|Colombia?s Rural Counterinsurgency Propaganda|
Colombia?s rural regions are absolutely central to the state?s economic development model. Colombia?s four largest exports?illicit coca, and licit petroleum, coal and coffee?are all produced in rural areas. The economic importance of Colombia?s rural sector has meant that the countryside has been the frequent site of armed confrontation in the civil war. Much of the violence and most of the displacement in Colombia occurs in small rural towns and villages where the Colombian state has historically had a weak presence, if it was present at all, and where distrust of the central government in distant Bogot? runs deep. The underdevelopment of Colombia?s rural sector has necessitated that the state utilize a hands-on approach to propaganda in these areas.
The Colombian Army has become well-versed in the vocabulary of psychological operations, or psy-ops?partially as a result of the training it has received from the U.S. Special Forces detachments in Colombia and at the U.S. Army?s School of the Americas (renamed in 2000, in a psy-op of its own, as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). As the state forces enter and occupy regions of rural Colombia long under the sway of the guerrillas, they are deploying a ?hearts and minds? propaganda campaign that relies more on human interaction than on high-tech tools. At the same time, state authorities collect images and information about their successes, which are then passed to the national media for transmission to the Colombian public.
It is important to note that rural Colombians have tended to adjust to life under a given armed group as long as that group remained the unchallenged authority in a given region; it is at the point when regions are contested that violence?and displacement?surge. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the Colombian military?s successful seizure of a town or village once held by the guerrillas, much of the population of that community will flee; they do so either out of fear of reprisals from the conquering state forces?frequently accompanied by the arrival of right-wing paramilitaries?or because they are forced to leave by the guerrillas. But since the Colombian military?s overriding mission in guerrilla-controlled areas is ultimately one of state-building, the state forces begin immediate efforts to ?cleanse? the scene and coax back the residents, if possible.
Once a conquered town is secured, alleged members of the guerrillas captured during the fighting are photographed and detained. As some soldiers search for bombs or other booby traps, other soldiers or members of the Colombian state intelligence agency, the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), interview any remaining residents and take videos and photographs of the surroundings, including battle damage and any dead enemy combatants. Invariably, enemy weapons or war materiel captured by the state forces are sorted and arranged for photographs with jocular soldiers standing guard over the rows of bullets, two-way radios, pistols, and other war booty. Soldiers frequently pose with the corpses of killed enemy combatants, too.
Within a short time, selected images are incorporated into official press releases that include hyper-detailed accounts of all seized materials and captured or killed enemy combatants. These are soon passed to members of the Colombian and international press. Within weeks, if security conditions hold, the army may arrange press junkets, flying or driving in selected members of the press to inspect the cleansed town. For example, the army captured La Uni?n Peneya, Caquet? on January 4, 2004; on January 25 a first-hand write-up of the town appeared on page A-14 of the Washington Post, a Colprensa story including army photos hit Colombian papers the same week, and an English-language Associated Press story followed a few days later.
Independent reporting is not helped by the generalized hostility of the armed actors toward the press, and Colombian journalists in particular have been ruthlessly targeted by the various sides in the conflict. Colombia routinely ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and often the only way for reporters to gain access to conflict zones is with a military escort. This de facto embedding of the press corps offers the state considerable influence on what stories get reported and how. As the editor-in-chief of El Tiempo, Colombia?s leading daily, told the BBC: ?To move in these regions we have to ask permission from the army. You go in as a group and you try to do your job. You even have to confront the armed groups to say ?Are you going to let us do our job?? It is always risky. You never know what is going to happen.?
While the press is correct to follow such stories through whatever channels possible, over-reliance on the military for access to conflict zones, and on official sources for details about combat operations, gives press coverage of Colombia?s war an unmistakably state-leaning bent; it grants the state what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent, their famous critique of mass media, have called a ?filter,? an opportunity to frame perceptions. This, in turn, necessarily serves the propaganda needs of the state, fostering an image?however selective and subjective?of persistent progress in its counterinsurgency effort. It bears repeating that photos of confident-looking Colombian soldiers standing guard over dead guerrilla fighters covered by sheets, with captured equipment arranged by the corpses, are a mainstay in official propaganda, and the Colombian press is not squeamish about presenting such images.
This article was extracted from the Special Report Contested Country: An Examination of Current Propaganda Techniques in the Colombian Civil War. Eric Fichtl is associate editor of Colombia Journal.
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