Pubdate: Wed, 27 Sep 2006
Source: Christian Science Monitor (US)
Copyright: 2006 The Christian Science Publishing Society
Author: Danna Harman
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


Why the massacre of an elite US-trained Colombian police team 
prompted Congress to freeze drug-war funding.

JAMUNDI, COLOMBIA - Arcesio Morales Buitrago is in charge of the keys 
at Mi Casita. A soft-spoken man diagnosed as schizophrenic, he is the 
doyen of the patients at the leafy psychiatric home.

On May 22, right after the Monday afternoon bingo game, three cars 
skidded to a halt on the road that dead ends at Mi Casita. Ten men in 
blue jeans and police vests and one man in a ski mask piled out.

"Judicial police! Open up!" they shouted.

Mr. Morales, as the one responsible for the keys, hurried down the 
path to comply.

As he reached the green iron gate, however, Sergio Berrio, the 
administrator of the home, leaned out from the balcony above and 
screeched: "Stay back! Don't open!"

Morales froze. That's when the shooting started: a torrent of bullets 
and grenades rained down on the police from the nearby forest. "The 
war came here," Morales recalls incredulously, "...all the way here."

What followed in the next 45 minutes was the calculated massacre of 
one of Colombia's best counternarcotics police teams - all 
hand-picked and trained by the US. None survived.

This is a story of those policemen - of the members of Colombia's 
military that killed them - and of the narcotraffickers that, 
according to Colombia's attorney general, ordered the hit.

The investigation of the Jamundi massacre to date suggests the reach 
that Colombia's drug lords maintain today, and has shaken officials 
in Washington and Bogota. The US Congress has temporarily frozen 
funding for Plan Colombia, the $4.7 billion effort to stop the 
illicit drug trade - and a chorus of disappointed and angry voices in 
both capitals is demanding an honest evaluation of the US' most 
expensive foreign aid program outside of the Middle East, six years 
after it set out to win the war on drugs.

* * *

"Three thousand Americans a year die from Colombian drugs," says US 
Ambassador to Colombia William Wood. "That's like suffering a World 
Trade Towers attack every year."

Talking about drugs in terms of an attack on the US is not new. 
President Richard Nixon coined the term "war on drugs" in 1971, and 
President Ronald Regan popularized it in the 1980s, as crack cocaine 
was devastating America's inner cities. Then, with the cold war 
drawing to a close, illicit substances and those who trafficked them 
became the new international enemy - and the countries that produced 
them became battlefields. Colombia has emerged as the biggest 
battlefield of all.

An estimated 5.5 million Americans have used cocaine at least once in 
the past 12 months, roughly the same number as were doing so in 2002, 
according to the annual US Department of Health and Human Services 
survey. More than 2.3 million Americans are "current" users, defined 
as consuming the drug within the last month - a slightly higher 
number than the regular users counted in 2002.

Cocaine consumption is rising faster in Europe, but the US still has 
the highest rate of cocaine use anywhere in the world.

And while Ambassador Wood's 3,000 US deaths related to cocaine use is 
debated, the source of the narcotic is not. Colombia supplies an 
estimated 80 percent of cocaine worldwide, and more than 90 percent 
of the cocaine (and half the heroin) in the US, according to the 
State Department.

Three years after President Reagan defined drugs as a national 
security threat, President George H. W. Bush intensified this war. 
Under the 1989 Andean Initiative, aid to the region was boosted and 
US training and support for counter narcotics military and police was 

Bolivia and Peru, the world's two other major coca-producing nations, 
received sharply increased assistance too - but the majority of the 
drug-war funds went to Colombia. In 1989, Colombia got $18 million 
for military and police assistance. A year later, US funding 
increased five-fold, making it the Western Hemisphere's No. 1 
recipient of US security assistance, a distinction it maintains today.

Plan Colombia, the counternarcotics program conceived by Colombian 
President Andres Pastrana, modified and launched by President Bill 
Clinton in 2000, and since embraced by President George W. Bush, 
carried this commitment to new levels.

