Analysis: The Case of Romeo Langlois

News from Colombia | on: Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The disappearance of French journalist Romeo Langlois, has raised concerns about the ongoing dangers facing journalists reporting on the conflict in Colombia, as well as highlighting the confusion that often surrounds the conflict.

Langlois was accompanying Colombian army troops on an anti-drugs mission in Caqueta, a conflict- riven region of Colombia. The coca fields they were attacking are claimed to belong to the FARC, and the troops were duly attacked by the FARC. Reports in local media initially reported a four hour firefight in which 20 troops were killed, while the government has claimed 4 dead, and several ‘disappeared’. Some of these have been found, but some troops remain disappeared. Meanwhile other sources allege that the government is hiding its true casualty figures by saying that troops are disappeared and claim that the FARC destroyed 3 helicopters in the operation. Such variance in casualty figures is common, with official figures stating that in 2010 the Colombian armed forces lost 2052 wounded and 488 killed, while guerrillas claimed 2242 wounded and 2078 troops killed - although they include both police and paramilitaries in this figure. What is clear is that the scale of the conflict is largely hidden from Colombian society, and from the international community.

Meanwhile, the circumstances of Langlois’ capture remain murky. The government alleges that the FARC fought wearing civilian clothes and that they fought from civilian houses, in violation of international humanitarian law. To prove the point the government released a short video clip showing men in white shirts out in the open, shooting and being shot. It is unclear whether the footage actually comes from the operation in question, and it doesn’t show them in or near houses. Surviving soldiers have reported that Langlois, who was wearing a Colombian military helmet and flak jacket, was wounded in the arm during the fighting. Apparently he then took off his body armour and helmet, and ran towards the guerrillas. This somewhat unusual behaviour was put down to “tension and pressure” by the Colombian Minister of Defence, Juan Carlos Pinzon. Some commentators think it more likely that the army troops fled during the fierce fighting, leaving the journalist behind. A 2011 report by the Arco Iris foundation confirmed that although the training of the Colombian army had improved, in ground combat troops often performed worse than the guerrillas, a failing largely compensated for with airpower.

Subsequently, a video was released by a self-proclaimed FARC guerrilla fighter claiming that the guerrillas held the wounded journalist. However, apparently the FARC usually communicates by written means and no official FARC confirmation has been forthcoming.

The situation has caused some questioning of the practice of ‘embedding’ journalists with the armed forces. Langlois was not identified as a non-military person, he was essentially wearing military uniform with helmet and camouflaged body armour. Even the Vice-President, Angelino Garzon has weighed in, saying that “The military are military. Civilians, including government figures and journalists, should not use military clothes.” However, the debate goes further with Andres Morales of FLIP (Press Freedom Foundation) saying that the exposure of a foreign journalist to such risks was the outcome of a policy of limiting media contacts with the guerrillas as part of the government’s strategy to isolate them. In 2010 the Colombian government accused the Telesur TV channel of complicity with the guerrillas for having visited a guerrilla camp. Therefore, Langlois was one of the few journalists to even cover the conflict from the frontlines.

The disappearance or capture of Langlois by the FARC has also conveniently overshadowed the FARC’s recent unilateral handover of its last military hostages, which had been seized on by Colombian peace campaigners as a sign of peace, as well as providing ammunition to hawks within government and society (such as former President Alvaro Uribe) to allege that the guerrillas are incorrigible hostage-takers and therefore not valid negotiating partners. Meanwhile, the allegations that the insurgents fought in civilian dress have helped to cover up the systematic abuses of both human rights and international humanitarian law by state forces, and by their paramilitary allies. Human rights groups routinely report aircraft strafing and bombing civilian settlements, as well as illegal roundups and detentions, false accusations by the military, the stationing of troops in civilian buildings like hospitals, schools and community centres, as well as the use of civilian homes by the military for billeting and as fighting positions – all of which are violations of international humanitarian law. Not to mention some 1,500 cases of extrajudicial executions carried out since 2002, in which over 3,000 troops are implicated so far, and the infamous practice of ‘false positives’ whereby troops killed civilians before presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat in return for bonuses from the Ministry of Defence.

It is to be hoped that Langlois is found safe and sound and returned to his family and friends as soon as possible. However, this case must not overshadow the grim reality of what is in many ways a highly militarised social conflict which has only one solution – negotiation.

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