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Pentagon’s Latest Weapon in Colombian Drug War? Soap Operas
by Robert Beckhusen (courtesy wired)
The U.S. Army is introducing a new weapon in its fight to get Colombia’s guerrillas to put down their guns: the soap opera.
That’s the gist of a recent Army request for proposals, which describes the building blocks of an anti-guerrilla propaganda campaign in Colombia. According to the request, the Army wants a potential contractor to write and produce a total of 20 radio novela episodes for an Army MISO team (Military Information Support Operations) based in Colombia, with eight episodes that “convey messages that promote demobilization,” or encouraging armed groups to put down their weapons. Another eight “shall convey messages that counter recruitment of target audiences (TAs) into illegal armed groups.”
The scripts, according to the request, will be true to life in a way, as they’re “derived from statements received by demobilized guerrillas.” Final approval before airing will also be reserved by the MISO team, which can demand rewrites. After the 16-episode run, another four episodes will focus on promoting “traditional family values, belief in the respectful treatment of women, democratic alternatives to violence that can furnish functioning state institutions, and emerging environmental concerns in support of U.S. and partner nation goals in Colombia, South America.”
The episodes will be in Spanish and a mix of regional Colombian dialects. There will be recurring characters, of course. And each episode will be about 12 minutes long, with an extra three minutes for recaps and previews to “increase TA’s interest in the future episode.” Pro-tip: the part about “functioning state institutions” should be kept subtle lest you bore the audience.
“FARC commanders spend a lot of time telling foot soldiers that they will be killed, hurt or imprisoned if they demobilize,” explains Ana Patel of the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuildng, a former expert on disarmament with the International Center for Transitional Justice. “For the past couple of years, government officials have asked demobilizing combatants to call their friends who are still in the mountains and tell them that it is safe to demobilize, with a lot of success.” This would have wider reach — owing to the reliance on radio to communicate in rural Colombia.
There’s also no estimate on how much the Pentagon is spending on its Colombian propaganda. But the military’s MISO teams spent $54 million in total around the world in 2012, according to USA Today. Largely, this money — which has reached up to $580 million over years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — goes to pay for 2,800 special forces operatives and 4,000 reservists to produce leaflets and broadcasts that promote the U.S. military and diss insurgents; collect insurgent propaganda; and develop more propaganda in response.
But according to the newspaper, which obtained a critical report about MISO activities from the Congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office, it’s far from clear whether the propaganda plans are actually panning out. Neither the Pentagon or Congress has “a complete picture” of where the money is going. The programs also lack end goals and no one can measure how well they’re working. Worse, “if used ineffectively, MISO activities have the potential to undermine the credibility of the United States and threaten (Pentagon) and other agencies’ efforts to accomplish key foreign policy goals,” the report noted.
The Pentagon seems to partly agree with the criticisms. Spokesman Lt. Col. James Gregory said in a statement that the Defense Department is “revising both its tracking and reporting requirements” so that regional military commanders “can more accurately and completely account for and report their MISO activities.” Funding for a pilot program is also “being expanded to more comprehensively assess these activities,” Gregory said.
A radio drama that teaches people to stay away from criminal groups might sound innovative, but narco-themed programming is mas viejo in places like Colombia. Spanish-language networks have scored primetime hits throughout Latin America and the U.S. with schlocky — and big budget — cartel dramas, or “narco novelas” like Queen of the South (seen above), El Cartel II, and Without Tits There Is No Paradise. Largely made in Colombia, these are also often set to narcocorrido folk ballads glorifying the gangsters, while also taking criticism for being violence-obsessed and misogynistic.
Because they are. And that’s a problem. The other problem is that it’s likely going to take more than a brief radio drama to counteract that. Still, another idea could be teaching people that it’s okay to welcome former cocaine-slinging guerrillas back into their communities, instead of treating them like outcasts. “Giving people a context for why and how these young people have become part of illegal armed groups may lead to greater acceptance by these communities,” Patel says. “The more these issues of demobilization and reintegration are talked about publicly, the better.”
Thank you. TiA.