Skewed Coverage of Colombian Conflict

As U.S. Special Forces arrived in early January to train Colombian troops in the protection of oil pipelines, violence by both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries soared. The first few days of 2003 were violent, with guerrillas branching out into a new form of attack -- suicide car bombs -- while paramilitaries continued their systematic executions. True to the usual one-sided coverage of the North American press, however, guerrilla-sponsored bombings have made headlines while dozens of paramilitary murders have gone virtually unnoticed. Additionally, the delivery of military aid has been reported on without accompanying contextual analysis.

In the span of just ten days, five separate suicide car bomb attacks hit Colombia. While responsibility has not been claimed, the targets of the bombings suggest that the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is behind the attacks. On January 8, a car drove into a military base manned by the 46th Anti-Guerrilla Battalion in Arauquita in the department of Arauca, killing one and wounding four. The next day a suicide bomber drove into a military checkpoint in Fortul, Arauca, killing four and injuring 15. Another military checkpoint in the same city was attacked two days later, resulting in four deaths and 14 people wounded. On January 12, a car bomb claimed the lives of three people and wounded three more -- all the victims were military personnel -- in La Palma, Cundinamarca. And on the January 16, one more car bomb exploded, this time killing four civilian employees and wounding 32 at the attorney general’s office in Medellín.

 Meanwhile, the paramilitary massacres continue. In the mid-sized eastern town of Cúcuta, right-wing assassins killed 57 civilians in the first 10 days of January. In one particularly bloody episode, eight people were killed in two of the city’s poor districts between 10:30pm and 11:00pm on January 9. Security guards and unarmed civilians, including a pregnant woman, were dragged into the streets and shot. In a separate incident, paramilitary forces killed the leader of a teacher’s union in the eastern town of Tame in Arauca. Such information is disseminated slowly, and it is quite probable that many more civilians have been killed in similar attacks so far this year.

The events of early January and their subsequent coverage highlight the media blackout on Colombia, which serves to perpetuate North American ignorance on the conflict. As noted above, both guerrillas and paramilitaries committed violent atrocities in the first days of 2003. The suicide bombings do merit heightened coverage since these inaugurate a new tactic for the country’s armed groups. However, the number of murders committed by paramilitary forces far exceeds that of leftist guerrillas by at least 58 to 16. A fact that is not evident in North American media coverage.

 A study of media coverage in major North American news sources shows overwhelming attention to the guerrilla bombings with no mention of paramilitary violence. Of the 39 stories dealing specifically with Colombian violence, politics, or economics distributed by the Associated Press (AP) between January 8 and noon on January 17, 20 dealt with the suicide car bombs. None of the 39 stories even mentioned specific events of paramilitary violence, and only two articles described the arrival of U.S. troops in Arauca. In the same time period, the Reuters news distribution agency dedicated five of their nine Colombian stories to the car bombs, and none to the paramilitaries. Many major newspapers neglected to cover the escalating violence in Colombia. The New York Times only printed three stories on Colombia: one from AP, one from Reuters, and a third by their own correspondent. None of them mentioned the car bombs or paramilitary massacres. USA Today surpassed the New York Times, failing to print a single story on Colombia during the period in question.*

 A closer examination of the events of early January suggests that the North American media overlooked more than paramilitary massacres. Those news articles that reported the suicide attacks tended to announce them as a new tactic contributing to intensification of the conflict. However, many of these pieces failed to report that the first three of the five car bombs hit military checkpoints or bases in the province of Arauca, all on the roadway to Saravena. In the second week of January, some 60 U.S. troops from the 7th Special Forces Group arrived in Arauca, heading for a military base in Saravena. This marks the first arrival of U.S. troops in Colombia on an expressed anti-guerrilla mission. The troops will train a 1,000-strong Colombian “Critical Infrastructure Brigade” to protect a 483-mile long oil pipeline owned and operated by the California-based Occidental Petroleum (see, Uribe’s Dictatorial Rule Suits Oil Companies).

 Clearly there must be a link between the new tactics executed by the guerrillas at the same time U.S. troops were arriving on a counterinsurgency mission to a military base only 15 miles from the rebel bombings. The suicide bombings must signify, at least, the acceptance of the military challenge by the guerrillas and a willingness to share in conflict escalation. The failure to recognize even the overlapping chronology of bombings and troop arrivals, let alone to question the effectiveness of stationing foreign troops in the area, illuminates the perpetuation of ignorance solidified in the mainstream North American press.

 Millions of people rely on mainstream news sources to educate them on world events and foreign policy. Therefore, if the only explanation of the Colombian crisis provided by these sources falls within consistently selective standards that omit more than half of all violence, and show guerrilla attacks and the arrival of U.S. troops with no contextual analysis, escalation of the conflict will continue unchallenged.

Simon Helweg-Larsen is a Canadian freelance author on Latin America who has spent a number of years living, working and travelling in the region. Copyright © 2003 Information Network of the Americas (INOTA). All rights reserved. For more details or specific information, please contact the author at:


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