The “False Positives” Scandal

A Wikileaks cable from February 2009 on the extrajudicial killing of innocent civilians in Colombia under the “false positives” scandal has been added to the list of the Colombian army’s abuses. Soldiers had been killing civilians and dressing them in guerilla garb in order to inflate guerilla body count.


The lead investigator of the scandal Gen. Carlos Suarez revealed in one of the leaked cables that the “phenomenon originated in the 4th Brigade in Medellín,” led by “former Army Commander Mario Montoya and current Army Commander Oscar Gonzalez.” Suarez noted that,“insistence by some military commanders on body counts as a measure of success despite [Ministry of Defense] directives to the contrary—coupled with some commanders’ ties to criminals and narcotraffickers—led to the specific pattern of murders”

Unfortunately, it appears the issues runs even deeper beyond just specific commanders all the way to President Álvaro Uribe who “continues to view military success in terms of kills…leaving him susceptible to the arguments of some military officers and politicians that the [Ministry of Defense’s] emphasis on human rights is overstated and is harming the war effort against the FARC.”

Gen. Mario Montoya resigned before the investigation results were leaked in November 2008, but made no specific references to the scandal. That same week of his resignation President Uribe had fired 27 soldiers and officers over the issue.

However, the issue of “body count mentality” in the Colombia army has been know by the CIA as far back as 1994, according to some now unclassified state documents.

While it is good to see that the military officers are not completely free from impunity within their own ranks in that they can be fired or pressured to resign, the investigation was still done in secret and no explicit legal actions were taken.

It is also disturbing the see that this issue keeps reoccurring despite whatever measures are being taken, they are surely not sufficient.

The culture of the Colombian army is proving itself to be generally corrupt, and while it’s good to see President Uribe taking slight action on this issue by firing some soldiers involved, but he is still suspect of other illegal actions, especially paramilitary ties. In general the scandal is delegitimizing the role of the army and decreasing the population’s faith in them.

Human rights concerns, and even legal concerns, are clearly being overlooked for military objectives which will certainly harm the people of Colombia in the long run who are already suffering from violence and displacement during the conflict.

Breaches on human rights are bring the US under suspicion as well as it is the top ally of Uribe’s government. The US provides $500 million a year to fight drug trafficking and rebel forces, and should be checking the army for human rights abuses before the aid is granted.


Colombia in New Media

After some basic scanning of popular “new media” news sources such as Buzzfeed, Salon, Vox, Vice, etc. I did not find a very satisfying amount og recent news on Colombia, especially pertaining to the Colombian conflict – although potentially game changing events are presently underway, as is continually outlined in this very recent article from a traditional media source, BBC. The Colombia government and the FARC are still undergoing peace talks that began in Oslo in 2012. President Santos hopes to bring an end to the conflict sooner than later. There has already been formal agreement on three of six points on the negotiations agenda. This particular article  creates a snapshot analysis of concerns for post-conflict Colombia if peace is ever reached (including economy, security, drug trafficking, and civil society) along with a summary of the damage done. The article successful hits points on the past, present, and speculative yet preparatory future of Colombia in regard to it’s longterm conflict.

It seems the settling down of a conflict may just not be as appetizing to the palette of new media, often formulated to garner as many clicks and share as possible. As with anything else: sex, violence, and drugs naturally draw the most attention. This one Buzzfeed “article” (more like a short form post) I found, is simply pictures of “$3 Million Dollars Worth of Cocaine” with minimal informative context or commentary added. Simply: “From a drug bust in Colombia, enough bricks of cocaine to build a white castle.
and “[a] narcotics police officer shows a package of cocaine, part of a two ton consignment, in Riohacha, Colombia, September 16, 2012. Authorities seized in around five and a half tons of cocaine in the last three days, worth nearly $3 million.”


The images include some officers but their faces are (purposefully?) shadowed or they are only show from behind. I certainly haven’t come to expect a very high standard from Buzzfeed but the post seems equally fascinatingly voyeuristic and a fetishization of a real issue that is getting people systematically killed. I’ll admit I found it visually interesting to see the subject of such dangerous and violent political action simply laid out in front of me, but in the larger landscape of Buzzfeed or whatever audience that includes (younger, internet age populations), it seems a little irresponsible.