In its first 18 months, Plan Colombia spent $1.3 billion in the 
region, the vast majority - $860 million - in Colombia. Of that aid, 
some 75 percent - $642 million - went toward security - including the 
formation of a new counternarcotics brigade within the Colombian army 
whose job was to ease the way for the massive aerial herbicide 
spraying of coca crops. Since its launch, Plan Colombia has cost the 
US $4.7 billion, of which 75-80 percent has gone to the security forces.

The plan has achieved significant results in terms of coca fields 
eradicated, clandestine drug laboratories burned and tons of drugs 
seized. Thousands of people involved in the drug trade have been 
caught, killed, put behind bars, or extradited to the US.

Further, the decades-old drug-fueled conflict between right-wing 
paramilitaries, leftist guerrillas, and the government has abated 
perceptibly, say analysts. A halting process of demobilizing the 
paramilitaries is under way, and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces 
of Colombia (FARC) has lost ground to the army. President Alvaro 
Uribe was re-elected this May in a landslide thanks to his success in 
improving security in the country.

But the drug trade and the war against it continue to spawn violence, 
massive displacements of population, and high levels of corruption 
here, tearing at the social fabric of the country. And Colombia 
continues to be heavily, some say dangerously, militarized, with its 
army taking on internal security roles that would be prohibited in 
the US and many other democracies.

Now the Jamundi ambush is forcing some officials in Colombia (the No. 
1 producer of cocaine in the world) and the US (the No. 1 consumer) 
to reevaluate their approach.

"We have spent $4.7 billion in Colombia ... and we brush under the 
rug a host of uncomfortable questions - about the military ... 
degrees of corruption, and overall efficacy of the drug war effort," 
says Bruce Bagley, an expert on drug trafficking at the University of 
Miami. "And then, along comes a Jamundi and calls the entire 
presumption of this war on drugs into question."

* * *

When the shooting started near the psychiatric home, Morales dove 
into a wide gutter along the driveway, covering his ears with his 
hands and pressing his face as close to the concrete as he could 
bear. When he finally emerged, he saw more than a dozen Colombian 
soldiers from the alpine battalion of the Army's 3rd Brigade 
descending from the hills. On the ground outside the gate were 11 
bodies, riddled with bullets.

"They were my most effective, trustworthy, elite group," laments 
Brig. Gen. Oscar Naranjo, director of the judicial police. Seven of 
the men in the team were members of the police's top counternarcotics 
unit: a group of approximately 200 police who have gone through 
rigorous vetting and training by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Those seven killed in Jamundi were part of a 15-person team that had, 
in the past 18 months, smashed 15 drug rings, captured 205 
traffickers, including 23 wanted for extradition to the US, and 
seized nearly 4.4 tons of cocaine.

That day in May, they had come to the Cauca Valley, 195 miles 
southwest of the nation's capital, together with an informant and 
three police specialists, on a tip that 440 poundsof cocaine were 
stashed in the psychiatric home.

A tragic case of "friendly fire," is how Army commander Gen. Mario 
Montoya originally described the "shoot out," protesting that the 
troops had no advance knowledge of an undercover operation and had 
mistaken the police for kidnappers.

But as the smoke cleared, a different narrative began to take shape.

"This was not a mistake, this was a crime; this was a deliberate 
decision, a criminal decision," Attorney General Mario Iguaran 
announced a few days later. The soldiers, he bluntly charged, 
"...were doing the bidding of a drug trafficker." Eight of the 
policemen were shot in the head, and two were shot in the back, 
according to forensic reports. "This is one of the gravest cases in 
our history," says General Naranjo. "This is active corruption, and 
my men are dead. This cannot be tolerated."

According to a senior official investigating the case, speaking on 
condition of anonymity, the police unit that day may have been 
looking not just for drugs, but for a specific drug trafficker: Diego 
Montoya Sanchez, a reputed head of the Norte del Valle (North Valley) cartel.

Since the dismantling of the Medellin and Cali cartels in the 1980s 
and early 1990s, the Norte del Valle Cartel has become Colombia's 
most powerful drug ring. Officials say that the two factions of the 
cartel are behind 30 percent of the cocaine sent to the US, and 
Montoya is on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list, right beside Osama bin 
Laden, with a bounty of $5 million on his head. According to the 
investigator, the police unit had been told Montoya was hiding in the 
psychiatric home, posing as a patient.

