How Radio Changed the Course of a 50-Year Civil War

This article originally appeared on ¡PACIFISTA!, VICE Colombia’s platform for promoting peace. It’s part of “ The Country of Silence,” a series of special reports assembled by a project of the Fundación para la Libertad de la Prensa (the Foundation for Press Freedom, or FLIP). You can read the other two pieces in the series here.

She’d never had the courage to approach the military radio station, but this time was different. It had been a while since the guerrilleros came to the town in a state of peace, and Doña Marta Torrijos could think of no other way to put out a call to the community than via the town’s only radio station. Of course, the place wasn’t exactly untainted—it had long been a tool of snitches and traitors. But how else would she get people to come out to the street with white flags to celebrate the revolutionary Marxist group FARC’s final march through the municipality of Uribe in the Meta Department of Colombia?

The idea was not well-received in the little cement house next to the Army battalion where the station, Colombia Estéreo, operated. During the nearly four years of difficult negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC in Havana, Cuba, soldier José Arley Mosquera had spoken little on air about the controversies at the bargaining table. A young, gregarious black man whose father was displaced from the banana plantations of Urabá, Mosquera wasn’t accustomed to reporting about the violence in the region, much less about the confrontations between the guerrillas and the Army, which, throughout 2016, had made the final leg of the path to a peace deal, finally inked last December, even more tense.

The orders had always been clear: Politics were not to be discussed on the Army’s radio station. To avoid problems, Mosquera had always limited himself to repeating reports sent directly from the station’s studios in Bogotá.

Doña Marta returned to her house—the house that had been raided by the military various times when they took over the town in 2002—in a state of frustration. It was the same house in which she waited for her husband for four months after they took him in one of the mass raids carried out after the demise of the demilitarized zone, which had been the product of FARC negotiations with the administration of Andrés Pastrana early in the 21st century. Once again, Doña Marta would have to resort to the only alternative means of communication available in a town where the sole media outlet is run by the military: notices printed on paper that wilt in the humidity. And of course the classic word of mouth, tireless and distorting, which in the past had turned news into gossip, the wounded into dead, and more than one neighbor into a guerrilla collaborator.

Antennas, transmitters, and soldiers turned into announcers

Things hadn’t always been this way. Before the Army arrived to put up its antennas, residents of Uribe could listen to the signals of radio stations in Villavicencio and neighboring towns, and, above all, Voice of the Resistance, the station operated by the FARC in secrecy. Every day, before the sun had even come out, the latter opened its programming with “Farmer’s Awakening,” a segment in which harvesting advice was dispensed to people across the region.

Born in the 1990s, after several full-fledged guerrilla campaigns, Voice of the Resistance was gradually rolled out across a considerable share of FARC territory. In the Caribbean region, for example, it was directed by Simón Trinidad; his partner, Lucero Palmera, was the announcer. Voice of the Resistance was a “network for communication, education, organization, of the fight and of hope, with a classy sensibility,” according to an article by Commander Jesús Santrich published online.

“The history of the Army’s radio stations is filled with black pages.”—FARC Commander Aldinever Morantes

For a long time, Voice of the Resistance was the main source of news in the Uribe community, which has historically been one of the stronger rearguards of the guerrillas, a refuge and home for liberal and communist peasants who, in the mid-20th century, fled violence in the southwestern part of the country. Since then, the town has become a fundamental spot on the historical map of conflict and peace in Colombia. The secretariat of the guerrillas installed their headquarters there at the beginning of the 80s, and in a remote camp called Casa Verde, lived through some of the most intense moments of conflict and peace of that era: The signing of the 1984 accords with the government of Belisario Betancourt; the unexpected bombing of December 9, 1990, used by then-Colombian President César Gaviria, unsuccessfully, as a pretense to target the guerrilla leadership; and the death by natural causes of Jacobo Arenas, the FARC co-founder.

In an area long defined by its guerrilla presence, the Voice of the Resistance helped shape rural radio, especially between 1999 and 2002, when the demilitarized zone in El Caguán was in place and the insurgency achieved a great measure of local dominance. But following the collapse of the El Caguán peace dialogues, the Army returned, and with it, harassment and persecution, raids and tanks, as well as controls on food purchases and on networks of guerrilla collaborators. Among the new things introduced in the area by the military assault against the guerrillas as part of President Álvaro Uribe’s “Plan Patriota” (“Patriot Plan”) was, as in many other towns throughout the country, the antenna, the transmitter, and a group of soldiers-turned-announcers for the Colombia Estéreo radio station.

Since its founding, the strategy of Colombia Estéreo had always been to mix PR for the government with military-esque persuasion tactics. The station had to take advantage of its reach and prevalence to try to elevate troop morale, win over a wary civil population, and, according to Mosquera, “to undermine the enemy’s will.”

