Questions Without Answers
Will the United States rescue its three captured “citizens” from the FARC?
By Augusto Fernández C.
Reporting from Colombia
March 30, 2003
Publisher’s Note: While the population of the United States is transfixed in front of the screen, obsessed with the “war” that Power wants them to see, that Power designed to distract them from all other realities, a long-running war continues to rage in our own hemisphere; a 50 years war: The Colombian Civil War.
After the filing of this report by Authentic Journalist Augusto Fernández last week on Narco News’ Spanish-language pages, a story asking questions about the downed U.S. spy plane in Colombia last February, another U.S. espionage craft – one seeking the three POWs of the last one – crashed to the ground in territory of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC. Narco News refers you to Authentic Journalist Maria Engqvist’s report for the New Colombia News Agency on the latest evidence of increased U.S. military intervention in Colombia.
Your publisher adds another question to the excellent ones posed here by Fernández: If the second downed U.S. spy plane was there looking for the crew of the first, how long until the third comes looking for the second, and the fourth comes looking for the third?
Ah, but this is the war that Power doesn’t want you to see… Or think about… Or act upon. Another question: Why not? Why hasn’t Washington “embedded” journalists in Colombia? Why has the illegitimate “government” of Alvaro Uribe banned reporters – national and international – from traveling in Colombia’s war zone and reporting the facts? Why has CNN spent $30 million dollars to hypnotize you with its coverage of the “war” across the Oceans where they want you to divert your time and energy, but offers only a pittance of coverage to the $13 billion “Plan Colombia” and the escalating U.S. involvement – now with U.S. POWs and U.S. casualties – in the jungles of the Andes?
Could it be, kind readers, that the script in Colombia is not going as planned?
Augusto Fernández is on the ground in Colombia. The questions he asks contain answers.
Questions Without Answers
Will the United States rescue its three captured “citizens” from the FARC?
By Augusto Fernández C.
Reporting from Colombia
From the first moment that the events related to the airplane downed by the FARC in Colombia – in which four North Americans and one Colombian traveled – a war of versions in the Commercial Media has been unleashed, in which the key characteristics are ambiguity, suppositions, and the incapacity to question official sources.
The first version of the story
It all started February 13th at eight in the morning, as an airplane owned by the US government flew past Alejandría Hill in the vast jungles of the southern Colombian state of Caquitá.
The plane was downed by a division of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in its Spanish initials), as the guerrilla organization later confirmed in a communiqué published by the Agencia de Noticias Nueva Colombia (New Colombia News Agency, ANNCOL). According to the Colombian military, the FARC’s “Teófilo Forero Column” operates in this area.
The government of the US and Colombia later confirmed that four US nationals, and one Colombian, were aboard the downed aircraft. At that time, their identities were not released. According to the US embassy in Colombia, the passengers were involved in military “intelligence” work for the US government.
Two hours after the fact, said government sources, the Armed Forces found a pair of bodies close to the crash site.
Days later, the government claimed to have captured Fidel Casallas, supposedly a guerrilla commander who had participated in the attack on the airplane. According to Cambio, a Colombian weekly magazine, Casallas was a witness to the murder of two members of the plane’s crew – the Colombian and one of the Americans.
Several days after the incident, the FARC release a communiqué claiming that they had shot the plane down, and taken the three surviving Americans as “prisoners of war.” The prisoners were, according to the FARC, spies for the CIA and DEA…
The Media Circus and the Different Versions of the Events
From the moment the airplane went down, a war has raged in the Colombian media between the different versions of the story. In this war, ambiguity, suspicion and an inability to question official sources have been the rule.
But what caused this information war?
February 13th: The first reports appear in the Colombian media that a US plane crashed in the Caquetá jungle while on an anti-narcotics mission.
The Medellín newspaper El Colombiano also reported that four US nationals and one Colombian were in the aircraft – which left Bogotá headed for the Larandia military base in the Caquetá but lost contact with the control tower at 11 AM.
(Apparently, this first version of the events contradicts that of eyewitnesses, who claimed: 1) that the plane had not crashed, but had been shot down, and 2) that the events had occurred at 8:00, not 11:00 in the morning. Why was the official source, supposedly closer than anyone to the facts, not sufficiently clear on what had actually happened when he was interviewed?)
February 14: The press reports that president Alvaro Uribe Vélez has denounced the killing of the two passengers and the “kidnapping” of the three others. The Caquetá zone, he said, has heavy guerrilla presence. “A sergeant in our army and an American citizen are dead,” said Uribe, without mentioning the three other crewmembers.
