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A Colombian Town Caught in a Cross-Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Death came to Santo Domingo as its people celebrated life.

Villagers were planning a street fair that bright December morning, but a battle had broken out between the Colombian army and leftist rebels in the nearby jungle.

The villagers heard a military helicopter roar overhead. Seconds later, an explosion ripped through this collection of wood huts on the edge of Colombia’s northeastern plain.

Two children were cut down as their grandmother made them breakfast. A father was eviscerated as his sons watched. A nursing mother was nearly decapitated, her 3-month-old baby still in her arms.

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In all, 11 adults and seven children died in Santo Domingo on Dec. 13, 1998.

On the surface, the attack seems to be another bit of homemade carnage in Colombia’s long, bloody guerrilla war, notable, perhaps, only for the number of children who died.

But according to Colombian military court records, the U.S. government helped initiate military operations around Santo Domingo that day, and two private American companies helped plan and support them.

There is no evidence that the U.S. government or American companies knew that their aid might lead to the destruction of a village. But more than three years later, no one has been held accountable for the deaths. Civilian prosecutors accuse a Colombian air force helicopter crew of dropping a U.S.-made cluster bomb while supporting the troops engaged in battle.The military claims that guerrillas accidentally detonated a car bomb in the town.

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The investigation is bogged down in jurisdictional disputes. U.S. pledges to help have languished. But an examination by the Los Angeles Times reveals an alarming picture of the Colombian conflict just as the U.S. prepares to become more deeply involved.

According to a videotape admitted as evidence in a closed military court tribunal, Colombian court documents and interviews with more than three dozen military officers, witnesses and experts:

* The events leading to the battle outside Santo Domingo and the explosion began when a U.S. government surveillance plane detected an aircraft allegedly carrying weapons for the guerrillas. In doing so, the plane may have violated rules that restrict American activities in Colombia to counter-narcotic operations.

* Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, which runs an oil complex 30 miles north of Santo Domingo, provided crucial assistance to the operation. It supplied, directly or through contractors, troop transportation, planning facilities and fuel to Colombian military aircraft, including the helicopter crew accused of dropping the bomb.

* AirScan Inc., a private U.S. company owned by former Air Force commandos, helped plan and provided surveillance for the attack around Santo Domingo using a high-tech monitoring plane. The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether the plane was flown by a U.S. military pilot on active duty. Company employees even suggested targets to the Colombian helicopter crew that dropped the bomb.

* In a violation of U.S. guidelines, the U.S. military later provided training to the pilot accused of dropping the bomb, even after a Colombian prosecutor had charged him with aggravated homicide and causing personal injury in the Santo Domingo operation.

AirScan officials deny involvement in the incident, saying their plane was used only to survey Occidental’s oil pipeline, and the company is not accused of any illegal activity. Occidental officials say they routinely supply nonlethal equipment for military operations in northeastern Colombia but they could neither confirm nor deny their role on the day of the explosion.

Regardless, the incident touches on many of the issues that make Colombia’s war so problematic for the United States.

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Until now, U.S. involvement was supposed to be black and white: The U.S. government provided military training and aid to wipe out the vast fields of coca plants and poppy flowers that produce the majority of illegal drugs on America’s streets.

But leftist rebels have increasingly financed their war with drug profits, meaning that operations against guerrillas and against narcotics often blend seamlessly. And since the breakdown of Colombia’s peace process in February, rebels have unleashed a campaign against the country’s infrastructure, including the pipeline that moves Occidental’s oil, bringing private industry ever closer to the war.

The Colombian military brigade that oversaw the operations around Santo Domingo is in line to receive enhanced training and equipment as part of the Bush administration’s $98-million proposal to help protect oil facilities in the region.

Events in Santo Domingo also reveal a contradiction in U.S. attitudes. Even as Washington insists that Colombia vigorously pursue human rights abuses, it has shown little interest in investigating the possible role of American citizens.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) sponsored amendments to the last two U.S aid packages to Colombia that require suspension of aid to any military unit suspected of human rights violations, unless the government is actively pursuing a case against the accused.

“Three years have passed, and we have yet to see anyone prosecuted for the needless deaths of 18 people or the flagrant attempts by Colombian military officers to cover up the crime,” said Leahy, now the chairman of the Foreign Operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

This is perhaps what is most important to the people of Santo Domingo. While the war raged around them for years, the town’s 200 people mostly avoided the violence, until Dec. 13, 1998.

Now they are surrounded by it. Early this year, a resident who had been a key witness against the Colombian military in the case was assassinated by suspected right-wing paramilitary fighters.