The Mi Casita administrators, who lost almost half their private 
funding after the media reports linked them to Montoya, deny any 
connection to narcotrafficking. The police investigation has turned 
up no drugs or evidence that a drug lord had been at the home. The 
police, says the investigator, may well have been on a wild goose 
chase set up by the army unit, acting on behalf of Montoya.

Fifteen soldiers, including rising Army star commander Col. Bayron 
Carvajal, were soon arrested - and the investigation, say officials 
in the attorney general's office, is likely to reach higher in the 
military ranks and will possibly include the police or even politicians.

Colonel Carvajal's younger brother, Juan Carlos, maintains the 
soldiers' innocence, suggesting instead the police might be the 
corrupt ones in the story. "Uribe needed to blame someone," says 
Carvajal, arguing that Colombia's president could not afford to have 
the DEA's top trained police unit implicated in any scandal - 
especially not in late May, right before the presidential elections. 
"My brother and the others are political pawns. They are being made 
to take the fall," he insists.

In fact, Carvajal's allegations are not considered to be too far a 
stretch - the Norte del Valle group is known for its connections to 
the police. Former cartel leaders such as Danilo Gonzalez, Victor 
Patino, and Patino's half-brother Luis Ocampo were all former 
policemen - as is Wilber Varela, currently Montoya's biggest internal rival.

But, evidence against the soldiers is mounting. The most damning is a 
series of electronic text messages allegedly sent between Carvajal - 
who was not at Jamundi at the time - and his lieutenant on the ground 
immediately before the massacre. "Everything is set for tonight," 
reads one message leaked by authorities. "Get ready for the group to 
come with the chicken so you can get it," reads another, referring to 
the nickname of the civilian informant who was leading the police that day.

And now, one senior official close to the investigation says 
investigators have heard a tape recording of Carvajal speaking on the 
phone with narcotraffickers to arrange payment for his defense lawyers.

"Jamundi is the tip of the iceberg," says Professor Bagley, arguing 
the massacre is indicative of the serious gap between Plan Colombia's 
promise to train a modern, professional military and the realities of 
the day. The events of that May afternoon, he says, should serve as a 
serious wake-up call: "This is a disaster for [President] Uribe and 
Plan Colombia."

At Mi Casita, more than three months later, many of the patients 
remain traumatized by the massacre. One woman yells out "Police, up!" at the slightest provocation. Another bites 
herself whenever she hears loud bangs. And Morales, the only 
eyewitness to the killings, hears the voices of the policemen crying 
out for mercy when he tries to sleep at night. "Was it my fault?" 
Morales asks, wringing his hands. "I talk to my saints and ask them 
for forgiveness."

Mr. Berrio, the administrator at Mi Casita tries to calm Morales, "We 
can't escape this war. And we can't win it either," he consoles the 
flustered man and himself at once. "But you did the best thing you 
could. You kept your head down. That's all any of us would have 
done." Why Diego Montoya Sanchez is worth $5 million to the FBI

He likes fast cars (but police seized his personal mini racetrack 
last year, along with 74 ranches and eight houses). He has a flare 
for the macabre (his men once ambushed a rival group and then piled 
the corpses in a pyramid on a road). And, he reportedly likes it when 
people call him "El Senor de la Guerra," or Mr. War.

Heavyset and gruff, Diego Montoya Sanchez is one of the reputed 
leaders of Colombia's Norte del Valle cartel. He has a $5 million 
bounty on his head and is on the FBI's "10 most wanted list" for drug 
trafficking, conspiracy to import with intent to deliver drugs to the 
US, money laundering, and racketeering.

In the late 1990s, the Norte del Valle cartel - named for a valley in 
western Colombia - trafficked about half of the cocaine sold in the 
US. Today, officials estimate that the cartel holds about 30 percent 
of the market.

For the past two years, the cartel has been riven by a brutal 
internal power struggle between Mr. Montoya and his rival Wilber 
Varela, a.k.a. "Jabon" or Soap. Each faction leader has turned to 
different sides of Colombia's civil war for support: Varela is 
reportedly allied with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed 
Forces of Colombia (FARC). Montoya reportedly has ties to the 
right-wing paramilitaries.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman