The Washington-Bogotá axis and the mainstream media in both the United States and Colombia have blamed the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for the collapse of the peace process. President Andrés Pastrana used the FARC’s ongoing military activities during negotiations as justification for ordering the Colombian military’s invasion of the rebel safe haven. But while the FARC has been repeatedly condemned for continuing to wage war outside the rebel zone, few questioned the fact that the Colombian military and the paramilitaries were doing exactly the same thing.
There is no question that the FARC’s tactics have included the targeting of the civilian population and criticism of these tactics is clearly justified. However, the tactics used by the FARC–extortion, kidnapping, bombing infrastructure and towns, profiting from the drug trade–remain the same as when the government agreed to the safe haven and negotiations three years ago. Not at that time, or any time since, has there been an agreement between the government and the FARC that the rebels cease such operations outside the zone.
Likewise, there was never an agreement that the Colombian military cease its military activities throughout the rest of the country. And yet, politicians and the media in the United States and Colombia repeatedly lambasted the FARC for continuing to fight a war against an enemy that was actively seeking to defeat it on the battlefield. The rebels also had to contend throughout the peace process with the growing military threat of right-wing paramilitaries closely allied to the Colombian army.
Paramilitary forces responsible for 70 percent of Colombia’s human rights abuses experienced their greatest growth and military successes under the presidential administration of the so-called “peace candidate.” The Colombian military has also strengthened itself during Pastrana’s reign, largely due to the Colombian president’s success in obtaining more than one billion dollars in U.S. aid. In fact, when he ordered troops into the rebel safe-haven, Pastrana was proud to point out that the peace process had not been a waste of time because the Colombian Armed Forces had used the past three years to dramatically improve their military capabilities.
The U.S. mainstream media’s biased focus on the FARC’s activities to the neglect of covering the paramilitaries was never more evident than during the week following the end of the peace process. Major newspapers and news organizations in the United States reported in great detail the FARC’s military responses to the army’s invasion of the former safe haven and the guerrilla group’s involvement in the drug trade, while virtually ignoring paramilitary activities.
On February 25, the New York Times published an article titled, “Rebels Go On a Killing Rampage,” which explicitly described the killing of six civilians by the FARC. While the Times and other news publications were correct to publicize this atrocious and reprehensible act of violence by the rebels, America’s leading daily and other major U.S. media outlets failed to make any mention whatsoever of the killing and dismemberment of five Colombian secret police officers by right-wing paramilitary death squads the same day.
And in sharp contrast to the intense U.S. media coverage of the FARC’s kidnapping of a fringe presidential candidate, there was no mention of Gilberto Torres, a union leader, who was kidnapped by paramilitaries the same week. A strike called by 5,000 oil workers to condemn the kidnapping and demand that the paramilitaries free their leader was also ignored by a U.S. media that published numerous reports of anti-FARC protests following the end of the peace process.
Many U.S. news organizations repeatedly discussed the FARC’s involvement in the drug trade, while choosing to ignore comments made by Klaus Nyhold, head of the U.N. Drug Control Program in Colombia, about the paramilitary role in drug trafficking. Following the collapse of the peace process, Nyhold stated that the paramilitaries are far more involved in drug trafficking than the FARC and that the Colombian government has mostly ignored this fact in order to focus on its war against the guerrillas.
While the media in the United States and Colombia was condemning the FARC for its unwillingness to offer any serious concessions during negotiations, it ignored the principal reason preventing the peace process from ending the country’s civil conflict: The Colombian oligarchy and Washington’s unwillingness to tolerate any far-reaching political, social and economic reforms in Colombia. This obstinacy has been reinforced by the economic policies imposed on Colombia by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which do not allow for the implementation of the sort of social and economic programs called for by the FARC.
So while the peace process was floundering, both sides were frantically reinforcing their armies and fighting each other outside the zone. And while politicians and media pundits have been eager to blame the breakdown on the rebels, it was President Pastrana, not the FARC, who decided to unilaterally end the peace process instead of waiting six more weeks to see if the two sides could reach a ceasefire agreement.
Apparently, the FARC’s recent urban offensive and kidnapping of a prominent senator hit a little too close to home for Colombia’s political and economic elite. Three years ago, when Pastrana ceded the safe haven to the rebels, the FARC was primarily targeting rural towns and villages. At that time, the political and economic elite in Bogotá were willing to tolerate the rebels’ actions. But feeling threatened by the rebels’ escalating use of the same tactics in urban areas, the oligarchy responded by ending the peace process and launching an all-out war against the FARC.
The only substantive agreement reached during negotiations called for the rebels to end mass kidnappings. After violating this agreement the day after its announcement, the FARC then abided by it until Pastrana ended the peace process. Meanwhile, the Colombian government failed to live up to its word when the president gave the rebels less than three hours notice of the army’s impending invasion of the zone. This blatant violation of a government-rebel agreement that called for the FARC to be given 48 hours notice does not bode well for future trust between the guerrillas and the government.
This latest betrayal of an agreement is also the most recent in a long history of government deceits perpetrated against impoverished rural Colombians, many of whom would have liked more than three hours to flee the region in light of the impending bombing campaign, troop invasion and inevitable arrival of paramilitary death squads.
While the FARC displayed an unwillingness to compromise during negotiations, its military tactics, though sometimes reprehensible, did not violate any agreement with Bogotá. Meanwhile, the government did move the playing field by repeatedly pointing to ongoing rebel operations as a sign that the FARC was not serious about peace and using them as justification for invading the zone.
And while it is true that the FARC cynically boosted its military strength during the peace process, so did the Colombian Armed Forces and their paramilitary allies who continued conducting military operations against the FARC and the civilian population throughout the peace process. A fact left unspoken by the Washington-Bogotá axis and often ignored by the media during the past two weeks of FARC-bashing.