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After a prominent member of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group was captured January 2 in Ecuador, most Colombian and international news outlets were so giddy at the news that they gave their fact checkers vacations. For days after the arrest–which locked up the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC’s) Ricardo Palmera, also known as "Simon Trinidad"– exaggerations and falsehoods riddled one report after another.
Some of the mistakes were fairly harmless, if embarrassing. The BBC and United Press International reported the arrest occurred in a medical center in Quito, the Ecuadoran capital, while the Bogota daily El Tiempo claimed it was near the Colombian border. Others, including the Associated Press and the Bogota weekly El Espectador, managed to report both locations. Which was correct? Neither. Palmera was nabbed on a Quito street.
And some of the errors were comical. On January 5, National Public Radio morning news host Bob Edwards identified Palmera as "the top commander" of the group, apparently betting that Manuel ("Sure Shot") Marulanda wasn’t listening. Marulanda’s capture would mark a turning point in Colombian history — a lot more than can be said for the capture of Palmera. A January 3 house editorial on El Espectador’s Web site even dragged a tiny Caribbean country into the mess by misidentifying Palmera as "Simon Trinidad Tobago."
But other blunders were less benign. The BBC, El Espectador, El Tiempo and the Los Angeles Times reported that Colombian authorities participated in the capture, as claimed by President Alvaro Uribe Velez’s administration. After heated exchanges between officials in Bogota and Quito, Colombian Defense Minister Jorge Uribe admitted on January 5 that no Colombian agents were in sight. Ecuadoran President Lucio Gutierrez insists the arrest stemmed from a routine check of Palmera’s identification papers.
Another falsehood likely originating with the Uribe administration is that Palmera is not only a prominent member of the FARC, but part of its seven-member secretariat. The Associated Press, El Espectador and United Press International reported as such, though it’s not clear Palmera is even a member of the 22-member general staff, the leadership body beneath the secretariat.
It’s understandable that the Uribe administration would try to make the most of Palmera’s arrest. No top FARC leader has been captured or killed since the group formed in 1964–an embarrassment especially glaring for a president who says his top priority is defeating the guerrillas militarily. But the Uribe government’s interest in distortion gives no excuse to the reporters who quit asking questions and just dished up whatever silliness government sources told them.
And it’s certainly no excuse for editorial-page staffers who turned the arrest into a political windfall for Uribe. On January 3, just hours after the capture, when the only information circulating was still unverified and (it would turn out, after simple fact-checks) false, El Tiempo columnist Luz Maria Sierra didn’t hesitate to offer up the event’s meaning: the arrest showed that "the new tools being used to fight the guerrillas are effective," Sierra wrote. El Tiempo and other papers quoted a chorus of pro-Uribe voices (including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) to much the same effect. A house editorial in El Espectador took the opportunity to reproach international human rights groups for criticizing Uribe’s aggressive security policies.
Perhaps the real story overlooked by all the shoddy reporting was that a document-check in Quito just put a FARC leader behind bars. Forty years of counterinsurgency war hasnit.
PHILLIP CRYAN is a policy analyst and educator who returned to the United States in November after 18 months in Colombia. A version of this piece appeared in his biweekly column on media for Colombia Week. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org