Language in Colombia’s War

In war, word choice is important. Everyone can hear the difference between calling civilian deaths ‘collateral damage’ and calling them ‘crimes against humanity,’ between using ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘terrorists’ to describe rebel groups. What about different ways of naming Colombia’s rightist death squads?

Newspaper editors have a number of options when deciding how to mention these groups. And their choices matter. When headlines in Beijing’s Xinhua news wire and the London daily Guardian call them “rebels” (August 6 and May 14, respectively), readers can be forgiven for assuming these groups oppose the Colombian government.

In fact, the death squads’ leaders have always described their mission as supporting the State. And human rights organizations have documented hundreds of cases of cooperation between Colombia’s Armed Forces and the death squads.

While the death squads call themselves the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the most common appellation newspapers use to describe them is “paramilitaries.” The choice suggests auxiliary military forces linked to the government: a pretty accurate description.

Not everyone likes “paramilitaries,” though. President Alvaro Uribe Velez and other Colombian government and military officials often refer to the AUC as “the poorly-named ‘paramilitaries'” and “the so-called ‘paramilitaries.'” They prefer “self-defense forces,” the designation the AUC itself uses. It’s a choice laden with ideology. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas too liked to call themselves “self-defense forces” back in the 1960s.

Most foreign newspapers haven’t fallen for this loaded term. When not using “paramilitaries,” The New York Times and other papers prefer the simple, unbiased-sounding “militias.” Even this nondescript word, however, can be put to ideological uses. In a June 2002 meeting, a U.S. Embassy official in Bogota tried to convince me these “militias” were like the vigilante groups that established law and order along the colonies’ frontier during the U.S. Revolutionary War era. Likewise, in a September 2003 speech Uribe called the militias “private justice groups.”

Bland terms like “militia” fail to suggest the extremity of what the AUC does. On August 26, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported on federal prosecutors’ rare capture of a death squad leader. The editors chose to call him a “paramilitary.” Elkin Casarrubio, known as “The Priest,” was charged with coordinating the April 2001 massacre of at least 40 indigenous farmers in the Alto Naya region, 250 miles southwest of Bogota. The German wire service described the massacre tersely: “Pregnant women were among the victims of the massacre, in which the paramilitaries dragged the Indians out of their homes and then hacked them to death with power saws and knives.”

Perhaps because of such stories, the Associated Press favors “warlords.” The designation suggests less institutional coherence, more brutality, less modernity than “paramilitaries.”

Sometimes, of course, poor choices like the bland “militias” or erroneous “rebels” are not the reporter’s fault. The May 14 Guardian piece mentioned above used “militias” in the first sentence and “paramilitaries” in the second, under a headline calling the AUC “rebels.” It was likely a Guardian editor, not Bogota reporter Sibylla Brodzinsky, who added the misleading “rebels.”

Even worse than The Guardian’s bungle was a July 24 Miami Herald headline. Though the first sentence of Frances Robles’s story on drug trafficking charges against AUC commanders calls them “paramilitar[ies],” the all-important headline calls them “guerrilla leaders”.

No, former AUC commander Carlos Castano hasn’t emerged from hiding to join up with the FARC. The headline is just a little gift to Uribe from the Herald’s editors. It allows the Colombian government to appear besieged on all sides by insurgencies, while in fact relying on one of these supposedly rebellious “guerrilla” groups — the one with those power saws — to execute its peculiar “private justice.”

PHILLIP CRYAN writes the Media column for Colombia Week ( In 2002 and 2003, he did human rights work in Colombia. Next year Common Courage Press will publish News From the Southern Front, a book he is writing about the impacts of recent U.S. intervention in the country. He can be reached at: