The role of the media in the Colombian armed conflict: legitimization of crimes against humanity

Several studies have shown how the Colombian mass media has systematically misinformed the public about the armed conflict in the country. The El Salado massacre in 2000 is one of the most shameful chapters.

Not only did the media falsely report that the 60 people who were massacred between February 16 and 21 were killed in battles between paramilitaries and guerrillas, but some were falsely accused of being FARC members.

Worse still, no media spoke to the victims, but the Caracol television channel granted Carlos Castaño, the late boss of the paramilitary organization AUC, a 90-minute interview to legitimize the atrocities. The newspaper El Tiempo did the same with its second, Salvatore Mancuzo.

How Colombian newspapers consistently misinformed the public about the armed conflict

The slaughter

The massacre began on February 16 when paramilitaries set up a roadblock separating El Carmen de Bolivar from El Salado and some 450 men in three units advanced towards Salado where they arrived on February 18.

During the two-day march to the village, the paramilitaries received only minor resistance from FARC guerrillas who were also operating in the area.

When they arrived, the paramilitaries had already killed 14 people.

As the “05” unit surrounds the village, “El Tigre” and “Amaury”, a former member of the Colombian special forces, order the inhabitants to gather in the town square.

Masked men who were with the paramilitaries pointed out three men who they said were guerrilla collaborators. Before the eyes of the inhabitants, they were tortured and had their throats cut.

On February 21, after massacring 60 people and raping two minor girls, the paramilitaries set fire to the town and left.

Media silence

The El Espectador newspaper was the first to report on the violence on February 19, reporting on the violence on Salado’s path, making no mention of the atrocities that were continuing.

A reporter from El Espectador told the scholars that this information was provided by the military, which the New York Times said was within minutes of the massacre.

The predominant version disseminated and recreated by the mass media was that of the Armed Forces, according to which in El Salado fifteen inhabitants were killed in the midst of fighting between the FARC and paramilitary groups.

National Center for Historical Memory

This was contradicted by Attorney General Alfonso Gomez, who told the media on February 22 that “I was told that children and elderly people were there, all this indicates to me that the presentation of [forensic investigation unit] CTI is true and that it was not a so-called fight, but one of the classic massacres of the Colombian conflict.

The AUC responded the next day, saying the CTI chief “echoes the FARC’s manipulated versions”.

Our troops, with guerrilla deserters as guides, laid siege and were able to identify beyond doubt who were guerrillas.


On February 25, the newspaper El Tiempo reported that 28 people had been killed during the incursion. According to the newspaper, “three bodies had clothes that suggest they could be guerrillas, said the general prosecutor’s office”.

Victims Silenced as War Criminals Get Sufficient Airtime

At no time did any media speak to the victims, thousands of whom had fled the village immediately after the massacre.

El Tiempo editor Francisco Santos, an alleged acquaintance of Mancuso, published an interview with the paramilitary commander who ordered the February 28 massacre.

The newspaper, which later said 40 people had been killed, explained the paramilitary strategy behind “the worst massacre in 10 years”.

The region of Montes de Maria as well as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta where the paramilitaries attacked last week are the only two places on the coast that offer the armed groups conditions of mobility and shelter. The Montes de Maria area lacks roads and is made up of 400-meter-high mountains, broken like an accordion, which makes it easier for the army to ambush because [the guerrillas] see them coming from afar.

Newspaper El Tiempo

The most shameful war crime apology was facilitated by journalist Dario Arizmendi on March 1 when he gave AUC leader Carlos Castaño 90 minutes of airtime on national television station Caracol to legitimize the war crimes.

The unprecedented impact of the very presence of the paramilitary leader helped to attract public attention and stage a discourse legitimizing counterinsurgency warfare and its practices, as well as making invisible the horrors committed by them.

National Center for Historical Memory

Three months after the massacre, the Colombian media had still not interviewed a single victim, only war criminals and the authorities.

The weekly Semana devotes a “special” to the statistics of the conflict in which it again reduced the number of victims to 28 victims on 29 May.

Only foreign media allowed victims to speak

It took a foreign media, the New York Times, to relay for the first time the story of a victim on July 14.

“For them it was like a big party,” one of the twelve survivors told the newspaper. “They drank, danced and cheered as they slaughtered us like pigs.”

Colombians were kept completely ignorant of what was happening to their compatriots, they were fed nothing but war crimes apologists and contradicting authorities.

Why did the media do this?

Former President Andres Pastrana (Image: Twitter)

The massacre occurred during peace talks between former President Andres Pastrana and the FARC. The victims were inconvenient as they were massacred “while the army stood by”, according to The New York Times.

If the public had been told that “during the three days of killing…military and police units a few miles away made no effort to stop the massacre” but “prevented human rights groups from man and rescue to enter and rescue residents,” as the NYT reported, it would have been obvious that the state was as complicit in terrorism as the FARC.

The Colombian mass media apparently agreed to betray their loyalty to the citizens and legitimize terror and the president instead.

The inhabitants are stiff in suffering the consequences. When they attempted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacre last month, their teachers received massive death threats.

The alleged masterminds behind both massacres, the wealthy Mendez family, have yet to be brought to justice. It wouldn’t be that they continue to terrorize the inhabitants to cover up their alleged complicity in two massacres, would it?