Upon trying to track the potential history of this image, the photographer 3 out of 4 of the pictures posted is Fredy Builes and it was through Reuters. However, I can’t seem to find any kind of fleshed out article about the origin of these drugs in particular. There are also a ton of pictures out there like them. This picture in particular I could only find in iterations of other short, attention grabbing articles. My reverse image Google search led me to pages and pages of this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 1.34.09 PM

I couldn’t find any other details although I was curious, but maybe because these pictures are so common large drug busts just aren’t news worthy anymore besides the visceral content.

Not a lot about Colombia is being said in new media besides maybe “look at these drugs” or “check out James Rodriguez during the World Cup”. A lot of the new media landscape about Colombia are light hearted articles about Colombia during the World Cup, or even Colombia as a vacation spot. I would also dislike seeing Colombia only covered as a combat zone, there is still more to the lives of its people, but new media simply isn’t the best place to get news about it. Vice doesn’t seem to be eating up the conflict as quickly as the activities of ISIS.

Citizen Journalism in Colombia – Their best bet for transparency?

I was very surprised to find after just a little bit of research that there seems to be a strong citizen journalism presence in Colombia. As noted in a lot of my other posts, official journalism in Colombia is quite difficult due to lack of resources/training for the dangerous regions and many foreign journalists are being killed. Even with the lack of official training for working in dangerous regions, the platforms that are becoming available for citizens to tell their stories from personal experience are a great step to transparency and public knowledge in general.

I found this very interesting article about how citizen journalism reacted to an image of a young man injured in Bogota protests of August 2013. I’d post the image itself but it is fairly graphic, it looks like the young man was bludgeoned in the mouth and was later reported to have lost several teeth. The image became known as the “Joven Herido” or Injured Youth. It was believed that the blame lie either with the ESMED Riot Police or a “cartel of vandals” that have been causing militarization of Bogota.

What happens next is that the image was reported by both mainstream news media and citizen journalism sources. The articles outlines how different language is used, how the information is processed and redistributed to the masses. The mainstream media also stopped any investigation much earlier than citizen journalists. Some of the citizen journalism revealed that the boy was a photographer – maybe a citizen journalist himself.

This makes me think that although there seems to be a strong emerging network of citizen journalism (such as the established REPORTERONTN24, which has reporting in a number of Latin American countries and the US, or even Mentiras y Medios which translates to “Lies and Media”) they are still at the same risks of violence as regular citizens, especially those which are politically active. While they might not face any official censorships, much like many foreign reporters, there is a still a need to self censor to not cross any line with several armed groups.

Although there are issues getting inside the country to report there are also several projects looking to empower the people of Colombia to report from online platforms. The International Center for Journalists teamed up with one of the most influential and established news sources of Colombia, El Tiempo, to create a tool for citizens to map and report crimes around Colombia online. Future Journalism Project: Latin America have also created the VO1CE Project , an NGO project developed by Angelo Greco and Marija Govedarica, intended to train citizens to report and publish online.

Greco stated the interest in Latin America in general was due to “the complexities of the region in terms of the challenges faced by underserved communities and the interest of professional journalists to mentor citizen journalists are a great mix they’ve found in the region.”

I would like to see how these two systems with similar purposes would play out considering the first is connected with an established mainstream news source – perhaps the posts will be subject to potentially censoring via moderators. At the same time I wonder if these projects can only track lesser political crimes outside of the armed conflict itself – still the biggest problem for Colombia.

Thoughts on “Restrepo”

To be honest, I think I was not as hard hit by Restrepo as some of the other members of the class seemed to be. I think this might have been simply because I wasn’t sure how to process it, as it is so beyond anything I have experienced. The feelings and actions of the soldiers that I could sympathize with, were generally the ones that weren’t so upsetting. But while I watched it I wondered a little bit about the psychology of the soldiers, how did they keep in the valley for a whole year? They had some times of relaxation and bonding but they never really are free from the stress of being there. My best guess is that they disembodied or steered clear from any such concerns that would bring them down, they are strictly trained after all.

To the extent of what was possible for filming I think it was very fair and balanced. The filmmakers didn’t provide any sort of commentary or end goal it seemed, beyond perhaps whoever was editing the footage. Any of the arguments against it in practice are the same as those against embedding in general, making a documentary or not. I would have liked to see more of the other side, perhaps more of the people who live in the valley but that was likely impossible. It was a good move to include the soldiers interacts with the locals, I liked to see how they were attempting to negotiate or  help them in ways they could. I think something that is captured most in film rather than simply photos or texts, is instances in which the soldiers make mistakes. These naturally are harder to capture in photos, in text it can read as comical at times. In reality the mistakes can be small and comical but they can also create grief and shame that is better captured in motion. The humanization of soldiers tends to get lost in text and articles that end up edited/censored to control the public view of wars and the military. Speaking of grief, the emotions of sadness and fear over injury and death are the strongest over film. This brings in some of the debates about ethics and privacy, but what we saw in “Restrepo” seemed the most real to me. We read “grief” and we know what it means; we see a photo and it might hit us in the gut a little more. If we see it on video, we see the grief start and grow and burst in a storm.

