From their U.S. jail cells, top Colombian paramilitary leaders often write letters and give testimonies in which they claim to have had long relationships with top Colombian government and military officials. We discuss these allegations only rarely, because the sources are individuals with political axes to grind and little record of truth-telling.
The same standard does not apply on the ultraconservative opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. In today’s edition, columnist Mary O’Grady unquestioningly takes the testimony of a demobilized FARC fighter at face value. Her column not only fails to verify her source’s allegations: it gravely threatens the security of a community and the organizations working with it. This is shameful.
The Colombian government arranged for Ms. O’Grady to interview Daniel Sierra Martinez, a FARC deserter who went by the nickname “Samir.” He told her some very troubling things about the relationship between the FARC and the “Peace Community” of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³, a town in the northwestern region of UrabÃ¡ that has tried to remain neutral, and as a result has had over 150 of its members killed since 1997 – most by paramilitaries, but some by the FARC.
[T]he peace community of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³, according to Samir, was not the least bit neutral. Rather, he says, the FARC had a close relationship with its leaders dating back to the early days.
Samir says that the peace community was a FARC safe haven for wounded and sick rebels and for storing medical supplies. He also says that suppliers to the FARC met with rebels in the town, where there were also always five or six members of the Peace Brigades International.
According to Samir, the peace community helped the FARC in its effort to tag the Colombian military as a violator of human rights. When the community was getting ready to accuse someone of a human-rights violation, Samir would organize the “witnesses” by ordering FARC members, posing as civilians, to give testimony.
Samir’s allegations are serious, but raise questions.
- How does Samir respond to the San JosÃ© ApartadÃ³ community’s vehement denials of his allegations, especially a list of people whom the community accuses him of helping to kill over the years?
- What did this alleged “close relationship” with the leaders of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ actually look like? Did the FARC meet with them? To discuss what? What might the community’s leaders possibly have received from the FARC as a result of this association? (They clearly have received neither wealth nor protection.)
- If guerrillas used the community’s territory (which includes many square miles of countryside beyond the town) for medical or supply purposes, did they do so with the community’s permission? With the permission of the community’s leadership, or just some rogue members? Was this permission given willingly? Or did they do so clandestinely?
- Why mention Peace Brigades International, a highly disciplined, non-violent accompaniment group whose volunteers follow rigid codes of behavior and vetting of those they accompany?
- The San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ community’s declared neutrality has long irritated the Colombian armed forces and Ãlvaro Uribe’s government. Past efforts to accuse the community of working with FARC – including some rather ugly statements after a horrific 2005 massacre – have fallen apart as facts came to light. Is Samir telling the truth, or is he just agreeing to be part of a frame-up in exchange for a lighter sentence?
A real journalist would have sought answers to these questions, or at the very least provided more context, before giving Samir unchallenged access to the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But real journalism is not what Mary O’Grady set out to do. Her column, whose webpage bears the title “The FARC’s NGO Friends,” is a smear job that threatens the security of people working to defend human rights in a very dangerous corner of Colombia.