On the same day, the newspaper El Tiempo reports, President Uribe will request international assistance in the effort to free the three North Americans. However, he didn’t mention that the assistance would be in the form of military aid…
(Why did President Uribe withhold, for the moment, information on the identities of the “US citizen” and the three other crewmembers from the media?)
February 15: The Agencia France Presse (AFP) verifies that the FARC’s Teófilo Forero Column, which downed the airplane, is operating in the Caquetá. The news agency further verifies that the group killed one American and the Colombian, who are identified as Thomas Janis and Luis Alcides Cruz, a sergeant in the Colombian army.
The AFP also reports that the other three Americans were “kidnapped,” according to testimony by several local farmers. The US government declines to comment on the identity of these men for security reasons.
A representative of the US embassy in Colombia could only tell the AFP that, “we are very worried about their safety. We can’t say any more.”
(What was the hidden motive behind the silence of the US government? The safety of its citizens held by the FARC? Or could it be the immediate danger that the incident would reveal embarrassing secrets about its interventionist policies? Why is it impossible to get information in the press offices of the relevant institutions, such as the US Embassy, the Colombian Attorney General, the Ministry of Defense, or the Ministry of the Interior?)
February 17: The FARC release an official communiqué, published by ANNCOL, in which they acknowledge that they have taken three US citizens as “prisoners of war,” (a term that was immediately adopted by the alternative media when describing the incident) who they described as agents of the CIA and DEA.
In the communiqué, the hostages’ freedom is offered only if an exchange can be made between the guerrilla organization and the government: “The three gringo prisoners held by our organization will be liberated along with prisoners taken by the Colombian state, once an exchange between the FARC and the Uribe government can take place in a demilitarized area…”
As soon as this document was released to the public, the US government, considerably irritated, denied that its “three citizens” were CIA agents, but would only say that they were “civilian contractors.” It did not specify what organization they belonged to or what the men were doing in Caquetá.
Meanwhile the Colombian government rejected the FARC’s proposal of a prisoner exchange via the state media, and demanded the immediate freedom of the “kidnapped” men from “the terrorist group.”
That same day, various media claimed that the Teófilo Forero Column had not shot down the plane, but that it had crashed due to technical failures, and that once the crew was on the ground, the guerrillas attacked. This version cited statements from the director of the National Police, General Teodoro – who just possibly may have been trying to discredit the FARC.
White House spokesmen said that, “this is only another one of these peoples’ (FARC’s) lies.” That statement carries no weight, though, after various weekly publications reported the testimony of the local farmers that have claimed the opposite…
February 20: The Colombian army drops leaflets on the jungles of Caquetá offering one billion pesos, about $340,000 US dollars, to whoever can provide information leading to the rescue of the US citizens.
(Would this strengthen the “Network of Informants” program, created by the Uribe government, in which civilians are paid to inform the authorities of possible attacks or suspicious activity that could be related to the guerrillas?)
February 21: The Washington Post reports that the US government will send 150 soldiers (in addition to the 360 already in Colombia “providing technical and military support” as part of Plan Colombia) to collaborate in the search process for the three “kidnapped” US citizens.
In Colombia, a great controversy erupts over this latest announcement from the US. People from across the political spectrum begin to say that this decision seriously hurts national sovereignty, and question the president’s sanity in inviting more foreign troops onto Colombian soil.
On the same day, the newspaper El Tiempo reports that US President George W. Bush labeled the FARC as “heartless killers” and praised the work done during President Uribe’s time in office: “He is a great leader and I am very impressed with his work.”
El Tiempo also reported that US congressman Tom Davis said, at a press conference that, “this act of the FARC will provoke a very strong retaliation. They committed a very grave error.” Davis had just returned from a visit to Colombia to observe the ways that US anti-narcotics resources were being invested.
Mark Souder, the Democratic congressman who accompanied Davis, said that the hostages will spark a fierce debate in his country, and claimed that the majority of the public would be outraged at the FARC. “We won’t be intimidated if they try to stop the war on drugs,” Souder told El Tiempo.
“These statements from the US can be understood as official approval of the intervention which is already underway, although I don’t think the North American soldiers could withstand three days of the mosquitoes down here,” said Colombian congressman Roberto Camacho after hearing the US politicians’ statements.
(Will these “retaliations” from the US government against the FARC affect the people of Caquetá, as the Vietnamese people were affected by “retaliations” against the Vietcong, or more recently, as were the Afghan people when the US “retaliated” against the Taliban?)
February 22: White House spokesmen refute the version in of the facts in The Washington Post, claiming that they would not send 150, but only 49 soldiers, 10 of which would be members of the Special Forces, while the rest would be pilots, technicians, and mechanics. The White House also claimed that the 360 US soldiers already in Colombia would not be involved in the search.
