Pubdate: Sun, 18 Jun 2006
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2006 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Joshua Goodman, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


JAMUNDI, Colombia - 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 about an hour before dusk.

Within minutes, all 10 officers in the U.S.-trained unit were dead in 
a ferocious attack that stunned Colombians and severely embarrassed 
President Alvaro Uribe Velez just as he was savoring a crushing 
re-election victory.

The killers allegedly were no typical outlaws. The gunmen firing from 
roadside ditches and from behind bushes were a platoon of 28 soldiers 
who unleashed a barrage of some 150 bullets and seven grenades, 
according to a ballistics investigator.

An 11th man, 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.

In the hours after the May 22 ambush, the head of the army stood by 
his men, calling the massacre a tragic case of "friendly fire," with 
the soldiers probably 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," chief federal prosecutor-general Mario Iguaran told a 
shocked nation 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 as the sun set on the slain officers' 
corpses. With the investigation expanding, seven more soldiers were 
ordered to turn themselves in Saturday. All will face charges of 
aggravated homicide.

"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.

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 badly damaged the credibility of an army 
on which 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.

"What took place in Jamundi changes your thought process," Iguaran, 
the chief federal prosecutor, said in an interview with the 
Associated Press. "Previously I had the impression that the human 
rights abuses, if inevitable in every army throughout the world, 
wasn't a real problem in Colombia. Now I have my doubts."

The scandal has reinvigorated 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 subalterns were arrested in 
Antioquia state on suspicion of masterminding the June 1 abduction of 
salesman Saul Manco Jaramillo, who was snatched from a taxi while 
with his girlfriend. He hasn't been seen since.

In Washington, Rep. James 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 members of Congress supported it. 
The vote coincided with the State Department's certification that the 
Colombian army is making progress in rooting out abuses within its 
ranks, despite a spotty record and a long history of abetting 
illegal, right-wing paramilitary groups.

Although the investigation into the police ambush is still 
proceeding, the army's version that it was a case of friendly fire 
didn't add up.

The massacre took place in broad daylight, in a clearing where the 
green caps and vests of the police should have been easily visible. A 
conversation, let alone a loud plea for a cease-fire, can be heard 
from more than 50 yards away in the quiet rural area.

Investigators in the federal prosecutor's office in Cali also said 
that when police reinforcements arrived with lights flashing, they 
were driven back by gunfire.

Some of the victims were shot in the back and at a range of only a 
few yards, ballistic investigators said.

The investigators agreed to discuss the case only on condition of 
anonymity to safeguard their security and because their probe isn't 
over. None of the information they talked about has been officially 
presented, and it was impossible to check independently.

Investigators said they also found evidence in text messages sent 
from the cell phone of Col. Bayron Carvajal, the highest-ranking 
soldier arrested in the case. Although in Cali at the time of the 
attack, Carvajal was in close contact with his troops, ordering his 
sergeant, in one message sent the day before, to "pull back the 
ambush . . . everything is set for tomorrow," the investigators said.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman