On April 22nd of this year, a group of peasants from Campo Alegre village in the Catatumbo region of North Santander Department appeared at the 11th Land Operations Battalion’s camp to demand that the military release Dimar Torres. This ex-combatant of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had been missing for several hours. Shots fired in the area had alerted the community.
When they were finally allowed into the camp, the peasants found a hole in the ground and a few meters away, the body of Dimar, killed with a shot to the head. This assassination reactivated memories of the so-miscalled “false positives”, or extrajudicial executions, that many of us in Colombia believed were over.
At first, Minister of Defense Guillermo Botero claimed that Dimar Torres had died in a struggle while trying to get hold of Corporal Gómez’s rifle. A few days later, this story was refuted by General Diego Luis Villegas, who publicly apologized for the murder committed by troops under his command.
About a month later, Nicholas Casey, writing for The New York Times, published an article about the return of the Colombian Army to the macabre policy of evaluating the success of counterinsurgency operations through body counts. Earlier this year, generals and colonels were asked to double the number of captured enemy soldiers, deserters and combat casualties. Considering that the FARC, the largest guerrilla group in Colombia, had signed a Peace Agreement in 2016, handing over their weapons and rejoining civilian life, this seemed to be a contradictory policy. To boot, similar to the counterinsurgency strategy of former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), “perfection” was not a criterion when executing attack.
The issue of “false positives,” or civilian deaths reclassified as combat casualties, first came to public attention in September 2008. That month, 11 missing youths in the city of Soacha, south of Bogotá, were reported to be guerrillas killed in combat and buried in a mass grave hundreds of kilometers from the capital. What we learned was that members of the public force, which includes both the military and the police, would assassinate civilians and present them as guerrillas killed in combat. In return, they were rewarded with leave, salary increases and other benefits, while the government was able to boast that it was improving national security. It’s worth noting that the deceased were marginalized young people poor or disabled, recruited in slums, deceived by promises of a better salary, and then murdered. According to figures from the Colombian Attorney General (Fiscal General), 4,382 people were assassinated in this way between 2002 and 2008. The Guardian has stated that over 10,000 civilians were executed by the army as “false positives” between 2002 and 2010.
This episode also shed light on some little-debated issues in the Colombian public sphere: the relation of the media with power, how the media companies serve the interests of the government in office and their role in the establishment and normalization of authoritarianism and violence in Colombia. As it turned out, the New York Times was not the first news outlet to learn about “false positives.” Colombian media outlets had known about the story, but decided to not publish it, according to the La Silla Vacía news website. Semana magazine had had the story for several months. One of Semana’s columnists, Daniel Coronell, wrote an article questioning why the investigation was suppressed. A few days later, Coronell announced that the magazine had decided to cancel his column, triggering widespread criticism of the magazine. Two weeks later, Semana decided to reinstate the journalist, but never clarified why they had refused to publish the investigation.
In an article I wrote about the role of the media in the 2018 presidential election, I noted that the media helped to elect current President Iván Duque, in part by demonizing the political ideas of his progressive opponent, Gustavo Petro. Duque, a fairly young man with no experience in public administration and wholly unknown to the public a few months before the beginning of the campaign, was hand-picked by his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe. The media portrayed Duque as a moderate, youthful person, a candidate able to restrain the most radical tendencies of the far-right party, Democratic Center, which Uribe had created in 2014. But the only moderate thing about Duque is his appearance: he does not raise his voice or come across as rude, like many of his party’s members. Duque’s political agenda, clearly conservative and reactionary, never became moderate.
For those of us who, at that time, publicly supported Gustavo Petro, the lack of moderation in Duque’s political program was always clear. Equally clear was Uribe’s intention to govern through Duque: his purpose was to dismantle the transitional justice system created in the Peace Agreement signed between the Santos government and the FARC in 2016; avoid being convicted of crimes, and keep himself in power perpetually.
