An article by Juan Forero published last week in the Washington Post reflects the approach commonly used by most mainstream media correspondents covering the war on drugs and the armed conflict in Colombia. This modus operandi involves a journalist briefly visiting a rural region-often on a press junket organized by the Colombian government or US embassy-and being spoon-fed a story by the authorities. Inevitably, the official perspective dominates the resulting article, which ends up being little more than a public relations piece promoting the policies of the US and Colombian governments. Forero’s article about a recent shift in strategy in the US war on drugs in Colombia clearly fits this pattern. As a result, his findings contrast dramatically to those revealed in my recent investigation of the same counternarcotics project in eastern Colombia.
In his article Colombian Farmers Get Broad Incentives to Forgo Coca Crops, Forero describes how the US-backed Colombian government has launched a pilot project in the department of Meta that seeks to shift efforts to eradicate coca away from failed aerial fumigations and towards manual eradication as part of a more comprehensive approach that includes establishing a permanent state presence in areas long-neglected by the national government. It is an approach that critics of Plan Colombia have been demanding for many years. However, Forero’s portrayal of the new strategy is seriously flawed due to his over-reliance on official sources.
Forero quotes a plethora of officials from governments and organizations that are directly involved in the implementation of the project called Plan de ConsolidaciÃ³n Integral de La Macarena (PCIM), which is named after the national park that lies at the heart of the targeted region. The article contains a stream of quotes from official sources including the ambassador from the Netherlands, the director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia, the program manager for the PCIM, Colombia’s vice-minister of defense, the director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Colombia and the mayor of Vista Hermosa. While it is an impressive list of officials, it is obvious that they have one simple objective: to portray the PCIM favorably.
Forero also quotes three farmers who trumpet the virtues of the PCIM. However, given the fact that most of the information contained in the article seems to have originated from the control center for the PCIM located on the military base in the town of Vista Hermosa, it seems probable that Forero was introduced to the farmers by officials. Ultimately, the official perspective dominates the Post article and, not surprisingly, the PCIM is portrayed very favorably.
As a result, Forero accurately presents the objectives and strategies of the PCIM, but he fails to effectively address the project’s shortcomings. Interestingly, I also recently visited Meta to investigate the PCIM and discovered a litany of problems that were not addressed in the Post’s account.
While Forero is correct in pointing out that much of the coca in the region has been eradicated, that some farmers are benefitting from the PCIM and that a state-presence is being established in this long-time stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), he clearly did not visit remote communities located two hours from Vista Hermosa that have been the most severely impacted by the project. If he had, he would have discovered that a majority of the population in the region have abandoned their homes and lands due to fear of the military, death threats or the inability to survive economically due to the eradication of coca. In the village of La Cooperativa, the population plummeted from more than 400 to 70 after the military arrived in 2007. Similarly in El Tigre, only 12 residents remain out of the more than 200 who previously populated the village. Consequently, Forero failed to question the true effectiveness of the eradication and alternative crop programs in light of the fact that more than 80 percent of the population has been displaced by the PCIM-and are now most likely cultivating coca elsewhere.
If Forero had visited remote villages in the La Macarena region such as La Cooperativa, he would have learned that not only have most of the commercial establishments that line the main street gone out of business, but that residents also no longer enjoy electricity. Almost a decade ago, the FARC helped the local governing council in La Cooperativa install a generator and electrical grid that everyone in the village was connected to. Since the arrival of the military-and to a much lesser degree, other branches of the state-the local governing council has lacked the funds to maintain the electrical system because of the dire economic conditions that now exist, and the national government has refused to fund the operation of the generator. Such factors have led many in La Cooperativa to openly admit that life was better under the FARC.
And while Forero points out that land values have increased in some of the hamlets surrounding Vista Hermosa since the implementation of the PCIM, he fails to make the link between the new project and the region’s recent expansion of African palm cultivation-one of the crops the PCIM is promoting as an alternative. The Post’s article neglects to point out that the expansion of African palm cultivation in the area has corresponded with an increased presence of right-wing paramilitaries-as has occurred in other palm-growing regions of the country. Apparently, one official in Vista Hermosa that Forero did not speak with is the local commander of the National Police. When I interviewed the commander in February, he told me that an additional 300 paramilitaries belonging to the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) had arrived in the region in October 2008, continuing a decades-long trend of paramilitaries consolidating their control over territory where the Colombian army maintains a permanent presence.
It is clear that Forero followed the practice of most foreign mainstream media correspondents in Colombia when he briefly visited Vista Hermosa and primarily based his article on interviews with high-ranking officials. His failure to more thoroughly investigate the consequences of the PCIM in the region resulted in an article that portrayed only the positives of the US-backed project while totally ignoring its shortcomings. As a result, the Washington Post piece amounted to little more than an uncritical, shameless promotion of US drug policy in Colombia.
Garry Leach writes for Colombia Journal. His new book, Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, is published by Beacon Books.
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This post was written by Garry Leech