(Why are there so many contradictions between the various US government sources? What repercussions would the presence of US troops in Colombia have, considering their immense military might?)
March 3: The Colombian weekly Cambio publishes the statements of Fidel Casallas, a member of the Teófilo Medina Column who the army captured one day after the plane crash; the only prisoner taken in connection with the crash.
Casallas assured the magazine that he had witnessed the killing of two of the airplane’s crew – the Colombian and the US citizen –by two of his companions, in the immediate area of the crash site. The magazine confirmed this version, claiming that the authorities had intercepted radio transmissions by the FARC, in which the guerrillas admit to killing the two crewmembers.
Casallas also claimed that the FARC commanders later gave him a mission to deploy “queibrapata” (leg-breaker) landmines in the mountainous zone known as the Alejandría pass, just 60 kilometers from Caquetá’s capital of Florencia, to push back the advance of the army patrols.
Acording to the alleged interview with Casallas, one of the mines exploded in his hands. His companions picked him up and at nightfall tried to bring him to a hospital in the “Santana de las hermosas” sector in an improvised stretcher. But suddenly, one of the patrols from the military base discovered them. A gun battle followed and lasted for several hours.
When it was all over, according to this report, Casallas realized that his comrades had abandoned him, in full view of the military base. The army captured him and brought him to the 8th Brigade’s military hospital in Florencia. Once there, he was interrogated, first by military intelligence agents, then by investigators from the Public Prosecutor’s office.
The magazine also reported that Casallas would be taken to the maximum-security wing of the “La Picota” prison in Bogotá. Once there, he will face serious criminal charges as an insurgent who has attacked US interests.
(How reliable is Casallas’s story – as published in Cambio – considering that he had been completely incommunicado since his capture? No reporter heard his actual testimony; Cambio obtained the information from the military or some other government source*. Is Casallas really a member of the FARC? During his first interrogation by the army, he claimed to be a local farmer; later, testifying before the public prosecutor – a very intimidating position to find oneself in – he admitted to being part of the Teófilo Medina Column. Had he admitted his connection to the incident to the authorities under some kind of pressure? Should we believe that he was a witness to the assassination of the two crew members, when the FARC had not claimed responsibility for those deaths in any of their communiqués? Can the army be trusted when it says it intercepted radio conversations from the FARC and that it has reported the contents accurately?)
March 4: The newspaper El Tiempo publishes an interview with an unidentified official source, in which various doubts concerning the FARC’s US prisoners were cleared up.
The anonymous source said, contrary to White House claims, that the 360 US soldiers already in Colombia would also be authorized to participate in the search and rescue of the three prisoners.
During the interview, the source further identified the US citizen supposedly killed by the FARC as Thomas Janis, 56 – a decorated Vietnam veteran who had retired from the US Army 5 years earlier. The big Colombian media, such as the “TV Noticiero” program on the channel Caracol, declared Janis a “war hero.” He was buried a few days ago in the US with full military honors.
(Have the Colombia commercial media asked what a US soldier in Vietnam had to do to win so much prestige in the military?** Didn’t it come from following orders unquestioningly? In Vietnam, where the US routinely abused the civilian population, wouldn’t these orders have included bombing villages and massacring entire communities, including women and children?)
The identity of the other three “kidnapped” crewmembers is still a mystery. But according to the article in El Tiempo, they worked with Janis for California Microwave Systems – a subsidiary of the Northrop Grumman company – which provides electronic communications and security systems to the US military.
(Have the Colombian commercial media bothered to investigate the history of the Northrop Grumman company? Don’t they know that it’s a defense corporation contracted by the Pentagon? Don’t they understand that these corporations are made up of US civilians and retired military personnel? That these corporations not only provide the Colombian army with weapons and equipment, but may also participate directly in counterinsurgency operations and illicit crop eradications – operations supposedly only carried out by Colombians? Have they informed the public about the millions of dollars these private corporations receive as part of Plan Colombia? Have they ever investigated the work these corporations do in other countries? Do they know about the cases of corruption and human rights violations in which mercenaries, who hide behind the names of these private contractors, have been implicated? Is it fair to call it a “kidnapping” when these mercenaries, posing as civilians, carry out military operations in the jungles of Caquetá? Political analysts, sociologists and other independent writers have produced many articles on the subject. Have the journalists who work for the commercial media taken the trouble to do any research on this issue? If not, they should take a look at some articles like the following):
The same day, ANNCOL publishes a communiqué from the Central Command of the FARC, which publicly clarifies that the organization had never tried to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the US. This, they said, was first because there are no prisoners from their ranks in US prisons, and secondly, because: “The causes and consequences of our country’s internal conflicts will be solved by the Colombians themselves.”