“Various guerrilleros came here to tell their stories on air,” Mosquera recalled, smiling, as he told the story of Gonzalo Góndola, the nom de guerre of the former commander of the FARC’s Abelardo Romero front.

Góndola demobilized at the end of 2012, along with his wife, a 25-year old guerrillera. He’d barely presented himself to the Army before they sat him at the desk of Colombia Estéreo. The testimony of the ex-commander made it to the FARC camps and, in a matter of weeks, the second commander of the front, alias Gentil Chuzo, also defected without notice. In the memo they released when they received Chuzo, Colombian authorities proudly asserted that it was the Army’s station that had inspired the deserter to make that decision. Mosquera said solemnly, “With this radio, we take lots of guerrilleros away from the FARC.”

The psychology of the radio

Far from the headquarters of Colombia Estéreo, some two hours by car along an unpaved highway, we met Commander Aldinever Morantes, former right-hand man to Mono Jojoy, one of the FARC’s highest-ranking officers. Today, he is under the authority of Mariana Paéz Training and Reincorporation Program in Buenavista, Meta. Last March, the program consisted of a pair of elevated shacks made of plastic and wood, which looked more like a chaotic cowboy set-up than a home intended to accommodate more than 500 guerrilleros of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc.

Morantes is a tough guerrillero, the kind of country guy who squeezes hard when he shakes your hand. He hadn’t even finished introducing himself before he began talking about class struggles and the many years he’s been fighting the “oligarchic regime.” He’s a loud talker, and when he talked about the enemy’s radio stations, his vehemence bordered on rage.

“The history of the Army’s radio stations is filled with black pages,” he said. “In the guerrilla, we didn’t invite soldiers to desert their ranks nor assassinate their commanders. And in turn, what did they say? ‘Steal information, steal arms, steal safes with money, tell us where the safes are, tell us where your commanders live—they live well.’ You understand?”

Aldinever spoke quickly, and was worried because he’s been recorded: “Neither the Army nor their stations” defeated the FARC, he said . “In Havana, we agreed upon a pact that was based on equal conditions!” Nevertheless, leaving aside the political rhetoric, the commander admitted that Colombia Estéreo did have an effect on the dynamic of the war: “The psychological tactics of the station helped to poison many people. They invited the rural people to turn into snitches, to turn into informers, to infiltrate popular organizations, to infiltrate the guerrillas. That created problems for us. And the problem ended in what? Well, in deaths, in injuries, in disappearances, and in incarcerations.”

Just as the war was carried out on land, it was carried out on radio. Within a couple years, the Army managed to assemble a network of 33 stations across the country, in addition to some itinerant stations that would be activated at the request of the Defense Ministry. Radio became a weapon, and the stations a military objective.

In the north of Cauca, the project even put the lives of the members of the nasa indigenous community in danger. Tired of being mentioned by name and of receiving invitations to join the National Army, the governors of three tribal councils filed a lawsuit to get Colombia Estéreo taken off air. The nasa people had managed to survive the war thanks to their neutrality and civil resistance; to end up tangled up in the radio airwaves turned them into a target for the FARC. The lawsuit made it to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that it would uphold “the fundamental right to life, personal integrity, and cultural identity” of the nasa people, prohibiting the Army from emitting radio messages in that area.

In Calamar, Guaviare, the Army showed up with its station and ordered the closure of Chiribiquete Estéreo, the community radio station that, for many years, operated out of the tallest building in town. The disappearance of Chiribiquete Estéreo was covered only in a 2004 article in the magazine Semana. Without much evidence, the weekly claimed that the radio station’s staff had used the station to send secret messages to the guerrillas. A year later, Colombia Estéreo filled the space left by the community radio and broadcast its message deep into the jungles of the Orinoco.

“Little by little, I’ve tapped into the psyche of the town.”—José Arley Mosquera

After the peace negotiations in El Caguán, things changed in Uribe, according to guerrillera Adriana Gutiérrez, who—after 11 years as announcer for the FARC’s clandestine station and after the implementation of the peace accord—did her final show early last February. “For a long time, we could work in peace. We’d set up camp and for three or four months, we’d broadcast from the same place without any problems.”

But with the arrival of the Army, not only did it become more difficult to maintain the radio frequency, but the guerrilleros from Voice of the Resistance had to retreat to the mountains between Uribe and Páramo de Sumapaz, where they relocated permanently to avoid skirmishes with the government.

