Colombian Army Accused In Massacre of Drug Police
Sunday, June 18, 2006
JAMUNDI, Colombia -- About an hour before dusk, on a dirt road dotted with country homes near the western city of Cali, three trucks carrying an elite squad of anti-narcotics police pulled up to the gates of a psychiatric center for a planned raid.
Within minutes, all 10 officers in the U.S.-trained unit were dead. An informant who led the police squad to the scene promising they would find a large stash of cocaine was also found dead. When investigators removed his ski mask, they found a bullet hole in his head.
The alleged killers were no typical outlaws. They were a platoon of 28 soldiers who unleashed a barrage of some 150 bullets and seven grenades from roadside ditches and from behind bushes, according to a ballistics investigator.
"You could hear the police shouting they had families and begging the soldiers not to shoot," said Arcesio Morales, 56, a patient at the psychiatric center who hid in a ditch during the 30-minute fusillade.
In the hours after the May 22 ambush, the head of the Colombian army stood by his men, calling the massacre a tragic case of friendly fire, with the soldiers likely having mistaken the armed police for leftist rebels known to operate in the area.
But the nation's chief criminal investigator quickly produced a more chilling motive. "This was not a mistake, it was a crime -- a deliberate, criminal decision," Mario Iguaran, the prosecutor general, said on June 1. "The army was doing the bidding of drug traffickers."
The same day, eight soldiers, including the colonel who commanded them, were arrested based largely on evidence obtained by agents of the federal prosecutor's office. With the investigation expanding, seven more soldiers were ordered to turn themselves in on Saturday. All are expected to face charges of aggravated homicide.
The allegation of a premeditated massacre follows findings by the United Nations and human rights groups that Colombia's military is behind a recent wave of disappearances and killings of unarmed civilians. Together, the charges have damaged the credibility of an army on which President Alvaro Uribe has leaned heavily in a remarkably successful effort to reduce rebel attacks and kidnappings for ransom. The ambush also drew a rare rebuke from Colombia's backers in the U.S. Congress, which has approved $4 billion in mostly military and anti-narcotics aid since 2000.
But despite public outrage over the killing of the squad, and to the dismay of senior police officials, Uribe has not reprimanded top military brass. That baffles many people, considering he has dismissed 11 army generals since taking office in 2002 for far lesser acts of negligence.
"What took place in Jamundi changes your thought process," Iguaran said in an interview. "Previously, I had the impression that the human rights abuses, if inevitable in every army throughout the world, weren't a real problem in Colombia. Now I have my doubts."
The scandal has revived allegations that troops were involved in a wave of killings of civilians who the army claimed were rebels killed in combat. Just this month, an army captain and three subordinates were arrested in Antioquia state on suspicion of masterminding the June 1 abduction of Saul Manco Jaramillo, a salesman who was snatched from a taxi while with his girlfriend. He has not been seen since.
In Washington, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) proposed cutting U.S. aid to Colombia's military and police next year by $30 million, a symbolic 5 percent. His proposal failed, although 174 congressmen supported it.