Columbia & The Media

Columbia & The Media

San Francisco Examiner


Two events came together last month which underline the dangers posed by the U.S. media’s short attention span, coupled with its inability to recall things older than yesterday’s headlines. It is a failing that just might land this country into a foreign policy nightmare.

The first event came during the second presidential debate when moderator Jim Lehrer asked if the two candidates supported U.S. intervention in Colombia. The two briskly agreed they did, and Lehrer moved on without a follow-up question. The media barely noticed the issue the next day.

Less than a week later, a small article appeared on page five of the New York Times, buried under the head,“Colombia Says Rebels Have Killed 56 Troops”. It sent a cold shiver of memory down my spine.

Almost half the dead were aboard a U.S. supplied Black Hawk helicopter, purchased with some of the $289 million the Clinton Administration has poured into Colombia this past year as part of the U.S. war on drugs. But the Black Hawk was not fighting drug lords, it was trying to relieve a garrison of government troops besieged by anti-government guerrillas in the isolated town of Dabeiba in that country’s northwest, far from the coca and poppy fields in the south.

Nor was it the first time that U.S. supplied helicopters found themselves embroiled in the middle of the 40-year old civil war. On Dec. 13, 1998, an explosion rocked the tiny hamlet of Santo Domingo in Colombia’s northeastern Arauca Province, killing 19 people, including seven children, and seriously wounding 25 others. The peasants claimed it was a U.S. Black Hawk that attacked them, the Colombian Army claimed it was a rebel car bomb. This past May the FBI identified the explosive as a U.S. AN-M41 fragmentation bomb.

The downing of the Black Hawk has yet to be carried by local Bay Area newspapers, and unless you read the tiny bi-weekly In These Times out of Chicago, you would be unlikely to know about the FBI’s findings.

The cold chill I felt was not that this country was headed for another Vietnam. The analogy here is not Southeast Asia, but El Salvador, and the parallels should be making the media stand up and take notice.

As in El Salvador, where the rationale was the threat of communism, the Administration defines Colombian war as central to U.S. national security. In this case, a fight to choke off the flood of drugs into the U.S. As in El Salvador, “national security” has also been used to waive the human rights provisions tacked onto the recent $1.3 billion aid bill, in spite of the the Colombian military’s record of brutality. Some 37 Colombian human rights and humanitarian organizations have refused to take any of the aid because of the waiver.

The vast bulk of the $1.3 billion is for the police and the military. But the aid is not just in helicopters and weapons, but training as well. The Colombian Army is presently deploying a Anti-Narcotics Battalion in southern Colombia, the stronghold of Colombia’s strongest guerrilla army, the FARC. That battalion was trained in Fort Bragg, NC by the US 7th Special Forces Group, which will “advise” the unit in the field.

Ostensibly, the unit will “secure” coca and poppy fields, allowing the U.S. to spray them with herbicides. In reality, it will be an offensive into the middle of the FARC’s base of power, with more than 200,000 peasant farmers caught in the middle. The UN High Commission on Refugees has already alerted Ecuador to prepare for between 30,000 and 40,000 refugees. They will join two million other Colombian refugees, more than the numbers which sparked the Kosovo intervention.

According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, there is no way to “insure that it (aid) is not being used for other than counter narcotics purposes.” Both sides use drugs to buy weapons and supplies. Drugs largely fuel the 10,000 member right-wing paramilitaries, which, according to Human Rights Watch, are closely allied with the Army. Carlos Castano, head of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces, admits that 70 percent of the group’s income is drug generated.

I doubt that the U.S. will ever have many troops in Colombia, although five Americans died when a deHavilland RC-7 crashed last July while gathering surveillance on FARC movements. Like El Salvador, there will only be a scattering of names on some wall in Washington. But as in El Salvador, new weapons and training will increase civilian and guerrilla casualties geometrically, adding to the already 35,000 who have died in the war.

And as in El Salvador, the U.S. may find itself in the middle of a major human rights crisis. We trained a government unit in that war as well, the Atlacalt Battalion, which in December, 1981 rounded up between 700 and 900 residents of the town of El Mazote, and systematically murdered all but a few who slipped away to tell the tale.

If the media needs a memory jog, I suggest reading Mark Danner’s “The Truth about El Mazote” in the Dec.6, 1993 New Yorker Magazine. In it he chronicles how the Reagan Administration, denied, lied and stonewalled to keep the Congress and the public in the dark about the massacre. Reading it will take you back almost 20 years to survivor Rufina Claros lying hidden near a burning building and hearing her own son cry out:

“ Mama Rufina, help me! They killed my little sister! They’re killing me! Help me!”

Is this really where we want to go?

Conn Hallinan


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