The Threat of Peace in Colombia

Translated by Forrest Hylton

“What is troubling Defense Minister Santos so deeply, and what has certain sectors in this country so worried? That there are journalists, senators, and public opinion leaders talking about peace.” 

— Hollman Morris

Translator’s note: On February 1, through the mediation of Senator Piedad Córdoba, the FARC guerrillas (Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia) unilaterally released one soldier and three police officers in compliance with promises made public on December 21, 2008. The Colombian government, for its part, violated its agreement not to fly over the airspace where the hostage release was to take place, thereby putting the release in jeopardy and delaying it for two hours. The government then denied it had done this, choosing instead to denounce the journalists who exposed the violation. The FARC has since released two more prisoners: Alan Jara, a former departmental governor who was held for seven and a half years, on February 3, and Sigifredo López, a former departmental legislator held for a similar length of time, on February 5. Having executed eleven of López’s colleagues in June 2007, the FARC has no politicians left in its custody.

Hollman Morris, one of Colombia’s top investigative journalists and a distinguished peace activist, was alleged to have received from the FARC, in advance, the co-ordinates of the site where the prisoners were to be released, and was then publicly denounced by Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos as a “collaborator” of the FARC. Predictably, this has led to death threats against him. Below is the text of an interview Morris gave on February 3 to Julio Sánchez and Félix de Bedout on La W., one of Colombia’s leading radio stations, along with a brief introductory paragraph written by the Social Web of Communication and Foreign Relations for Truth and Life, of the Association of Indigenous Cabildos of Northern Cauca [ACIN], which posted the text of the interview on the web (

On February 7, Gustavo Adolfo Ulcué, a member of ACIN’s Social Web of Communication and Foreign Relations, received death threats from armed gunmen who broke into his house, threatened his brother, and stole his laptop when he was not there. Speaking from Villavicencio, Meta, President Uribe warned that “the FARC’s intellectual bloc” was seeking to “disorient” and “deceive” public opinion by “talking of peace,” thereby amplifying Defense Minister Santos’s charge against an individual journalist (Morris) to include anyone working for peace or even discussing it. The ante has been upped. 

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The interview speaks for itself: journalist Hollman Morris defends himself against a new attack launched by Juan Manuel Santos, Minister of Defense. We reiterate our support for Hollman, for the freedom of expression, for his work as a journalist, for “Contravía” [“Against the Current”:], and for the Freedom of the Word, which is so costly for us, and which threatens those who have much to hide; those who benefit from manipulating and covering up the truth. We keep on, Hollman, en contravía (against the current).

February 3, 2009

Julio Sánchez: I want to say hello to Hollman Morris who is in the eye of the hurricane, like the journalist Jorge Enrique Botero, for what happened yesterday [Feb. 2]. Hollman, buenos días.

Hollman Morris: Muy buenos días Julio, Félix and Alberto, muy buenos días. Julio, there’s something worse that Defense Minister Santos said. He accused me publicly of being a collaborator of the FARC. And I want to say to you Julio, and to my colleagues, I have received various threatening messages since thanks to this type of irresponsible pronouncement. But let’s get to the bottom of it, Julio, let’s answer the question: at no point did the FARC give me the co-ordinates of the site. Completely false. I don’t go in for “shows” [in English in the original], whether orchestrated by the guerrilla, the paramilitaries, or the government. My work has been completely independent.

For months we’d been trying to establish contact with the FARC guerrillas and that contact came more than a week before the liberation of the soldiers. For over a week, more like 10 days, I was in the jungles of the south seeking an interview they had promised me. Things evolved until it happened that we appeared in the place where the hostages were to be freed. Now I find out that that what they are telling journalists, in the end, is that we need to ask the government for permission to enter zones of conflict, or to interview guerrillas.

Julio Sánchez: Hollman, before you go on, if I understand you correctly, what happened yesterday was a coincidence?

Hollman Morris:
It was a coincidence. That’s to say that I was looking for an interview with one of the top FARC commanders, and they say to me, “It’s coming, you have to go to such and such a place, you have to travel, to walk,” then walking and walking, putting up with thirst, heat, until we get there, and they tell us, “No, look, this is going to go down instead, take it or leave it. Are you interested?” In terms of news, I was interested. And for the documentary, the goal of which was to get that interview, we are quite interested, because its theme was and is kidnapping.

Félix de Bedout: Hollman, but in the end you never got the interview.

Hollman Morris
: In the end, I didn’t get the interview. They promise us one thing, they promise us another, and we see they’re moving us, they’re moving us, until we get to a place and we’re listening to the radio, with what little signal we had, that the liberation had been postponed. Remember that it had already been postponed once already: it was programmed several days ago and then got drawn out.

Julio Sánchez: Hollman, what is the basis of the charges Minister Santos makes in relating all this to you as a journalist, so to speak?

Hollman Morris: Look Julio, I don’t know, I don’t know what basis he has. But it’s worth remembering several facts: during the presidential campaign of Álvaro Uribe [for re-election in 2006], Minister Santos accused [former Senator and current presidential candidate] Rafael Pardo of having contact with the FARC, and it turned out to be completely false. And he’s been doing the same with Senator Piedad Córdoba. It was out of the Ministry of Defense—the Minister himself—that a series of e-mail’s emerged that supposedly showed that she had contact with, and ties to the FARC.

What is troubling Defense Minister Santos so deeply, and what has certain sectors in this country so worried? There are journalists, senators, and public opinion leaders talking about peace. And to speak of peace, we must first recognize that there’s an armed conflict in this country. And journalists who enter the conflict zones, who show or denounce the reality of the guerrilla, like the reality of the paramilitaries, like the reality of narcotrafficking; we continue to discomfort a government that has made systematic efforts to deny the existence of an armed conflict, and which is only interested in showing and giving visibility to acts of war, as far as I can tell.