However, this symbiosis between the political and media establishments is merely a symptom of a larger political problem. Political parties in Colombia are in crisis and the media has become a mediator between citizens and the State. If for many years the media were mostly family businesses connected to the two main parties in Colombia, the Liberals and the Conservatives, they are now in the hands of business conglomerates. 57% of media in Colombia are now controlled by three large business groups: the Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo Organization, owner of the AVAL financial conglomera te; the Ardila Lülle Organization and the Santo Domingo Business.
These media companies align themselves with the political elite to gain social and political favors. What we saw in the 2018 election was a repetition of what happened in the 2002, when Álvaro Uribe was first elected, and again in 2006, when the media led public opinion to favor his re-election. In 2018, the media were not only once again principal players in promoting Iván Duque’s candidacy, they were the main mouthpieces for the “democratic security” policy of the Uribe government. This combination of political and media interests might be called the “opinion-based state.” Far from being a political concept coined by Mr. Uribe, is simply an idea that must be taken in its literal sense: that most citizens believe, at any given moment, whatever the media says.
The media are implicated in the murders of civilians, not just because they supported a political regime, but because what they reported supported its harsh policies. During the 2002 presidential campaign, the media were instrumental to promoting a “democratic security” policy that ultimately led to the death of civilians. Democratic security was cast as a public good to which all Colombians were entitled. However, looking back, it is evident that this policy, designed during the Uribe government to put an end to the guerrillas, was based on a fiction: that it served the general interest, when in fact it served the interests of the few, precisely those who now oppose the peace process.
In other words, the media helped to normalize an authoritarian political project, normalizing paramilitary activity and violence as well as censorship, stigmatization and the persecution of critical thinking. The Colombian state actually failed to reign in violence: paramilitary forces, now mistakenly called “Black Eagles,” survived; and the Uribe government failed to guarantee the security of the poor, Colombians most vulnerable to armed conflict, extrajudicial execution, displacement, threats, political persecution, and assassination. The Uribe government claimed to be enhancing domestic security, while simultaneously dismantling the rule of law and social justice enshrined in the 1991 Constitution, and intensifying unjust and regressive social policies.
The same media and some of the country’s leading columnists portrayed Uribe as a statesman with “a firm hand” and a tireless worker. They positioned the armed confrontation with the guerrillas as a “fight against terrorism” that was Colombia’s only choice, ignoring evidence that it was not necessary to weaken the enemy militarily to bring them to the negotiating table. Furthermore, the guerrillas were never the main threat to society as a whole, but principally a threat to those linked to Uribismo. Yet many Colombians only understood the armed conflict and its actors through the distortion of television news, and because of this, supported Uribe in his crusade against the rule of law and social justice and now, faced with the possibility that transitional justice can be reversed, rend their garments.
The “opinion-based state” is not wholly an invention of Uribe’s: it is the consequence of the fracturing of the political parties under the pressure of an authoritarian regime, and the subversion of a national project by elites occupied by increasing their personal fortunes. It represents the consolidation of a reactionary political sector and its mobster ethos, kept in power through violence, the plunder of land and the manipulation of public opinion. By appealing to the “opinion-based state,” Uribismo does not call for sound political deliberation, but support for dogmas and absolute truths.
However, fluctuating public opinion makes for weak and unstable governance. The scope of what was agreed in the 2016 Havana peace process, the expansion of progressive social networks, and the growth of a political opposition holds out the possibility of political change in Colombia. But as long as strong political alternatives are not articulated, and the needs of Colombians at the grassroots not translated into concrete proposals, the corporate media will continue to direct the public discussion according to its own interests: this means brokering the rise of political leaders, generating false equivalencies, stigmatizing critical thinking and proposing nonsensical debates in place of real policy discussions. In other words, media corporations will continue to assume the role of political parties by making Colombians believe that the needs of those in power are their needs.
Sara Tufano is an Italo-Colombian sociologist specializing in the Colombian conflict and the history of peace processes. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Sociology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and an opinion columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. You can tweet with her: @SaraTufanoZ