All that being said, I did also really enjoy the photographs. They allow a viewer to grab a moment and dissect it, while video is more like being in the action – there is not a time to look around and analyze. I appreciate a good composition as much as anyone but the purpose is beyond that, I really liked the comment Tim Herington made in his interview with the Times when he said:

“When you and I look at a photograph or watch a film, it’s all about time. It is the amount of time you spend. That is everything. That is what it’s about. Full stop. No short cut. Eugene Richards does not make amazing work because he is in and out. It’s because he lives it.That’s why the best work — we all know — speaks of time.”

The three forms of media film, photo, and text – engage the audience with time in a different way. “Restrepo” was very successful in making people invest their time in sitting and absorbing something, it was watched by tons of people in a mass market. Yet it is a structured time, beginning to end. A text article tends to be beginning to end, perhaps rushing to get it done and varying from person to person (likely received by less people than a film). Photos however I think are most flexible about how people spend time with a subject. One can look at it as little or as long as they like, which could be good or bad.

2011 – Flooding and Rains of La Niña Responsible for More than 400 Deaths

Colombia’s largest scale natural disaster to happen in recent history claimed more than 400 lives and created more than 3 million disaster victims, mostly displaced persons. La Nina also caused around 5 billion USD in damage. The rains affected important city infrastructure such as aqueducts, sewage systems, healthcare facilities, roads, and of course homes. La Nina is a regular weather phenomenon, a cyclical weather system, caused by the cooling of the Pacific ocean (El Nino accounts for the warming of the Pacific) but in the 2010-2011 rainy season there was a reported five or six more times rainfall than expected. While Colombia regularly experiences heavy rains, with a handful of fatalities each year from landslides, nothing in recent history had been so large scale.
In December 2010 of the rainy season the government declared a state of economic, social, and ecological emergency. The president at the time, Juan Manuel Santos called it, “the worst natural disaster we can remember”. As Colombia is still a state of internal conflict, the populations already affected by the violence are most vulnerable to the damages of the extreme weather.
La Nina also affected other countries in the region such as Argentina, Venezelua, Panama, Bolivia, and Brazil with severe rains causing flooding and landslides.

The reporting coverage of this event is done responsibly and does not lean on any negative preconceptions=. Santos is quoted many times declaring his concerns for the people, it is made clear that several outside institutions have been contacted in the time of crisis. Emergency preparations are quoted as saving around some 5,000 lives but more is already being prepared and invested to improve the systems. There is some commentary on who/what to blame for the disaster – be it of natural causes from global warming or corrupt officials that have allowed drug traffickers, property developers, and the like to destroy and exploit important infrastructure and promote social inequalities leaving the poor in dangerous areas. The primary concern continues to be the affected peoples of Colombia, in the double bind of surviving the conflict and the rains.

Progress in Medellin, Once Murder Capital of the World

Upon doing research of both journalistic and conflict conditions in Colombia, I came across this surprisingly positive article about public progress in Medellin.

This article was particularly fascinating to me as it focused on something optimistic happening in Colombia, and attempts to dissuade  the readers of the dominant narrative about Medellin – especially in the context of the conflict still in progress. I had been continuously told with certainty in passing academic conversation that Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in Colombia, with an air of certainty of it’s hopelessness. Medellin had become the standard Colombian city of danger. In 1991 it was the murder capital of the work and home of cocaine kingpin Escobar. You would  think I would have heard about the remaking of the city as recently reported as 2013, made possible with the decrease in crime and murders after the death of Escobar twenty years ago. Murder rates fell a staggering 80% in just a decade.

I often feel bogged down reading about all the aspects of Colombia conflict that it sometimes seem like it’s impossible for it to end and like there was nothing else to news in Colombia but this story reminds me some progress has been happening in the infrastructure and social problems of Colombia. What else is refreshing about this article is that it does not play on definites and is very reasonable. It is never claimed that Medellin is fixed for all the future to come, but rather the very large strides that have been made with the remaining problems that need to be solved. Although there is less drug violence, there is still a threat of gang violence. Police patrols and tactics have  been strengthened, and their presence on the streets is still sometimes necessary to calm gang violence but the citizens feel a lot more protected.