“They only hit us one time,” Gutiérrez recounted. “Two of our comrades were transmitting the program when a bombardment hit. They were left there, dead, along with the transmitter and the destroyed equipment. We had to grab the other equipment almost immediately and go establish ourselves in a distant position. At 5 AM we were already back, transmitting again. We couldn’t give them the pleasure of saying that they’d destroyed the Voice of the Resistance.”

Not in tune with the people

A small space in the community room of the Uribe Centro neighbourhood was piled high with equipment of all kinds. The president of the council, José Pablo García, pointed at it with frustration: the unused sound console, the radio transmitter covered by sheets; all of the stuff needed to run a community radio station except the antenna, which was outside on the sidewalk. It was bought after a great effort was made to collect donations from all the neighborhoods in Uribe.

Silently, the equipment has been locked up in this little room for four years. García said the initiative lost momentum when its supporters went to the Communications Ministry and discovered that they’d need another 25 million pesos to obtain a concession license. But there was no more money, and no one has since come up with any. Uribe has had no other option but to subject itself to the same destiny as Miraflores and Calamar in Guaviare; Caloto, Guapi and Miranda in Cauca; Solano in Caquetá; El Bagre in Bajo Cauca, and Cumaribo in Vichada. All these places were punished by the war, and residents have no option but to receive local news and information via Army and Police radio stations.

Still the Army has managed to win some confidence of these communities, bit by bit. Long gone are the days when the residents of towns like Uribe refused to sell soldiers groceries. But the distance between the people and the Army is still evident in spite of efforts by military announcers like Mosquera, who have tried to foster relationships with the locals.

“It hasn’t been easy,” the soldier acknowledged.

In the past few months, he’s trained students from the school to come to the station and do their own programs. But after receiving the training, the students generally didn’t return, he said. The director of the town’s House of Culture and the parish priest were also invited, but for a town accustomed to the discretion imposed by war, their answer was obvious: silence.

The only civilians who have taken a seat at the station’s programming table thus far include a pastor from the World Missionary Movement who, each day, mid-morning, Bible in hand, offers advice to families. Also: some City Hall functionaries who’ve used the space for weekly announcements about the town’s action plans for development. A dentist who briefly offered oral health classes on air has left the station.

The military’s elaborate and potent media system stands in stark contrast to the precarious media options available to civilians. A product of the militarization of radio during the war years, the perverse effect of the phenomenon comes into light during these days of transition toward peace, days in which important, sensitive topics affecting the community abound, and in which there’s no one—not a single civilian voice—to address them, much less question, investigate, or argue about them.

The list of urgent subjects is not a short one. Marisol Rojas, a municipal official, warned that the retreat of FARC from the streets has resulted in an explosion in sexual assault in the area: ten reports in six months, compared with zero cases during the same period in 2016, when there was still fear that the guerrillas would mete out justice to rapists, as they did in times of war, Rojas said. Street fights ending in death have also increased, as has deforestation. Now that the FARC is no longer imposing fines for felling trees, numerous patches of burned out land cropped up, their trees burned down.

In the urban center of Uribe, civic leaders insist it’s critical to show how vulnerable they are in light of the fact that 56 leaders have been assassinated in the country since December 1, 2016, when Colombia’s government formally endorsed the accords. In the jungle zone, Commander Aldinever maintained that it’s necessary to establish a local agenda overseeing the implementation of the accords, in particular the parts that benefit rural people.

For now, nobody in Uribe can explain why they haven’t worked harder to create a community-based radio station. Everyone seems more interested in the 19 community radio stations that might be created by the government, a rule set forth in the peace agreement, though no one has yet articulated a plan for their location nor the reach of their frequencies. Nonetheless, judging by the speed with which the implementation of the agreement is going ahead—in Buenavista, the guerrilleros are still using latrines and digging pit toilets, and the rains and winds are ruining the little plastic that’s left to protect them from winter—it’s likely that the establishment of less urgent things, like radio stations, will take a back seat.

Meanwhile, the town’s public opinion will remain largely in the hands of a soldier, Mosquera, who’s passionate about sports and apathetic about politics and who, despite his relative distance from the community’s concerns, is still convinced that his work has a positive impact. “The kids of the town need heroes and examples to follow,” he asserted. “That’s why I talk about soccer.”

“Little by little, I’ve tapped into the psyche of the town,” the soldier added.

According to Mosquera, with peace have come more listeners who say they’re “in tune” with the station and his perch as the friendly voice who serves them. Recently, he had to console a 30-year-old woman who “still maintained her virtue” and who had left everything in her hometown of Villeta for a man in Uribe who turned out to be married. Curiously, it was through a love song that the woman dedicated on the air that the wife of the aforementioned man learned of his infidelity and forced him to end the affair.

Mosquera spent a good long time consoling her. “This is life,” he remembered telling her. “Don’t die over it: When one door closes, others open.”