HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Doubts Raised On Colombian Killings
Pubdate: Sun, 28 May 2006
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2006 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Police Antidrug Team Was Slain By Soldiers

BOGOTA -- The suspicious killings last week of all 10 members of 
Colombia's most elite antinarcotics police team by soldiers have 
raised questions about the  possible infiltration of the military by 
drug lords. The police unit, trained by the US Drug Enforcement 
Administration, had smashed 15 drug rings; captured 205 traffickers, 
including 23 wanted for extradition to the United States; and seized 
nearly 4.4 tons of cocaine in the  past two years, Brigadier General 
Oscar Naranjo, director of the judicial  police, said in an interview.

The police and an informant were in the outskirts of Jamundi, a town 
near Cali 195 miles southwest of the capital, on Monday afternoon to 
investigate an alleged stash of 200 kilograms of cocaine. Witnesses 
interviewed by telephone said the anti narcotics team, wearing police 
caps and jackets, had gotten out of  their vehicles when they and the 
informant were fatally shot at close range by a  platoon of 28 soldiers.

"We're judicial police, don't shoot!" the men yelled repeatedly, 
according to the witnesses. No soldiers were injured.

Army commander General Mario Montoya described the killings as a 
tragic case of "friendly fire," saying the platoon had no advance 
knowledge of a police operation and was on alert for sabotage in the 
days before a presidential election. But investigators are heaping 
doubt on that explanation, and President Alvaro Uribe yesterday 
described the shooting as a "massacre." The killings have dealt a 
blow to the war on drugs and further tarnished the reputation of the 
military. The government is already investigating the armed forces 
for alleged extrajudicial killings of dozens of civilians whom the 
military identified as rebels.

The police slayings have revived memories of a 2004 case in which 
soldiers killed seven police officers and four civilians on a 
supposed undercover drug operation. In that case, evidence including 
police uniforms was destroyed, the killers were absolved by military 
courts, and the facts were never aired, an outcome that Uribe vowed 
would not be repeated this time. Military failures are 
understandable, the president told reporters yesterday, "but military 
crimes are not."

Uribe said he has information that he conveyed to the attorney 
general suggesting that the shooting was more than an error. The 
president ordered that the attorney general, not military judges, 
handle the investigation, and offered a reward of $400,000 for 
information that solves  the killings. The influence of 
narco-traffickers in the area where the officers  were killed made it 
a particularly worrisome case, he said. Last month, the slain police 
unit had busted a ring involving five retired police officers, a 
retired military official, and an employee of the national airline. 
"They were my most effective, trustworthy, elite group, so it's a 
terrible loss," Naranjo said.

"If this was a mistake, the level of incompetence is staggering," 
Andres Villamizar, former adviser to the minister of defense, said in 
an interview. "The excessive force used is inconsistent with friendly 
fire." Villamizar said the fact that no one was held responsible for 
the deaths of seven officers two years ago set a terrible example. 
"When you have people literally getting away with murder, events can 
repeat themselves." The killings took place in an area with 
properties under the control of drug kingpins. A few months ago in 
the same zone, five members of a ring led by Wilber Valera were 
killed in a confrontation  with the private army of rival drug lord 
Diego Montoya, authorities said. Both  are wanted for extradition to 
the United States.

Sources told El Tiempo newspaper that drug traffickers may have given 
false information to the military to provoke a confrontation with the 
anti drug police. Soldiers reportedly told investigators that they 
had received information that armed men in the area were planning to 
kidnap four  Spaniards. Initial forensics reports indicate that 145 
bullets and three hand grenades were fired at the police from 50 
yards away and that their three vehicles were attacked on all sides. 
Preliminary reports indicate the bodies of at least seven  of the 
police may have been moved. Investigators found them face down in a 
ditch. The civilian informant appears to have been hit at closer 
range by small-arms fire.

Colonel Bayron Carvajal, commander of the military battalion whose 
headquarters is two hours away, was seen by witnesses in civilian 
clothes at the  site of the shooting and was heard shouting over a 
walkie-talkie, "Not one more shot!" witnesses told El Tiempo.

His battalion has been involved in several controversial shootings 
since last year, including the killing of two police officers. Vice 
President Francisco Santos has said he was troubled by several facts: 
that the shooting took place in broad daylight in an area with clear 
visibility;  that it occurred after the police had identified 
themselves; and that not a single policeman survived.

Hypotheses about the killings are circulating among analysts, 
politicians, and the general public. One theory is that the military 
platoon or its bosses were in the pay of drug lords .

Sergio Berrio, administrator at a psychiatric clinic near the site of 
the shooting, said patients were traumatized. "One keeps saying, 
'Boom boom, Police!' and covering his ears," Berrio said in a 
telephone interview. William Dario Sicacha, mayor of Jamundi, said he 
could imagine that jumpy soldiers in the days before an election 
might have mistaken police for armed delinquents or rebels. But, he 
said, "there are many questions that all of us Colombians have, right 
up to the president."
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