From USA Today to the Washington Times, dozens of U.S. newspapers published reports of a May 22 bombing that killed seven people in a dance hall in Apartado, a municipality in the northwestern province of Antioquia, Colombia.
But not a single one of these papers reported on a massacre that killed 11 peasants two days earlier in Tame, a municipality in the northeastern province of Arauca. The only major English-language news of the carnage amounted to 191 words May 25 from London-based Reuters.
The discrepancy in coverage is not because one attack was more brutal than the other. If anything, the Tame massacre warranted the most attention because more people were killed and the bodies showed signs of torture.
The inconsistency likely stems, rather, from who did the killing and where. The military attributed the Apartado bombing to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group.
But the Tame massacre, by all accounts, was carried out by the Colombian government’s paramilitary allies. And it occurred just 30 miles from an oil pipeline used by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. The United States is sending $100 million a year in military aid earmarked for protecting that pipeline. Last year, Washington stationed 70 U.S. Special Forces troops in the province to train Colombian soldiers for the effort.
Instead of exploring whether the pipeline protection had anything to do with the massacre, the U.S. reporting from Colombia during those days focused on the Apartado bombing and other explosions that could be blamed on the guerrillas. Many reports followed the U.S. State Department’s script by describing the blasts as a FARC campaign leading up to the group’s 40th anniversary May 27. In doing so, they ignored a May 25 press conference by Colombian Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, who disavowed such descriptions: “We don’t have any indications this is the FARC’s plan.”
Most negligent was Dow Jones Newswire, whose May 26 report went as far as to excise the paramilitaries entirely from the bloody landscape: “Colombia’s civil war pits government forces against the FARC, killing an estimated 3,500 people every year.” Never mind, in other words, that paramilitaries carry out two-thirds of those killings.
Colombian news outlets also showed more interest in the Apartado bombing than the Tame massacre, but most at least mentioned the latter. The Medellin daily El Colombiano did the best job. A May 25 report in that newspaper noted that the massacre led to a mass civilian displacement. But like every other major outlet, El Colombiano seemed to ignore a report from a human rights group that six other peasants near Tame disappeared the day of the massacre, raising the casualties to as many as 17.
From the looks of the coverage in the United States, nothing happened in Tame at all. Reporters and editors ought to heed a May 24 U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights statement on the two attacks: “Massacres are always unacceptable and unjustified, regardless of where they are committed and who is responsible for them.”
Postscript: The U.N.’s ethical clarity, legal footing, and dogmatic insistence on this last point are certainly refreshing. However, there is another point on which the U.N. is dead wrong. The May 24 statement continues: “This Office trusts that the authorities will investigate, judge and penalize those responsible for the crimes committed in Antioquia and Arauca.” The naive hope — or perhaps the conscious futility, repeated — is downright exasperating. Well over 90% of crimes remain in impunity in Colombia. Witnesses for suits alleging military collusion with paramilitary groups regularly turn up dead, as do the plaintiffs who seek justice, lawyers who bring the suits, judges who agree to give a fair hearing, and journalists who cover such things.
PHILLIP CRYAN is a freelance writer. A version of this article appeared in his Colombia Week column on media. He is writing a book about recent U.S. intervention in Colombia, to be published in 2005 by Common Courage Press. He lives in Ames, Iowa, and can be reached at email@example.com.