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“Nothing can fix what happened,” said Margarita Tilano, a 44-year-old grandmother whose daughter and two grandchildren died in the 1998 attack. “We want justice, nothing else.”

The United States

On Dec. 7, 1998, according to military court records obtained by The Times, Colombian army intelligence intercepted a scratchy radio conversation between two commanders of the country’s largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Colombian army officers have said that they interpreted the coded conversation to mean that the FARC high command was sending a small plane loaded with weapons to land near Santo Domingo. In return for the weapons, the local rebel commander would hand over 1,000 kilograms, or 2,200 pounds, of cocaine that his men had recently seized from drug traffickers.

What made the rebel operation particularly important to the Colombian military was that German Briceno, a top local FARC commander, was suspected of overseeing it.

Briceno, better known as Grannobles, is the brother of the FARC’s military commander and a vicious, if not adept, leader. Two months after the Santo Domingo incident, he is believed to have ordered the kidnapping and killing of three Americans who were working to protect the rights of indigenous people.

The reported involvment of drugs allowed the Colombian military to call for help from U.S. Customs P-3 Orion surveillance planes that normally track clandestine drug flights.

On Dec. 12, at 2:45 p.m., according to court records, a P-3 packed with high-tech monitoring equipment detected a Cessna 206 heading toward Santo Domingo.

The Cessna landed north of the village. Men in civilian clothes swarmed the plane and began unloading boxes.

Within five minutes, the plane was airborne again. The Colombian military pounced. A company of soldiers from the 18th Brigade was sent to pursue Grannobles on the ground, while the air force intercepted the Cessna and forced it to land.

No drugs were found on the plane--not even after prosecutors performed tests able to detect microscopic traces of cocaine. An internal Colombian air force control tower log recorded the mission as an attempt to block an “arms delivery"--there was no mention of narcotics.

Even though it is unclear whether drugs were ever part of the rebels’ operation, current and former U.S. Embassy officials said the United States was right to aid the mission despite the restrictions limiting U.S. aid to counter-narcotics operations.

The Cessna was flying from a known drug zone, they said, and they believe that no drugs were loaded onto the Cessna because the pilot realized he was being monitored.

The search for Grannobles on the ground fared even worse. Helicopters transporting the 70 soldiers of Dragon Company took heavy fire as they landed. Then, as the troops fought to cross a bridge about 700 yards north of Santo Domingo, one soldier was killed and four were wounded.

“We heard [the commander] on the radio. He was desperate. He said, ‘They’re killing us,’ ” Lt. Guillermo Olaya, the air force liaison with the army, said in military court testimony. “Hour after hour, the combat grew more intense.”

Oxy and AirScan

At 9 a.m. the next day, worried air force and army commanders gathered in a tiny room to plan an operation to rescue Dragon Company, according to military court testimony and interviews with pilots involved in the operation.

The location of the meeting was Occidental Petroleum’s Cano Limon oil complex about 30 miles north of Santo Domingo. Occidental has long been active in Colombia. In 1983, it discovered a billion-barrel oil field. To develop the site, Occidental and a Spanish oil company with a minority interest entered into a 50-50 partnership with Colombia’s state oil company, Ecopetrol.

But in discovering oil, Oxy walked into the middle of Colombia’s decades-old internal conflict with two guerrilla armies, the FARC and a smaller group called the National Liberation Army.

Both made Oxy, its workers and the oil pipeline a target. There have been more than 900 attacks against the pipeline since 1985.

To stop the attacks, Oxy decided to undertake the unusual mission of bolstering a foreign military force by strengthening the under-equipped and underfunded local army unit, the 18th Brigade, current and former Oxy officials said. In effect, Oxy became the unit’s quartermaster.

Oxy or its contractors provided troop transport helicopters, fuel, uniforms, cars and motorcycles. It even paid for leave tickets and better rations to improve morale, according to the Oxy officials and local military commanders.

The company also provided cash to the military, about $150,000 a year, according to one rough estimate by a top Oxy official. Both the in-kind and cash aid, a total of about $750,000 a year, was strictly limited to logistical support. Oxy insisted that its help not be used for arms.

But as a result, the army had more money available to combat the leftist guerrillas throughout Arauca state, where Santo Domingo is located, as well as improve security along the pipeline.

The 18th Brigade has been accused of abuses, including cooperation with violent paramilitary groups in the kidnapping and murder of suspected guerrilla sympathizers. The recent killing of Angel Riveros, who was a key witness for the prosecutors in the Santo Domingo attacks, is a case in point. Local human rights groups say the killers passed through a military roadblock maintained by the 18th Brigade before the Jan. 24 shooting.

“We’ve had serious problems with the military in Arauca in terms of human rights and in the way the military deals with paramilitaries,” said Robin Kirk, a Colombia expert for Human Rights Watch.

