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Massacres in Latin America under-reported.

Killings in Colombia

On April 24, 1996, Amnesty International reported that on April 22 in the towns of Segovia and Remedio in the department of Antioguia, 14 people were killed and 15 wounded in a massacre by members of a paramilitary group. Despite three Reuters North American wire service articles (April 22 and April 26), only the Orlando Sentinel carried a story on this massacre. Five days later when a lone gunman in Australia opened fire in a pub at a tourist site killing 32 people, it was front-page news in scores of U.S. papers.

Here is what happened in Colombia that U.S. papers found unworthy of coverage. On April 17, members of the police and the Battalion Bombona (Bombona Battalion) of the army based in the municipality of Segovia reportedly simulated an armed confrontation, prompting the town's inhabitants to return to their homes. In the early hours of April 18, taking advantage of the fact that the town's streets were completely deserted, leaflets were signed by a paramilitary group calling itself Dignity for Colombia which threatened the inhabitants, shopkeepers and transport workers with death if they were to participate in a strike reportedly called by guerrilla organizations for April 18 and 19.

On April 22, a group of heavily armed men traveling in two vehicles made their way to bars and ice-cream parlors in the La Paz, Tigrito and Borbollon districts of Segovia. The armed men entered a bar in the El Tigrito district, forced the people in the bar to lie face down, and shot them, killing four and seriously injuring several others. In the La Paz district they entered another bar where again they forced those inside to lie face down and shot five people dead and left another seven seriously wounded. The three districts are inhabited mainly by peasant farmer families who have fled violence in the countryside and have often been labeled as guerilla sympathizers by members of the armed forces.

According to reports received, the massacre took place at a time when security force presence in Segovia had increased. The group of armed men escaped Segovia, passing freely through three Colombian army and police checkpoints.

The Orlando Sentinel published a 70-word article on page 12. The three Reuters News Service articles available to U.S. papers provided nearly 10 times that amount of copy.

Why was the story of the Australian killings worthy of front-page coverage in the Post-Dispatch and other major papers across the country, while this massacre in Colombia was relegated to only 70 words of coverage in one paper? We can only point to these distinctions. The victims in Australia were primarily international tourists, presumably upper middle class. The victims in Colombia were village shopkeepers and transport workers who were contemplating taking part in a strike. The perpetrator in Australia was a lone gunman who police said had a history of psychological problems. He was apprehended at the scene of the crime. In Colombia, the killings were committed by a well-known paramilitary group which had threatened the lives of the victims three days before the killings. The killers operated with the apparent cooperation of the police and army stationed in the town. The leaflets were passed out under a curfew imposed by a mock military operation by the army. They were allowed to pass through security checks after committing the murders and have yet to be apprehended. Perhaps a distinction is being made between "worthy" and unworthy victims.

Killings in Brazil

According to another Amnesty International (AI) report on April 17, 1996, at least 20 people were killed when military police opened fire while attempting to disperse demonstrators near the town of Eldorado do Carajas, about 430 miles south of Belem, capital of Para state.

Seventeen U.S. papers carried reports of these killings. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was not among those papers reporting this story. However, on May 9, 1996, the Post-Dispatch did find space to report a kidnapping of the grandson of a prominent businessman in Brazil.

Here's what happened in Brazil that the Post-Dispatch and most other U.S. papers found unworthy of coverage. Around 2,000 landless peasants connected to the Movement for Landless Rural Workers (MST) were blockading a road. Some reports state that demonstrators threw stones at police, and that some of them may have been armed with handguns. Twenty bodies were recovered and 40 people were reported wounded, including five policemen.

Amnesty International reported that some corpses displayed bullet wounds to the head, indicating that unlawful killing may have been carried out. There were also reports that a number of demonstrators are missing. AI noted that this appears to be part of a pattern of violence against land rights demonstrators by military police which is supported by a climate of impunity. The MST campaigns for land reform by organizing demonstrations and land occupations in many states throughout Brazil. AI has been monitoring a recent increase in violent confrontations between police and the MST and has repeatedly expressed its concern at the frequent reports of excessive use of force by military police.

This story was the subject of wire service stories from Reuters, United Press International and InterPress Service. Seventeen U.S. papers picked the story off the wires and ran it. About half of these papers printed only brief mentions of the confrontation in Brazil as a part of their round up world news. The others printed longer, bylined accounts.

Why did the Post-Dispatch choose to ignore this story and yet devote precious international news space to the release of the grandson of a prominent businessman in Rio De Janeiro? The only information the Post-Dispatch gives about the alleged perpetrators of this crime was that they were arrested in a raid on a house in a shantytown. In the unreported story, those responsible for the killings were the police, who continue to operate with impunity. The victims in the unreported story were landless peasants.

William Ramsey is the area program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee of St. Louis.
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Author:Ramsey, Bill
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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