A Massacre Concealed: Colombia, Venezuela and the Mainstream Press

Poverty, massacres and forced displacement — no, this isn’t Venezuela; this is its neighbour, Colombia.

By Rachael Boothroyd Rojas
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The aftermath of the Tumaco Massacre. (Luis Alfonso Mena Sepúlveda)
The aftermath of the Tumaco Massacre. (Luis Alfonso Mena Sepúlveda)

The corpses slump in a downwards arch towards the floor, like weeping willows inside the makeshift body bags. Photos widely circulated on social media show that it was up to the local community to recover their own dead, to pick their family members out of the entangled limbs.

This was Tumaco in the Southwest department of Nariño, Colombia, at the end of last week, where anti-narcotics forces opened fire on protesting coca farmers, killing at least six and injuring twenty more, with the death count expected to rise.

The farmers’ crime was to have formed a human circle around their coca crops in an attempt to protect them from state security forces, who at the behest of the US government have been trying to forcefully eradicate the coca since the end of September, in violation of peace accords signed last year.

The police claim that armed FARC dissidents were responsible for the violence, while activists and witnesses were forced to scream from the sidelines of social media that not a single policeman was even scratched in the supposed confrontation.

But Tumaco isn’t the only brutality to have been carried out by the Colombian state and its allies over the last week. The murder of indigenous radio show host Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo by the infamous anti-riot police ESMAD, the assassination of indigenous leader Ezquivel Manyoma by paramilitaries, and the police shooting of an humanitarian team including UN investigators sent to investigate Tumaco, also evaded making international headlines.

Unlike Venezuela, where the press monitors the government’s every move, there has been next to no coverage of these atrocities in the mainstream media, and at a time when the world’s eyes are supposed to be on Colombia as it grapples to implement the peace process.

The NYT’s Andes Bureau Chief Nick Casey — whose relentless attacks on the government in Venezuela are second only to the disgraced OAS chief Luis Almagro — did not dedicate a single tweet to the women and men of Tumaco. Their lives were not worth a line in the BBC or the New York Times, and the first UK English language news agency to report the incident was the Guardian, but four days after it happened. Almagro’s Twitter feed was a tumbleweed thrown about in the wind.

The difference with coverage of the Barlovento massacre in Venezuela in December 2016 — when it emerged that the Venezuelan military had covered up the murder of twelve young men — could not be more striking.

At the time, Casey himself wrote how “In a Brutal Year in Venezuela, Even Crime Fighters are Killers”. He depicted a harsh reality in which corruption and economic deprivation had combined to form a lethal cocktail.

But Casey used no such poetic language to refer to the people of Tumaco — even though Colombia’s security platoons have infamously operated as death squads with total impunity for the past fifty years.

In fact, such is their level of impunity that it took Colombian authorities four days to begrudgingly suspend four police officers allegedly involved in the massacre, and they will almost certainly not face criminal charges.

Unlike the victim-blaming perpetrated by Colombia’s security forces and their mouthpieces in the national media, in Venezuela the Barlovento massacre was reported as a national scandal and condemned by both the national government and opposition, while the soldiers responsible were immediately arrested and put on trial.

This is the level of hypocrisy from the champions of free speech and political freedom when covering human rights violations in Venezuela in comparison to its neighbor. But it is not just in terms of the Colombian state’s brazen disregard for human rights that the mainstream media gives Colombia a carte blanche while damning Venezuela. It happens with everything from corruption scandals to the poverty that afflicts people on a day to day basis.

As Colombian presidential candidate Claudia Lopez stated in a recent interview: “Cronyism, corruption and political patronage have been the way to govern Colombia for years”.

Some recent examples include the arrest of Colombia’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor on bribery charges in June and the corruption charges brought against former National Police Director Rodolfo Palomino (2012-2016) in May. The Inspector General’s Office estimates that the Colombian state haemorrhages US$7.5 billion annually thanks to corruption. And yet it is Venezuela — dismissed as an ungovernable basket case by the mainstream press - which is now staring down the barrel of Washington’s regime change gun.

But it is at the level of political freedom, access to media, and freedom of speech that Colombia and Venezuela truly stand poles apart. As one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist on earth, here reporters must think twice before putting pen to paper or firing off a tweet. Meanwhile, the poor have extremely limited access to the media — making those in power totally unaccountable — and the mainstream press can best be described as a lukewarm exchange between the country’s elite.

Compare this to Venezuela, where the media is defined by vibrant debate, and where masses of working class people of all backgrounds have become journalists and authors since the Bolivarian revolution came to power in 1999, partially thanks to universal and free education, including university, something which is totally unthinkable in neighbouring Colombia.

Nor do Colombia’s socio-economic indicators paint a prettier picture. Though the media has inundated the internet with reports of Venezuela’s economic downturn since global oil prices collapsed in 2014, you’d be hard pressed to find similar stories concentrating on the plight of the Colombian poor.

The statistics speak for themselves: almost a third of the population lives in poverty, and this rises to almost 40% in rural areas. It is not a stretch to imagine that these people would also queue for state-subsidized food if by some miracle Colombia’s neoliberal government were to make it available, as the government does in Caracas.

But social deprivation in Bogota is evidently acute, even if you managed to miss the statistics. Here, monthly electricity, gas and water bills are crippling for someone on minimum wage, unlike Caracas where monthly services are virtually free thanks to state subsidies. Great swathes of Bogota’s poor live in hovels with no natural light and illness-inducing damp, and the city is split into “strata” in a deliberate attempt to keep the poor and the rich separate. Compare this to Venezuela, where the national government has built over a million public houses and apartment blocks in recent years, including in some of the most sought after areas of Caracas — much to the elite’s disdain.

Set foot in the poorer parts of Bogota, and you will also see that they are currently strewn with rubbish thanks to the election of right-wing Mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa in 2015, who promptly went about ripping up the achievements of his left-wing predecessor Gustavo Petro. Not content with Colombia’s sizable levels of internal displacement on a national level, last year Peñalosa sent 2500 security agents to literally evict an entire barrio known as the Bronx. It was his solution to the drug dealing and sexual exploitation taking place there. The mainstream media didn’t cover it, in case you were wondering.

International press agencies have long made Venezuela’s “crumbling” healthcare system - built from the ground-up by Chavez and Chavistas - a focal point of their coverage in recent years. But they do not care to mention that in the centre of Bogota, sick men and women with no access to medical care take part in a Victorian-era line-up on the street, exposing their illnesses as the only way to survive.

Mangled limbs and huge purple-red scarred and swollen bellies quivering with fever are all on display. So too are the faces of sick and homeless indigenous Wayuu women and children displaced from their territory in la Guajira by hunger and drought. Meanwhile, the public transport in Bogota has become a tertulia for testimonies of displacement. Each day, dozens of coughing men and women clad in worn-out clothes take to the stage to recount how they were driven from their homes.

These are the casualties haemorrhaging from the sides of Colombia’s civil war and from the government’s unwavering commitment to neoliberalism, delivered at the barrel of a police gun. Their stories float like forbidden whispers in and out of bus windows, but are somehow never picked up by the mainstream press. This is even the case when reporters like Casey, by their own admission, spend significant time in Bogota. Of course, none of this makes the plight of ordinary Venezuelans trying to navigate a severe economic crisis any easier, but it does expose the mainstream media’s agenda: the positives of Venezuela’s government are deliberately erased and the negatives amplified a hundredfold, while the reverse happens in Colombia. The prize of contributing to the opera-like downfall of the government in Caracas - a symbol of hope for social justice movements around the world - is evidently much more palatable and profitable than denouncing human rights abuses taking place in the US’s favorite patch of its backyard.