Likewise the FARC reaffirm in this communiqué their demands for a prisoner exchange with the Colombian government in a demilitarized zone, and for the cessation of all military operations in the Caquetá jungles as a condition for the lives and safety of the three US operatives in their custody:
March 5: The AFP reports that today, during a meeting with President Uribe in Bogotá, Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman dismissed any negotiation of a prisoner exchange with the FARC, and reaffirmed the White House’s support for the Colombian government in the war on drugs and terrorism.
“I do not see the possibility of establishing a dialogue with the FARC, and… I don’t see a negotiation with the FARC for our hostages” declared Grossman after meeting with Uribe in Bogotá’s Nariño Palace.
According to the AFP, the Colombian government also strongly rejects the possibility of establishing an exchange with the FARC in a demilitarized zone and holds the guerrillas responsible for the safety of the three US prisoners.
Furthermore, Grossman calls Plan Colombia “successful” and emphasized the necessity of continuing coca and poppy fumigation and manual crop eradication.
(If the US government is as interested as it claims in the lives of “its three citizens,” why not consider the possibility of an exchange? Could it be that the “kidnapping” of these three “citizens” by the FARC would serve as the perfect pretext for the Pentagon to broaden its intelligence work in Colombia?)
To open… or to close?
Until now it has not been possible to answer any of the questions posed in this article. Worst of all is that there are many more to ask.
For example, what is behind the US government’s obsession with basing more and more troops in Colombia and other undeveloped or developing countries? How much legitimacy can the Colombian state claim, after giving up so much of its national sovereignty? Who – or rather, what power – does the Colombian president really work for? Are the soldiers the Pentagon is sending really coming to rescue the three US citizens captured by the FARC? Or are they coming to join the counterinsurgency operations more permanently (considering that the “Three Corners” military base – the largest in the country – is in Caquetá)?
Or, maybe, they’re coming to help protect the interests of the big multinationals that operate in that area – such as Occidental Petroleum of Colombia – as the three “innocent US citizens” were surely doing? Won’t these interests be, basically, the Texan wet dreams of oil that keep President Bush and his family up at night? With such a mess, where will the resources destined to Plan Colombia really go? Why is it so hard for the US government to accept its own vulnerability after the Sept. 11 attacks? Do they think a policy of war and interventionism, disguised as a “war on terror,” is the best way to hide?
On the other hand, what’s wrong with the journalists who work for the big Colombian media? Are they merely information mercenaries? Why do they act like they know everything, when in the end they really know nothing?
Why do they publish information so lacking in context? Why do they manage the information from such a robot-like and melodramatic perspective – as in the case of one article that appeared in the March 2nd El Espectador, an overwrought piece about the dramatic lives of the families of the three “US citizens.” Has that writer given any thought to the “drama” the peasant farmers will suffer when their farmland becomes infertile due to the effects of glyphosate herbicides? Or when, for no apparent reason, they must confront the severe paranoia unleashed by the “war on terrorism,” where anyone can become a “suspect?”
Why don’t Colombian journalists read the history of their own country? Is one day of real work too much to ask? Don’t they realize that the Colombian conflict is too complex to analyze from this bipolar perspective? The most prestigious universities in the world offer programs in “Colombianism” and “violentology” – fields invented specifically for the study of Colombian society and politics. The journalists here should learn that one needs a magnifying glass to examine the reality of the Colombian situation.
The history of Colombia has all the ingredients of a great Latin American soap opera: love, hate, death, resentment, revenge, betrayal, and the rest. The difference is that here, the boundaries between good and evil, madness and sanity, morality and immorality, are blurred. There are no happy endings.
That’s why journalists – whether for or against the government – need to stop repeating what they take to be “truths.” They need to begin, like Socrates, to ask others and to ask them selves more and more about this country, a country that seems to be the missing link in world history.
So, dear readers, I hope you’ll excuse this journalist, lost on the disinformation highway, for not responding to all these questions, and for leaving one simple question open: What is Colombia?
Do you want me to keep asking?
* So a reporter from Cambio told this correspondent. The Cambio reporter was not sure if the information came from members of the armed forces, but could confirm that the acquisition of the document was facilitated by an anonymous source with direct links to the government.
** It is important to clarify that the commercial media referenced here are generally owned by huge conglomerates, which both endorse and are endorsed by the government. These include newspapers such as El Tiempo and El Espectador, commercial radio networks such as Caracol, RCN and Todelar, and the Caracol and RCN television networks.
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