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.