By Anna Merlan
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As recently as last year, major U.S. newspapers were loath to send their reporters to Colombia. "It's an edgy story that involves a lot of people who don't play by normal rules," says Andrew Rosenthal, foreign editor of The New York Times. But sometimes you have to risk lives to get the story, and Colombia is now such a hot spot that the Times plans to move its Buenos Aires bureau to Bogotá or Caracas sometime soon.
Other papers are following suit. The Los Angeles Times plans to open a Bogotá bureau next week, and The Washington Post is moving its Caracas bureau chief there as well. The big three will join The Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle, and several wire services that have been in Bogotá for years.
Ironically, the U.S. news corps is moving in at a time when everyone in Colombia wants out. Rosenthal says the Andean region is important both because of the drug trade and because of Congress' decision to commit $1.3 billion of (mostly) military aid to Colombia. "The inevitable Vietnam comparisons aside," he says, Plan Colombia represents "a major military involvement" and "the most aggressive foreign policy story" today.
Until recently, the Times maintained bureaus in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, with Rio correspondent Larry Rohter assigned to cover Colombia and Venezuela. But as the Colombia situation heated up last year, covering it became more of a hassle for Rohter, who must travel an entire day just to get there.
By last fall, Rosenthal says, Times editors agreed that "we weren't doing enough" on the Colombia story and needed somebody on it full time. The answer was Metro reporter Juan Forero, a Colombian citizen who was "really eager to do it." When the Times first dispatched Forero, they worried about his safety, but months later, Rosenthal says, Forero has "done well" and the reception to his stories has been "really good."
Forero has gotten help from Buenos Aires bureau chief Clifford Krauss. But when Krauss completes his three-year tour of duty this spring or later, it won't be the usual changing of the guard. At that point, the Times will move its Buenos Aires office to Caracas or Bogotá; Rohter will be relieved of Venezuela and Colombia and reassigned to cover Chile and Argentina; and a new bureau chief will be appointed to run the Times coverage of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and other countries in the territory. Rosenthal says "we haven't decided yet" whether Forero will run the new bureau.
Also this spring, The Washington Post is moving Caracas bureau chief Scott Wilson to Bogotá. According to foreign assistant managing editor Philip Bennett, this is not so much about content"We're already deeply committed to our coverage"as about logistics. When the Post opened its Caracas bureau last summer, the editors knew Wilson would be spending most of his time in Colombia. Even so, they hesitated to relocate Wilson, his wife, and two kids to Bogotá, because "Colombia has a record of violence against the media that's unmatched almost anywhere in the world." But so far no one is going after the foreign press, and "while the safety of our correspondents is important, we're not going to be scared off the story."
Bennett concedes that opening a Bogotá bureau is a response to the increased U.S. embassy presence there and to a story that is "really evolving quickly." He says the story is no longer just about drugs, but about "the enormously complex mechanics of violence and of political conflict in Colombia."
While Post editorials continue to support Plan Colombia, opinion writers at the Times seem less comfortable with the dirty little secrets involved. Recent Times editorials have pointed out that this botched war is likely to strengthen right-wing paramilitary groups, put American soldiers and/or contract employees at risk, and destabilize the Andean region by spreading the corruption and violence of the drug trade. And while we can't stop the coca production, it turns out that the U.S. has ulterior motives for a military buildup in a country that lies between the Panama Canal and Venezuelan oil fields.
So far, so good. Now if only Juan Forero would take off the blinders. In the past year of Colombia coverage, the Times has not once published the words "Navy SEAL" or "Green Beret." But according to a February 23 Miami Herald story, Colombia is swarming with U.S. mercenaries under contract with private companies to execute Plan Colombia. These companies include DynCorp, which provides plane and helicopter pilots, Military Professional Resources, Inc., which provides military advisors, and Northrop Grumman, whose employees "maintain five radar stations" in Colombia.
According to the Herald's Juan O. Tamayo, the U.S. government has no authority to stop these mercenaries from associating with paramilitaries or entering into combat. DynCorp employees are "under strict orders to avoid journalists," but congressional sources say "many are hard-boiled, hard-drinking veterans of the U.S. military" for whom the best introduction is "a case of beer." According to wire stories, a helicopter carrying DynCorp employees was recently fired on by Colombian guerrillas.
Next to mercenaries, the missing link in the Times coverage is an unexpurgated report on the Colombian paramilitaries, who are responsible for about 80 percent of the killings in that country. On March 4, Forero weighed in on the paramilitaries, but his story focused more on what the Colombian government says it's doing to stop them than on the fact that the right-wing troops are still getting away with murder. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting recently accused Forero of downplaying the number of paramilitary killings in Barrancabermeja in a January 22 Times story, while reporting not a word on the January 17 paramilitary massacre of two dozen civilians at Chengue. By contrast, the Post's Scott Wilson wrote an "excellent" front-pager on Chengue that ran on January 28. FAIR says Timesreaders "would be hard-pressed to know that anything had happened at all."
In his Nation cover story this week, Marc Cooper recounts a local report on the January 17 massacre, to wit: "A right-wing paramilitary group entered the northern town of Chengue . . . rounded up the villagers and beat twenty-six of them to death with stones and machetes. As sixty homes were set on fire, the attackers fled with ten other live victims." That same week, Cooper writes, Clinton's State Department waived its obligation to prevent human rights violations associated with Plan Colombiaanother key point Forero seems to have overlooked.
For a gnarly look at what's coming up, check out Peter Gorman's February 19 story on Narconews.com. The dateline is Iquitos, Peru, a city close to the Colombian border that has been recently infiltrated by ex-Navy SEALs and state-of-the-art gunboats. Based on his conversations with ex-SEALs, Gorman writes that their mission is to "ply the Putumayo river and kill any FARC rebels . . . trying to retreat onto Peruvian soil." The mercenaries tell Gorman that they will be paid for each left-wing Colombian they kill.