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Published on Wednesday, May 3, 2000
Colombia, 60 Minutes and 'The Year of Improving Significantly'
by Dennis Hans
A viewer tuning in to the Dec. 5 broadcast of 60 Minutes would have learned that Colombian President Andres Pastrana is battling murderous drug gangs as well as "left-wing guerrillas" and "right-wing death squads." "And to make matters worse," Mike Wallace explained, the latter two foes "are making big money from drugs, while Pastrana's government is broke and his army is weak." This is why Pastrana "can't do much about" the death squads, "who slaughter 1,000 civilians a year, people merely suspected of leftist sympathies."

Pastrana told Wallace that his priorities are, "first of all, modernization of our armed forces, retraining our army, professionalizing our army, so we're bringing each year 10,000 new men as professionals to our army to fight the insurgency."

With the issue framed in this manner, Pastrana's request that the U.S. triple its aid to Colombia to $3.5 billion over three years seems at least reasonable and certainly not morally objectionable.

The viewer would have learned that Colombia has sacrificed its best soldiers in the drug war, but he or she wouldn't have learned a single negative thing about the army - the designated recipient of the bulk of the aid in Pastrana's plan (as well as a variation approved by the House of Representatives at the end of March).

Wallace justifies the exclusion on the grounds that, in his view, the army's human rights record has improved significantly under Pastrana. As for the lack of a single word linking the army to the paramilitary death squads, leading a viewer to infer that no such links exist, Wallace told me: "It is my understanding and belief that [Pastrana] is doing his best to minimize that involvement." In Wallace's view, the situation had improved sufficiently that other aspects of the story were, in December 1999, "more relevant."

José Miguel Vivanco has a different view. The executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), has long experience in Colombia. He met with Wallace and two producers before they flew to Bogotá and warned them that they ran a big risk of being used by Pastrana for PR purposes. Vivanco recalls Wallace replying, "That's why we're here."

Vivanco briefed them on the records of the guerrillas, the army and the paramilitaries, and the active support at a high level the army provides the paramilitaries. He discussed the concept of "impunity" - how the military justice system works to protect official killers - and how Colombia remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, human rights monitors and prosecutors.

Pastrana "has the right policies on paper," says Vivanco, but the important question to ask is, "What are you specifically doing to break the ties." He told his CBS visitors that if they didn't ask specific, targeted questions, they wouldn't get the right answers, and he provided information on select cases so they could do just that.

Robin Kirk, HRW's chief researcher on Colombia, maintained close contact with a producer and provided 60 Minutes an advance copy of the Colombia chapter from HRW's World Report 2000, covering the first 10 months of 1999.

The report praised Pastrana for cashiering three generals and suspending a fourth, all of whom were under investigation for assisting paramilitary massacres. HRW also hailed the work of the Human Rights Unit of the attorney general's office. "In 1999, that office reported that 161 persons accused of involvement in paramilitary activities were arrested. Seventy-five members of the security forces were under arrest for alleged involvement in human rights crimes."

On the other hand, in 1998 and 1999 a dozen of the attorney general's investigators "were murdered or forced to resign.... Prosecutors were forced to abandon their posts and seek refuge abroad because of threats, including by military officers being investigated for paramilitary ties...."

The Pastrana administration allocated $4 million "to protect human rights defenders in 1999, but monies were slow to materialize, short of what was promised, and often short-lived, including those allocated for much-needed measures like bulletproof glass, radios, taxis, and police protection at offices."

The administration's attention to the needs of people displaced by war and political violence "remained sporadic and paltry.... Although the government frequently signed agreements to provide aid, promises were rarely honored."

"Paramilitaries were considered responsible for 78 percent of the total number of human rights and international humanitarian law violations" while the guerrillas were linked to 20 percent and state forces 2 percent.

"However, the percentage does not reflect state forces that routinely assisted paramilitary atrocities." Cooperation "remained commonplace." "Repeatedly, paramilitaries killed those suspected of supporting guerrillas, then delivered the corpses to the army. In a process known as 'legalization,' the army then claimed the dead as guerrillas killed in combat while paramilitaries received their pay in army weapons."

According to a U.N. report cited by HRW, "Signs of the lack of willingness to combat the paramilitary groups effectively include the fact that the location of many of their assembly and training sites is public knowledge on the part of the population and the authorities."

HRW took note of the "continuing criminal activity by military intelligence, which government investigators linked to a string of high-profile killings and death threats, including the August murder of humorist Jaime Garzón. Although the brigade that centralized military intelligence was reportedly dismantled in 1998 because of human rights crimes, government investigators believe intelligence agents continued to threaten, kidnap, and kill."

Even the State Department's annual review (published after the broadcast) concluded that Colombia's "human rights record remained poor.... Despite some prosecutions and convictions, the authorities rarely brought officers of the security forces and the police charged with human rights offenses to justice, and impunity remains a problem.... Paramilitary forces find a ready support base within the military and police ... in many areas."

Yes, there have been a few positive developments (along with many negative ones). But it's quite a stretch to conclude that the army's record is sufficiently clean that there's no reason to address it. And how can one be privy to HRW's careful report, and have access to Pastrana's frightened, exiled investigators, yet write a script that leaves viewers with the clear impression that the army has no ties to the paramilitaries? Or that the army would suppress the death squads if only it weren't so "weak"?

HRW's Kirk was stunned by the broadcast, calling it "a piece of PR fluff. Wallace didn't ask [Pastrana] any of the hard questions or raise any difficult issues."

"I was extremely disappointed," said Vivanco. "He was not well prepared."

"I stand by the piece," said Wallace.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer and an occasional adjunct professor of American foreign policy and mass communications at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. In the 1980s, he dissected Jose Napoleon Duarte in the National Catholic Reporter. In recent years his work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, National Post (Canada), In These Times and online at Mother Jones, Working Assets, Z Magazine and Common Dreams. He can be reached at

©2000 Dennis Hans


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