The New York Times (5/8/20) published an article describing the recent scandal involving illegal surveillance of journalists, human rights activists, and politicians by Colombian military intelligence. The story, written by the NYT’s Editorial Board, described some of the Colombian military’s long history of committing human rights abuses. However, it failed to state the true scale and structural nature of these violations, ultimately fumbling the most important aspect of the story: how and why the Colombian military is as bad as it is.
In true propaganda fashion, the editorial piece downplayed the U.S. role in funding and promoting a murderous military doctrine designed to terrorize the civilian population into submission. Instead of providing its readers with unbiased information, the NYT Editorial Board pointed at apolitical, “criminal gangs” and drug traffickers as the main perpetrator of mass violence in Colombia.
The story references Nick Casey’s article in which he reports on a potential return to a practice now known as “false positives”. This practice consisted of incentivizing the killing of civilians and later passing them off as enemies killed in combat to boost body counts. It is estimated that between 2002-2010, nearly 10,000 civilians were brutally murdered by the Colombian military in what is perhaps one of the worst atrocities of the 21st century and what the New York Times simply refers to as “the excesses in the army’s decades of conflict...”
The article makes no effort to acknowledge the well-documented collusion between the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary death squads during the Colombian armed conflict, which included aiding the Colombian army in its kidnapping and killing of civilians as part of their “social cleansing” campaigns. In an absurd distortion of reality, the article goes as far as to claim the Colombian army was somehow at war with right-wing paramilitary groups, despite enormous evidence to the contrary. In fact, military-paramilitary cooperation was so systematic and widespread, Human Rights Watch even published a report describing the paramilitary death squads as the “Sixth Division” of the Colombian military.
The story continues, attributing the murders of social leaders and demobilized FARC combatants to ambiguous “criminal gangs”, stating, “the gangs killed 86 community leaders and 77 former members of the guerrilla group that signed the peace pact with the state.”
First, this assertion downplays the true scale of political assassinations taking place in Colombia. According to Indepaz, the true number is closer to 850 community leaders and 195 former combatants assassinated since 2016, with 110 assassinations in the first 5 months of 2020 alone. The misleading statement also obfuscates the political motives as well as the role of the Colombian government in these assassinations by unanimously blaming “the gangs” despite evidence of direct military involvement as was the case in the murder of Dimar Torres, a demobilized FARC combatant from Norte de Santander that had laid down his weapons and was in the process of reincorporating into civilian life.
Additionally, the article does not reference one of the root causes of violence in Colombia - land concentration. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries on the planet, with just 1 percent of the population controlling over 80 percent of land. The United States pumped over $10 billion in military aid to ensure it stayed that way. In the 15 years of “Plan Colombia”, a multi-billion dollar U.S military assistance program, large landholdings more than doubled, going from just over 25 percent in 1997 to 66 percent by 2014, according to an Oxfam report.
The New York Times replicates the Colombian government's trivialization of mass political violence in Colombia and scapegoating random “criminal gangs” and drug traffickers, while studies reveal over 83 percent of these killings were in relation to disputes over natural resources and State-sponsored mega-projects.
By Samantha Wherry & Evan King