Oxy has given classes to military officers on human rights and required its workers to sign contracts promising to respect international norms. But it hasn’t implemented other steps, such as insisting on an independent review of the human rights record of the military units they are supporting.

Oxy officials say they have little control over such matters. They say relying on the military is better than having their own armed security service.

“We have military protection because we must have it, because we have no alternative,” said Guimer Dominguez, the president of Oxy’s Colombia operations. “Unfortunately the armed forces are short in some areas, and in this sense, we give them nonlethal support.”

Part of this support, according to interviews and court testimony, was “Room G” at Oxy’s Cano Limon complex, where the military commanders gathered on the morning of Dec. 13, 1998.

Tucked in a corner of the complex, the room was surrounded by sandbags and equipped with TV monitors and computers. Room G, according to those present, served as the planning center for the operation in Santo Domingo, thanks, in part, to a second U.S. company, an obscure and low-profile firm called AirScan.

Based in Rockledge, Fla., AirScan came to Colombia in 1997 as a contractor for Oxy, according to Oxy officials. One of the Colombian army’s deficiencies was that it simply couldn’t find the highly mobile guerrillas. AirScan owned a fleet of small planes equipped with high-tech monitoring devices, such as infrared cameras, that could track guerrilla activity along the pipeline.

The company had a handful of contracts for aerial surveillance and monitoring, some of them with U.S. Air Force bases such as Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral.

The founders of AirScan, Walter Holloway and John W. Mansur, both have backgrounds as air commandos, the Air Force version of Special Forces. Mansur, 61, the company’s chief executive, retired from the Air Force in 1987 as a highly decorated colonel, having served as a military assistant to the secretary of the Air Force and as the commander of the Air Force’s Eastern Space and Missile Center at Patrick Air Force Base, near AirScan’s headquarters.

Mansur impressed Oxy officials.

The AirScan pilots “were not gung ho jocks. They were very professional,” said a former Oxy official. “They were not mercenaries in the classic sense.”

The Switch-Over

The reconnaissance flights didn’t stop the guerrillas, who recognized that being spotted by AirScan didn’t mean the army was on its way. They actually began waving at the AirScan pilots.

Colombian military officials began pressuring Oxy to use AirScan to conduct intelligence patrols far away from the pipeline, according to former Oxy and State Department officials.

Toward the middle of 1997, about six months after Oxy’s contract with AirScan began, one top Oxy official approached the U.S. Embassy to ask what sort of limits should be put on providing intelligence to the Colombian military. The response was simple: Stick to the pipeline.

“I said, ‘Look, you’re getting into a dirty area, it’s very dangerous,’ ” one former State Department official recalled. “ ‘If you do flights like mercenaries, then you’ll be responsible.’ ”

To avoid trouble, Oxy officials say, they ended their direct involvement with AirScan by transferring its contract. Instead of Occidental, AirScan ended up having a contract with the Colombian air force that was paid for by Ecopetrol, Oxy’s Colombian partner in the pipeline.

For its part, AirScan said it patrolled only the pipeline during the time of the bombing in Santo Domingo, 30 miles away.

“The focus of AirScan activity was simply pipeline surveillance,” Mansur wrote in a brief statement to The Times. “This was the only activity in which AirScan crews or aircraft were engaged.”

Pilots involved in operations around Santo Domingo disputed that account, testifying that AirScan played a far larger role that day.

In interviews, pilots also said that AirScan flew missions all over Arauca, which at 9,000 square miles is about the size of New Hampshire. It frequently provided intelligence on guerrilla patrols and helped pick out targets, they said, and even celebrated kills when an air force pilot successfully blew up a guerrilla squad.

“They would say, ‘Good job, you got him,’ ” said one of the Colombian military helicopter’s crew members who is accused in the Santo Domingo bombing. In an interview, he said he was on dozens of missions with American pilots working for AirScan, including one who identified himself as a Navy SEAL.

AirScan’s role became so vital that military forces insisted on a patrol before almost every battle, according to the crew member. Once, a low-flying AirScan pilot took ground fire and had to have his fuel tank replaced when he returned to base.

“If there were confrontations between the army and guerrillas, they were always there,” the crew member said, referring to AirScan. “They were our eyes.”

“They frequently strayed from their missions to help us in operations against the guerrillas,” said another of the accused crew members. “The plane would go and check and verify [guerrilla] patrols and say, ‘Hey, there are people here.’ ”

The Briefing

That is exactly what two AirScan crew members did during the Santo Domingo operation, according to Colombian pilots involved in the exercise.