Besides cutting down on violence, Medellin has been improved with new schools, libraries, and public transportation. Some residents are understandably worried that the changes will not hold, or violence will reign again if the protective forces leave. However, the new investments in public good should help deter the growth of violence by increasing options and resources for increased quality of life. There are still major issues to be concerned about such as the (albeit much lower rate of homicide) still being a signal of danger, and 9,000 people being forced from their homes in 2012 because of violence. Hopefully the crime rates will continue to exponential lower and Medellin can set a precedent for innovation in Colombian cities.

Lack of Media Coverage to Curtail Impunity in Colombia

In Colombia, the issue of legitimacy in reporting via sourcing is troublesome on a grander scale in that reporting is severely limited by self-censorship as self defense. Reporters are regularly victims of death threats, kidnappings, and murder. Several journalists have even received less violent attempts to oppress their work by way of official requests from the government to not run their stories and investigations. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, there is rampant impunity of crimes, especially those against journalists. Although there is no overlying official form of censorship, journalists have taken to self censorship as a form of self-defense and in effect journalism as a tool to fight impunity is lost. Journalists are not only concerned with protecting their sources but themselves as a source and medium of news as well. News conglomerates have tried to vie for individual safety by publishing under collective names but nonetheless Several media and news stations (El Inspectador and RCN News) have been bombed by rebel forces, and often journalists must flee the country – perhaps the ultimate form of silencing their own voice to that location.
Organizations for the protection of journalists have been providing body guards, armed cars, and other defenses. But all in all, journalists – especially local – have been know to shy away from subjects such as narco-trafficking and corruption, issues at the heart of the armed conflict.
Some journalists have only been able to use government press releases as official sources, which limits plurality and opens the window for government manipulation of public opinion. The government has also been know to control journalists by accusing them of being members of sympathizers of guerrilla rebel groups if they do not fall to their preferences. Journalists receive particular harassment from the government forces when trying to cover public protests. To go into different armed forces location they control or to go into the locations of rebels in army garb and cover. However, there is still a threat of capture, such as the French journalist Langois who was kidnapped by the FARC after revealing he was indeed a journalist. FARC grounds are most dangerous to enter without permission, and thus any more sources outside of official government press releases tend to lean towards the paramilitaries – often under suspicion of colluding with the government thus leading the circle of press silencing full circle.

Obstacles to Journalism in Colombia

Colombia has often been reported as one of the most dangerous locations for reporters. More than one hundred journalist have been killed in the last fifteen years, and historically there is very strong impunity for crimes against them. A glaring 95% of murder cases of journalists are unsolved. The armed conflict is long running and includes several different players with different agendas – hence making it more difficult for journalists to strategize their best ends of self-censorship, ability to keep cover, and avoid censorship from the many different parties. The conflict includes many dangerous factors such as arms smuggling and drug trafficking. It does not seem particularly difficult to enter the country, rather to just successfully get journalism done there. In order to increase safety news groups often switch reporters for the same location and try to get them in and out as fast as possible.Journalists are safer in larger cities and capitals, but it is reported that rural areas are more dangerous as they are often controlled by the illegal Marxist guerrillas and paramilitary groups. These groups have also been notoriously responsible for a large percentage of the crimes against journalists as they fear exposure of their illegal activities. Army permission may also be needed to enter these zones, but the army itself has sparked and agitated issues in the conflict, with alliances to the the paramilitary groups and heavy hand in the government. There is a larger need for media coverage as the local journalism is weak, biased and likely destabilized. Journalists must also be careful not to disrupt communities or potentially bring more danger to them – as so many are entrenched in camps of different armed groups.

Women journalists also face a particular danger of sexual violence in Colombia. During the armed conflict women have been treated as prizes and territories of war, often abused physically, sexually, and emotionally to control and claim territory and power. Unsurprisingly, the paramilitaries are the most responsible for the violence. The rates of impunity for sexual violence are sky high as 98% of rapes are not punished, and around 86% are not reported to begin with. This tactic of war and terrorism is also used as a tactic to silence and puts female journalists in danger as well – such as the Colombian Jineth Bedoya Lima. However, fifteen days after she was raped returned to her line of work to seek justice for other women facing sexual violence as a consequence of the conflict.