I see what happened this week as a humanitarian act, and to my way of thinking, it needed visibility in the media. And just because guerrillas give us journalists an interview, or paramilitaries or narcotraffickers or para-politicians give us an interview, does not necessarily mean that we get involved with, or are close to, the para-politician, the narcotrafficker, or the guerrilla.

Félix de Bedout: Hollman, yesterday in conversation with the freed hostages, one of them said that the guerrilla intended for them to be interviewed by media in the area, and they were to give scripted responses. Aren’t you worried that you would be used like that by the FARC?

Hollman Morris
: Correct. Yes, it does worry me, and for that reason journalists always have the opportunity to decide what to put on the air and what not to put on the air. This is the tool and the weapon of journalists. It’s how journalists protect themselves, at least the way I see it. One decides what to publish, what to make visible, and what images to show. I’m surprised: I still haven’t used a single image on the air and I’m already in the eye of the hurricane! I did two reports for Radio France International in which, in spite of having spoken to the young men who were freed, I did not at any point use their words for my reports. Why not? For the simple reason that I decided against it. Those young men were under pressure from the guerrilla, and I wasn’t interested in that material. And for that reason the material never came to light, and still hasn’t been used on the air. The young man says they scripted the responses, and certainly that could be. I have seen proofs of survival that came to us totally scripted….

When we get to the place, perhaps an hour went by, when they said to us, “Look, here come the soldiers.” And I say, “Fine, where are they?” And they show up with the first police officer, and I ask him some questions, and I tell the second one, “No, I’m not interested, just tell me your name and how long you were in captivity, nothing more.” And the proof is in the images we shot. Why? Because, quite simply, the young men were still in guerrilla hands, so for me, what they said there had no journalistic value, because they were under pressure.

Félix de Bedout: Hollman, among the many atrocious weapons that the FARC utilizes, there is one they use successfully, which is lying. And they lie constantly; the lies of the FARC are constant and incalculable. Aren’t you worried that that they’ll try to use you to disseminate their lies?

Hollman Morris:
Look Félix, if I’ve learned anything from fifteen years of journalism, fifteen years of crisscrossing the country—I think I’m one of few journalists who’s riding on mules, taking small boats, covering all corners of the country week after week, and above all in “Contravía” [], giving a voice to the victims of this conflict. And I say it with all due respect and affection. If I’ve learned anything from crisscrossing this country, it is that the hearts of the warriors were damaged beyond repair some time ago. And I mean all of them: the armed forces, the paramilitaries, the guerrillas. And if they have to lie, they do it. All of them. Read the epigraph at the beginning of Operación Jaque [a book published by Juan Carlos Torres in Bogotá in late 2008, about the freeing of Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. mercenaries]. It says, “Deception is the art of war.” And all of them, at any moment, can deceive journalists. You don’t allow yourself to be deceived, though, Félix. And in order not be deceived, you have to be in the places where things are happening, you have to see the places.

That’s another reason that motivated me to go there and see the reality that I observed during ten days hiking through the jungles of Caquetá, and seeing the reality of the campesino, the reality of Plan Patriota [a U.S.-supported Colombian military offensive in the FARC heartlands, the largest in Colombian history], seeing the reality of the guerrilla. The guerrilla will surely continue to have the will to deceive us, to manipulate us, just like the other actors in the conflict. But journalists, I repeat, have the opportunity to decide what to publish and what to emit. Fortunately, the experience I have with “Contravía” is that it’s not a rush to go on the air. We don’t play that game. There’s time for reflection and analysis, which allows us to filter out what is deceptive or manipulative.

Félix de Bedout: Hollman, in this case, because we know your work very well during this entire period, wouldn’t it have been better not to be there?

Hollman Morris:
No, I don’t think so Félix, I don’t think so. I think that in humanitarian acts in which both sides can come together, particularly acts in which hostages are freed, you should go there. I think those are the things that need greater visibility, greater reflection in the cameras. Because we’re talking about giving visibility to peace. Sometimes we like giving visibility to the war, and I don’t think we can build the country our children deserve that way; the country that future generations deserve is a country that needs to talk about peace. But to speak about peace, we journalists, and I say it Julio to all our colleagues with due respect, we have to begin to show the barbarity of war. And to show the barbarity of war, we have to go to the far corners of the country where there are thousands of victims of paramilitarism, of the guerrilla, and sadly, of sectors of the armed forces.

If this country doesn’t figure out that there’s an armed conflict here, one that is barbarous, we will never be able to discuss peace. You know, there are people in Bogotá and Medellín who say this country is not at war. If there’s no war it’s because we are not showing it. And the few of us who do show it end up being labeled allies of the guerrilla….We always criticize the FARC, and we have to because of their demented and barbarous acts. But when they commit a humanitarian act, we’re not there, there are no cameras. At bottom what we want is that these people put down their weapons and join the political process. And we have to show that these are the acts the country needs.

Julio Sánchez: Hollman, muchas gracias for talking with us.

Hollman Morris: Julio, I hope for the best, but right now I’m in the city of Florencia [capital of Caquetá department], the Minister of Defense just called me a FARC auxiliary, and you know what such a declaration implies here [in Colombia]. Hollman Morris will continue to be an undesirable witness in this country for all those who want to hide the truth of the conflict and the conflict’s victims. Muchas gracias, Julio and Félix.

Tejido de Comunicación y Relaciones Externas para la Verdad y la Vida. Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca – ACIN. Telefax: 0928 – 290958 – 293999. Email: . Web: . Santander de Quilichao Cauca, Colombia

Forrest Hylton is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso 2006).

Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.