Killing of drug police shakes Colombians

By Lunar Loops · Jun 17, 2006 ·
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    Saturday, June 17, 2006 · Last updated 10:36 a.m. PT
    Killing of drug police shakes Colombians

    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 just as he was savoring a crushing re-election victory.
    That's because the alleged killers 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 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," 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' still-warm 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.
    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, 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.
    It is time "to send a powerful message to the Colombian armed forces that we won't keep writing blank checks ... that we're not a cheap date," he said.
    His proposal failed, although 174 congressmen 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 ball 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 told AP.
    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.
    The next day, they said, as the police raid was being prepared, the colonel sent another message suggesting that he knew about the informant: "Prepare for the group arriving with the chicken."
    A senior law enforcement official, also speaking anonymously, suggested the soldiers might have been providing cover for a meeting between high-level members of the North Valley drug cartel, Colombia's current top cocaine traders.
    One possible attendee whose name has been floated by news media is cocaine kingpin Diego Montoya. Wanted for extradition to the United States, he is on the FBI's list of 10 most wanted fugitives.
    Gen. Oscar Naranjo, commander of the slain policemen and one of Washington's most trusted allies in the war on drugs, refuses to speculate on the soldiers' motives.
    But he told AP that his officers were an obvious target because of their nearly unmatched record of hundreds of drug arrests, many of them high-level drug bosses who have been extradited to the United States.
    "This is a unit whose training we've invested years in," said Naranjo, who led the campaign that dismantled the Cali drug cartel in the 1990s. "It's a group that frequently must take lie detector tests and whose members have even been called upon to testify against other police."

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