, extortion, selective assassinations and public torture.

In Villagarzon, home to a U.S.-trained counter-narcotics brigade and approximately 750 other military and police troops, paramilitaries patrol the streets each night, according to a local religious leader who requested anonymity out of concern for his life.

Since 2001, religious officials have buried 170 paramilitary victims in this city of roughly 7,000, he said. "But there are many more, an unknown number. They throw the bodies off a bridge into the Mocoa River."

The district attorney, with whom citizens would file any legal complaints against the military and police for collusion with the paramilitaries, "goes out drinking and dancing with the paramilitaries," said the religious leader. There was even a paramilitary-sponsored Halloween party in the central plaza this past October 31.

It’s no wonder many residents of Colombia’s major cities–and foreigners–view the conflict differently than do citizens of places like Putumayo. The urbanites only come to know such places through Semana and other national media–which is to say, not at all.

PHILLIP CRYAN is en route to the U.S. after 18 months of human rights work in Colombia. A shorter version of this piece appeared in Colombia Week, for which he writes a biweekly column on media coverage of Colombia. He can be reached at: phillipcryan000@yahoo.com