The Houston Chronicle put an excellent story on its Sunday front page about the twenty-five U.S. Special Forces troops supporting â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ from the Colombian Army base in Larandia, in western CaquetÃ¡ department. The article offers a rare glimpse into the U.S. role in assisting the large-scale, year-and-a-half-old military offensive taking place in a large swath of southern Colombian jungle.
Few reporters, American or Colombian, have done any in-depth reporting from the Plan Patriota zone, and it has been difficult to get a sense of whether the offensive is having any success. It is worth noting that the Colombian defense ministry â€“ which seems to put out a press release every time it captures a guerrilla â€“ has kept its propaganda machine rather silent where Plan Patriota is concerned, offering only periodic glimpses that offer little new information. Meanwhile, articles on the website of the FARC and from outside guerrilla supporters (like this one, this one and this one) frequently proclaim that the offensive is failing, and the incisive criticisms of analysts like Sen. Antonio Navarro and the oft-cited Alfredo Rangel have gone unanswered.
Why the official secrecy about the biggest military offensive in the history of Colombiaâ€™s conflict? Consider U.S. operations in Iraq, where reporters from nearly all outlets â€“ even Al Jazeera, to some extent â€“ have been embedded with U.S. military units, often resulting in unabashedly supportive media coverage of that controversial war. By contrast, Houston Chronicle reporter John Otis could only get a few hours at the Larandia base, a visit that took some time to arrange.
By most accounts, the reluctance to share information about Plan Patriota comes from the Colombian side. The Colombian military is highly reluctant to grant journalists or outside observers any interviews, access to installations, or entry into theaters of operations. The most-stated reason is the need to keep sensitive tactical information from reaching the enemy â€“ though it is hard to imagine anyone seriously believing that the Houston Chronicle might pass intelligence to the guerrillas if its reporters were allowed to see â€œtoo much.â€
The more likely reason is nationalist sensitivity. Not only is the Colombian government likely to be unhappy about the prospect of foreign reporters sticking their noses into Plan Patriota, they are probably unwilling to make public the degree of U.S. participation in what they would prefer be considered a 100 percent Colombian offensive.
No matter what the reason, this level of secrecy is a mistake. It leads us to fear that things are going worse than they may in fact be going. It gives more credence to reports that as many as 1,000 Colombian soldiers have been killed, that they are bogged down and suffering from flesh-eating diseases, that they have done little more than capture relatively low-ranking guerrilla leaders and take over already-abandoned encampments, that morale is low, and that military operations have been accompanied by almost no social investment in these long-neglected zones.
This is fast becoming the mainstream view of Plan Patriota – a big, costly military effort that has yielded few results. Is this perception correct? Who knows. The only way weâ€™ll find out is if the U.S. and Colombian governments stop neglecting public affairs and abandon their insistence on total secrecy.