Media Beat, June 3, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Colombia: Where Terrorism Rules

In the painful aftermath of the Oklahoma City tragedy, news coverage has gone to great lengths to convey the humanity of victims and the grief of survivors. As a result, the emotional realities of terrorism now seem much more real to Americans.

What would it be like to live in a country where terrorists struck with impunity on a regular basis, matching the Oklahoma death toll every few weeks?

And what if most of the nation's terrorists -- rather than reviling the government -- were actually aligned with the government, or even part of it?

That's the situation in Colombia, where political killings total 4,000 a year, in a South American nation of 33 million people. If a similar proportion of the population were dying from political violence in the United States, that would add up to about 600 people killed by terrorism every week.

When U.S. media outlets mention the Colombian carnage, it's usually in stories blaming drug traffickers for the bloodshed. Yet, as journalist Ana Carrigan pointed out this spring in the magazine Report on the Americas, ''the media's single-minded obsession with drugs'' has gotten in the way of telling the truth.

Out of 25,491 politically linked killings of noncombatant Colombian civilians during the last eight years, less than 3 percent of the murders were related to the drug trade, according to the Andean Commission of Jurists. Twenty-nine percent of the deaths were attributed to left-wing rural guerrillas and urban insurgents.

Contrary to the impression left by U.S. media accounts, Carrigan reports, nearly 70 percent of the political murders with identified perpetrators ''have been committed by the Colombian army and police, or by paramilitary groups and privately financed death squads operating in partnership with state forces.''

In effect, the partnership extends to Washington -- which keeps sending U.S. taxpayers' money to the Colombian government, despite its grisly record:

Each year, hundreds of Colombian children -- many of them poor street kids -- are killed by death squads engaged in ''social cleansing.'' Human Rights Watch charges that young people arrested by police are regularly beaten, raped and tortured with electric shocks. Special army units also torture children, viewing them as ''potential informants on their parents.''

''Political cleansing'' goes on daily. In November 1992, for example, eight children associated with a nonviolent, progressive Christian group were massacred in Medellin. The accused include members of a U.S.-trained police intelligence squad.

After a skirmish with guerrillas near Trujillo a few years ago, soldiers and police rounded up dozens of suspected civilian ''sympathizers'' in the town. Their mutilated bodies were later found floating in a river. Some had been burned with blowtorches, others had limbs amputated with a chain saw.

Paramilitary groups murdered more than 100 labor unionists in Colombia last year.

The U.S. media's favorite plot line -- pitting Colombia's noble authorities against nefarious drug traffickers -- fits in well with rationales for U.S. government aid, providing Colombian police with about $ 18 million annually. Iaddition, Colombia has been a top Latin American buyer of military equipment from the United States; last year's purchases were in the neighborhood of $ 73million.

Nine months ago, Manuel Cepeda -- a senator leading the left-wing opposition -- was gunned down on a Bogota street. A paramilitary group, calling itself ''Death to Communists and Guerrillas,'' quickly claimed responsibility.

Government investigators have tied the murder to Fidel Castano, a well-known paramilitary chieftain, named on seven current arrest warrants related to massacres. Yet, he continues to move freely between Colombia and his apartment in Paris.

In the United States, media attention to Colombia's political violence is sparse -- and skewed. ''The news coverage is completely inadequate because it always seems to focus on so-called drug-related violence,'' says Mario Murillo of the Pacifica radio network's New York station WBAI, who has reported frequently from Colombia.

''The U.S. aid is supposedly used, and justified, in the name of combating drugs,'' Murillo told us. But ''a majority of U.S. aid is actually being used to combat the guerrillas and the civilian... sectors struggling for social change.'' Most of the victims of Colombian terrorism are peaceable civilians - brutally murdered as surely as the victims in Oklahoma City. No less than the people we have seen so often on our TV screens in recent weeks, their loved ones are left behind to weep and to mourn. But the circumstances of such grief are off the media map.

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