Different international institutions such as UNESCO and the United States Institute of Peace have given workshops and seminars on journalism in specifically the Colombia conflict to increase safety for journalists. Women have particular difficulties in access as there is a greater potential for violence, and some groups are more threatening than other to report on. Although there is a need for international coverage because local is weak, access is haltered by initial danger and intimidation. If a reporter gets in it is better that they quickly get out before they are run out or under attack.

Investigative Journalism – Colombian Army spies on Havana Peace Talks

(A summary for anyone that doesn’t speak Spanish, it’s a little easier to understand than a Google translation)

In this article by Semana, an investigative report reveals military spying on Havana peace talks. The article goes in depth into how the spying had been done, without revealing too much sensitive information about what military figures that were in charge of the operation, although they state that they do know. This information is possibly being withheld for a follow up article/investigation with more information. The activities have been taking place at a public facility under the façade of an executive lunch spot and computer education center, but is in actuality also one of the core stations of the National Army interceptions. For public safety, the article does not release the public title of the façade, but rather its military codename ‘Andromeda’. There are many of these fronts around the country and there general purpose is on record to combat terrorism – ranging from Islamic terrorism to that domestically of the FARC. The article states that upon research of the property information it is leased and licensed to serve food and drink as it does to the general public. Those responsible for the actual spying are a mix of hired locals, trained hackers – used as to dilute the trail back army responsibility -and army personnel. Upon interviewing some of the workers it was revealed that they are not certain who requested the data specifically and for what exactly it would be used. Only higher ups can form the big picture with the smaller pieces of data that the staff supplies them. While spying or informing on certain groups has become common place in armed conflicts involving multiple groups the National Army has been under some suspicion of instigating and prolonging public and social issues surrounding the conflict – as seen in another article on military corruption, as well as the ambiguous ties between the military and paramilitary groups who are directly responsible for a large amount of crimes that are already public knowledge. The military may be seeking even more of a heavy handed influence in the government, or perhaps is looking to sabotage the peace talks. It was also revealed that the army had committed a number of other illegal wiretappings from this central location. A raid was completed on the building but most of the data was successfully wiped in anticipation.

Semana was able to compile information for their investigation by looking through documents, photographs, conducting interviews, and consulting with several different intelligence agencies, including American ones. They were able to conduct both interviews with civilian staff and higher up army staff, which is surprising to me. They state that several people gave up information only on the condition of anonymity. None of these strategies seems particularly unethical, and it doesn’t state that they ever looked around confidential information in the building itself – although they could easily enter the public façade. I am very curious about the timeline before and after this article – it states that a raid happened later but was in before the investigation was published? In response to a tip off? What initial evidence or question led them to complete this investigation? I may be losing some information in my own reading of the Spanish as well as referencing it to machine generated translations. I don’t think something like this would have been possible by someone outside of the country. Semana is an established Colombian news source, responsible for other impressive investigations as well. As no one was cited as the author it was likely done by a team. I was surprised by some of those who agreed to be interviewed, maybe they would have only done so for such an established news source – I do not think they would have been as open with foreigners. It has been noted that local journalism in Colombia is a bit lacking, as there is not a lot of plurality and a number of biases from different conflict actor to navigate.

Journalism in Hostile Environments – The Colombian Conflict

I would like to focus my blog entries on the reporting that is being done on the Colombia conflict. I’m interested in this conflict in particular as in the past I have learned a lot about Human Rights violations in South America, from more of a broad stroke, as well as many of the social issues occurring in Colombia from this particular conflict. Naturally, a lot of social issues can be from lack of resources, including proper information, and awareness both domestically and internationally to potentially help the cause. When I last focused on Colombia I had written a paper about the suffering of women in Colombia in particular and potential solutions to the problem that were ongoing. In general, it is easy but still true to say that the majority of the issue would be quelled if the conflict in Colombia ended in general. The conflict started in 1964, active groups of militants include the Colombia government, paramilitary groups, and the major left-wing guerrilla groups of FARC ( Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia / Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia ) and ELN ( Ejército de Liberación Nacional / National Liberation Army ). Over 220,000 people have died between 1958 and 2013, the majority of which being civilian deaths. It is hard to cite a succinct, central cause of the problem as it seems to be more a release, reaction, and reflection of tension that has been building. The US played a heavy role in the repression of communism in South America that often led to greater human rights violations (ex The Dirty War in Argentina), and the FARC developed from militant communist fighting for social justice for the poor. Conflicts have developed between groups, and there have been numerous violations of human rights as well as strong ties with the drug trade. The US supported Plan Condor, designed to wipe out drug trade, had many negative social impacts and remains a key point of argumentation and concession during attempts to negotiate peace.