Colombia Uses TV Violence to Sell Peace

One of most violent nations hopes impact of ads will quell killing before October elections.

Ads have been used to peddle everything from shoes to orange juice. Now Colombia's government is banking on the power of advertising to sell a far more precious commodity: peace.

Through a new television campaign, the state Peace Commission hopes to wake up Colombians to the bloodshed in their nation.

The advertisements show political violence in its various and horrible forms: a massacre of banana workers; a family pulled from their beds by men in ski masks; a rebel covering his head with his hands as bullets rain down around him.

"We are presenting society with a cruel reality that it doesn't want to admit exists," says Patricia Pida, a subcommissioner for peace who worked on the $85,000 campaign.

But critics say that the publicity campaign is just another smoke screen by the government - a way of shifting responsibility for peace from the shoulders of the state to those of the public.

"It's a waste of government funds," says political analyst Juan Gabriel Tokatlian. "The point is not to have a load of films about violence, but to combat that violence."

In recent months, President Ernesto Samper's government has made several gestures toward initiating a peace process - the most recent of these being the offer to demilitarize an area of Colombia as a site for talks. But many say the government, weakened by corruption scandals, has been brought to its knees by the guerrillas.

While the government is talking of peace, a wave of rebel violence is sweeping the country, with dozens of candidates in upcoming municipal elections killed or kidnapped. Candidates in the upcoming Senate race have been instructed to wear bulletproof vests during the election period.

Peace Commissioner Daniel Garcia Pa says many Colombians have learned to ignore the horrors of the 40-year-old guerrilla insurgency.

The victims of the conflict live mainly in rural areas, far away from the cities, which house about 70 percent of Colombia's 36 million people.

Also, violence is so routine that people have grown inured to it. Each year, the armed struggle between leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Army claims thousands of lives, placing Colombia among the world's most violent countries. The conflict has forced a million Colombians from their homes during the past decade.

"We Colombians don't care anymore if we get killed, if we don't get killed. We just don't care," says Marta Sanchez, a twentysomething secretary.

As political analyst Tokatlian puts it, "violence has become very banal," and Colombians have developed the belief that they are, by nature, a violent people.

By bringing violence to the living room, the Peace Commission hopes it will become impossible for the public to continue to ignore it. The campaign also aims to show the public that there is a way out of violence and that it is not simply a national affliction.

In one of the advertisements, people from different walks of life express their rejection of the armed conflict. At the end of each advertisement, a somber voice says, "Without you, we cannot stop this war."

Peace, Mr. Garcia Pa says, cannot simply be imposed in the form of a treaty. If it is to last, it must be underpinned by social consensus.

"Peace is not only the silencing of the bullets," he says. "Peace is creating new institutions and new relations between human beings and the state." The Peace Commission has also initiated a series of community meetings, or cabildos, where the members of the local society can debate social and political issues and, hopefully, open the way for peace.

"There is a genuine basis in his desire for peace," Tokatlian says, "but under the circumstances [the campaign] seems more political than genuine."

Garcia Pa says the publicity campaign was not conceived as the solution to the country's problems and agrees that the ultimate responsibility for a peace process lies with the government. "You can change the image, but if the reality remains the same, you're just fooling people," he says.

But it should at least plant the seed in the public's mind that one day Colombia could be a peaceful country, he says.

"We want to show Colombians that just as a war can be declared," he says, "a war can be ended."

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