2009: The decline of “Democratic Security?” Congressional letter is out
Dec 142009

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 José de Apartadó, a town in the northwestern region of Urabá 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 José de Apartadó, 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 José Apartadó 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 José de Apartadó 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 José de Apartadó community’s declared neutrality has long irritated the Colombian armed forces and Álvaro 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.

8 Responses to “An irresponsible column”

  1. lfm Says:

    One of the reasons I admire Adam so much is because he does stuff that is really hard. You know, the whole thing of traveling through dirt roads for days on end, sometimes even putting oneself in danger, meeting unsavory characters, it would drive crazy most people with lesser fortitude. But the part of his troubles that really takes the cake is this one. Having to read O’Grady is one thing I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy and then gather the stamina to actually pen a rebuttal! Man, we’re talking Guantanamo here! I’m not sure I could bring myself to even open the Wall Street Journal even if they told me that they had wrapped a prime filet of salmon in it. C’mon, let’s show Adam some love. I think Adam could put a by-line in the website: “CIPCOL: We read O’Grady, so you don’t have to!”

  2. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Mary Anastasia O’Grady delights in using smear tactics to buttress an ultra-conservative point of view. Furthermnore, she seems to have special access to individuals from the shady side of the Uribe Government. Indeed, she serves as their mouthpiece, with little apparent compunction.

    Ms. O’Grady’s willingness to use smear tactics, regardless of their consequence, speaks to something deep and dark about her that goes beyond her conservative point of view. Her style of journalism is too often cheap and dirty, and sickly yellow. Real journalistic talent of any political stripe does not have to rummage through the rubbish pile for scraps to support a point of view.

    It is disturbing that the standards of a major U.S. newspaper, one that is translated into several languages and has an international circulation, might allow articles of this kind.

  3. Chris Says:

    If the Colombian Police would have been around to adequately protected the community from the beginning (corruption free), this wouldn’t be an issue. If it did happen, you can’t fault them too much… who tells well-armed guerrillas “no” to anything. Especially when they have a well-known reputation for killing.

  4. lfm Says:

    Oh my! El Espectador is picking up O’Grady’s concoction and reporting it as established fact. I would have expected El Espectador to exert better judgment but apparently that was too much to expect. It’s been a while since El Tiempo stopped pretending to behave as a real newspaper so this makes you wonder if it’s time for Internet upstarts to fill the void.

    On another topic, I just saw that the US House of Representatives extended the Andean Trade Preferences. I guess this means that Colombia can keep access to the American markets without giving up the whole store in matters of intellectual property rights, control over natural resources and all the other concessions that, supposedly, the country has to make if it does not want to go the way of North Korea.

  5. Kyle Says:

    I read it and thought the exact same thing. But one minor detail. The Journal does not show it as a column but at the top of the page, at least when I saw it, it said “Article” – thus it is not actually a column. That would mean (in theory) it would be free of opinion. Additionally, this reminds me of her article about Casanare, which also was critiqued in this blog.

  6. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Holy Cow Camila is back to her mean old self

  7. Rob Says:

    If you want answers to these questions, why not travel to Colombia and follow-up? There are more than 15,000 demobilized former members of the FARC who can provide answers about this subject or similar themes. Samir, much like the majority of demobilized insurgents, is currently free (unlike former paramilitary leadership) and if he has a “political axe to grind,” it would be unusual if it happened to be true across the board.

    Why is it so inconceivable that an illegal organization which claims a moral high ground of social equality, yet is extraordinarily oppressive, capable of murdering democratically elected officials, trafficking drugs and kidnapping innocents, could covertly influence local communities such as San Jose de Apartado or others via NGOs or local officials? What is the axe Samir is trying to grind? Samir has demobilized but is free to express communist or socialist views as are all ex-combatants in Colombia. If Samir was caught trying to abandon the FARC, or even talking about it, he would have been executed. Does that sound like the kind of thing that happens in a peace community? Unfortunately, it did happen… but many years ago.

    Should you travel to Colombia I would ask you interview ordinary Colombian citizens as well. Ask them if they are better off today than 8 years ago. As them if they are worried that their children might be kidnapped, that a bomb might go off while at a grocery store, or that they might be extorted for their hard earned money. They will tell you things are SO MUCH BETTER. Uribe is so popular because Colombia IS SO MUCH BETTER OFF after his efforts supported by the US Department of Defense and Department of State. Without US foreign assistance, some of Uribe’s security gains might have been accomplished, but without any of our oversight. Imagine what could have happened if we weren’t watching, if we weren’t attempting to hold them accountable.

    I find your organization hypocritical as it appears to have a self proclaimed “political axe to grind.” From the “About CIP” page… “We continued to play an important role in…, and efforts to limit military assistance to the Western Hemisphere, especially Colombia.”

    Colombia is a success story despite the errors. The US government may not have achieved its counter-drug goals, but it has gained a strong ally, a relatively stable democracy, and peace of mind for the majority of 45 million Colombians. The AUC no longer exists, the FARC and ELN are weakened, yet there are criminal problems which still undermine security and development efforts. Is now the time to pull the rug out? Colombian citizens will be the first to tell you “no,” the first to tell you about their increased happiness and prosperity, the first to make the tourist pitch, “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.”

    Some objective perspectives would be refreshing vice promotion of the CIP “agenda.” I like the wide coverage of issues on CIP, but having lived in Colombia for many years I find many positions, “irresponsible.”

  8. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Let’s hope this isn’t true Says:

    [...] with a political agenda of his own. Much here is inaccurate or untrue. (Just as in the case of “Samir,” the former FARC commander who has sought to impugn non-governmental activists.) Still, this is [...]

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