Neglecting the Tough Questions: Press Lets Uribe Off the Hook in Colombia Hostage Rescue

Mainstream news outlets have yet to fully investigate the Uribe administration's role in the failed December operation.

February 20, 2008

After reluctantly agreeing to let Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez mediate between his administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombian president Álvaro Uribe halted Chávez's months-long effort in November, accusing him of violating protocol by directly contacting a Colombian military leader. Insults and threats of a suspension of diplomatic relations followed but were quickly set aside in early December when the FARC offered to release three hostages without one of the conditions it previously demanded-a demilitarized zone for future prisoner-exchange talks. The FARC said it would release Clara Rojas, a former vice presidential candidate, and her three-year-old son who was fathered by a FARC guerrilla and born in captivity, along with former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzáles.

On December 31, as final logistical preparations for the hostage release were under way, the FARC issued a communiqué announcing that it was suspending the handover because it was too dangerous: The Colombian military, it said, was continuing to bombard the area designated as the hostage drop-off. For his part, Uribe accused the FARC of failing to negotiate in good faith by lying about having the boy, who turned out to be living in an orphanage in Bogotá. In a second and final attempt the FARC successfully released Rojas and Gonzáles on January 10.

Mainstream news outlets have yet to fully investigate the Uribe administration's role in the failed December operation. The Associated Press, for example, reported Uribe's claims to have provided "every guarantee" that the military would not obstruct the handover (January 1, 2008) but gave little credibility to the FARC's charge that Colombian military operations threatened the safety of the hostages and rebels involved.

After reporting that the FARC was suspending the hostage release because of the military's action, the Associated Press wrote, "But the real reason for the aborted mission may have been that the boy at the center of what Chávez called 'Operation Emmanuel' was not in the control of the FARC" (January 7, 2008).

Noting Chávez's accusation that Uribe had "dynamit[ed]" the operation, the Los Angeles Times quoted former Colombian foreign minister Augusto Ramírez's statement charging that the FARC deceived Chávez and the Colombian people: "This gesture by the FARC has been shown to be a trick" (January 5, 2008). Without providing evidence to support either side's claims, news outlets chose a narrative that clearly favored Uribe: The rebels "did not cooperate" (New York Times, January 2, 2008) and "left Chavez hanging" (Associated Press, January 2, 2007).

Despite the account of events of the final days of December given by the hostage González, following the women's January 10 release, the mainstream U.S. press failed to follow up on Uribe's role in the release plan. On January 12, the Argentine daily Página 12 reported that González said the reason she and Rojas were not freed before the New Year was that they were under heavy attack, including bombardment, from the Colombian armed forces. The key paragraph of the article reads as follows:

The words of [González] supported the version of events offered by the guerrillas and [Colombian senator] Piedad de Córdoba about the failed rescue operation on New Year's Eve. "On December 21, we began to walk toward the location where they were going to free us, and we walked almost 20 days. In that time, we were forced to run several times because the military operations were very close," she said. González also lamented that on the day that Colombian president Álvaro Uribe set as a deadline for the release, the Colombian armed forces launched the worst attack on the zone where they were located. "On the 31st, we realized that there was going to be a very big mobilization and, in the moment that we were ready to be released, there was a huge bombardment and we had to rapidly relocate."

Never did the press ask whether the Uribe government might have tried to sabotage the hostage release. The omission was ironic given that even the New York Times recognized, after the initial release effort failed, that Uribe had little interest in a hostage release presided over by an international delegation organized by Chávez. As the Times reported, "a successful mission would have been likely to have embarrassed Mr. Uribe, a conservative who has made little progress in negotiating the release of any of the several hundred hostages held in jungle camps, some for nearly a decade" (January 2, 2008).

Other analysts have suggested that Uribe never intended to negotiate with the FARC in the first place. Colombia Journal editor Garry Leech contended that public pressure was the only reason Uribe ever agreed to initiate talks. "Uribe did everything he could to undermine the prisoner exchange talks since reluctantly initiating the process in August," Leech wrote (November 27, 2007).

In a column published in Colombia's El Tiempo, Daniel Samper, brother of former Colombian president Ernesto Samper, offered a similar analysis:

Truth is, Uribe does not want any humanitarian exchanges nor contact whatsoever with the guerrilla forces. He therefore does not understand that he is toying with the hopes of his fellow countrymen and with the emotions of the kidnapped persons and their families by encouraging an adventure that, he knew in his heart, was stillborn from the beginning (November 27, 2007).

Despite the fact that the Spanish-language press published González's testimony about the military bombardment of the area designated for the initial hostage release, mainstream U.S. newspapers continue to neglect the story. A Lexis-Nexis search reveals that González's testimony was not covered by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times or Washington Post. The Associated Press did not even mention the hostage's account until more than a week after Página 12 reported it, and when it did finally mention González's testimony, it buried her words in the 12th paragraph of a report that framed the story as little more than Chávez's own "accusations" (January 20, 2008). In a later report about González's experiences as a hostage, the Associated Press again submerged her account of the failed December release in the last paragraphs and neglected to provide the details necessary for readers to critically examine Uribe's role in the episode (February 6, 2008).

When pondering the question of why the initial hostage release failed, the Associated Press seemed to throw up its hands: "The truth about what led the FARC to get cold feet may never be known" (January 2, 2008).

Justin Delacour is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of New Mexico with special interests in U.S. press coverage of Latin America.


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