The briefing at Oxy’s Cano Limon oil complex on the morning of Dec. 13, 1998, was convened so that Colombian military officials from the 18th Brigade and the air force could figure out how to save Dragon Company, which had been pinned down since the night before.

Most of the information supplied at the briefing came from AirScan employees Joe Orta and Charlie Denny, who had been flying since 6:33 a.m. with Colombian air force Capt. Cesar Gomez, according to testimony and interviews with those present, as well as a flight log obtained by The Times from military court files.

Gomez was on the AirScan plane to guarantee a Colombian military presence on a mission flown by Americans. He was also the military’s designated liaison with Oxy, Gomez testified in court.

Although he was supposed to be in control, he testified that he only sat in the back of the plane and watched the developing operation on a small monitor.

The AirScan plane, which was flying with Colombian air force markings, “provided day and night aerial surveillance of [Santo Domingo] and adjacent villages in support of the counter-guerrilla forces,” Orta wrote in his summary of the Dec. 13 flight.

Orta and Denny used video of the area around Santo Domingo that they had made earlier in the morning to show nests of guerrilla soldiers to the Colombian military officers present, according to those who attended the briefing.

They pointed out guerrillas who they said could be seen in the town, mingling with civilians, according to one of the accused crew members present at the briefing.

The AirScan crew never indicated that guerrillas had taken up positions in the town, but they did suggest attacking a concentration of guerrillas in a stand of jungle a few hundred meters away, according to military court testimony and interviews with several pilots present.

After the briefing, Gen. Luis Barbosa, the local army commander, decided to request air support for a company of troops to land and reinforce Dragon Company.

“The [AirScan pilots] helped us throughout the operation, taking a quantity of videos where you could see the town, the movement of the guerrillas and the movements of the troops,” said Olaya, the air force liaison with the army.

Orta’s identity is something of a puzzle. Colombian Foreign Ministry records show that a man named Barbaro Jose Orta was given a six-month temporary visa to work in Colombia for AirScan beginning in February 1998. There is no indication that his visa was renewed before December 1998.

U.S. military files also show that in 1998, a man named Barbaro Jose Orta was an active-duty member of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue team in Miami, assigned to coordinate rescue missions.

A photograph of Orta in those files was picked out of a stack of photographs by two Colombian military pilots involved in the operation as the man who called himself “Joe” Orta. And one of Barbaro Jose Orta’s family members, who spoke briefly with The Times, confirmed that Barbaro Orta usually goes by the name “Joe.”

The military records also show that Barbaro Orta was on authorized leave between Dec. 9 and Dec. 19, 1998. But there is no indication that he sought permission to work a second job or that he asked permission to go abroad, both of which were required at the time for active-duty officers.

Though Barbaro Orta left the service in November 2000, Coast Guard officials have opened an inquiry into whether Orta was the AirScan pilot, after being contacted by The Times. Barbaro Orta, still in U.S. military service as a member of the Puerto Rican Air National Guard, did not respond to numerous attempts to contact him through his military postings or through his family.

“If [Barbaro Orta] was on board the aircraft, it was without the knowledge or authorization of the U.S. Mission in Colombia,” said an embassy official in Colombia.

As for the other American AirScan crewman, neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Colombian customs agency has a record of anyone named Charlie Denny entering Colombia.

The Pilot

Once Colombian military commanders gave the go-ahead, Lt. Cesar Romero and his crew began preparing their Huey helicopter for combat.

Normally, Romero, co-pilot Johan Jimenez and technician Hector Hernandez flew transport routes, moving food and troops between battles.

But this time, their Huey was mounted with a World War II-era AN-M41 cluster bomb, given to the Colombian military by the United States in the 1980s, according to Colombian air force officials. Romero, who has no blemishes on his service record, had twice before dropped such devices.

The bomb, comprising six bomblets, is mounted on a metal rack. Each bomblet weighs 20 pounds and is packed with 2.7 pounds of explosives.

The rack attaches to the side of the helicopter. When the target is in sight, a wire is pulled and the bomb falls out. The individual bomblets separate, hit the ground, and bounce about an inch and a half high. Then they explode, sending chunks of metal at 2,800 feet per second in all directions from a steel coil wrapped around the charge.

The bomb, last used by the U.S. in Vietnam, has an effective diameter of about 30 yards, meaning anybody within 15 yards of it is likely to be killed.

About 9:30 a.m., Romero’s Huey and four other helicopters, including a Russian-made MI-17 that military officials say was provided by Oxy through a contractor--took off for Santo Domingo from Cano Limon. They carried relief troops, the cluster bomb, Brazilian-made Skyfire rockets and heavy machine guns.

According to pilots present at the scene and military court records, they were joined on site by the AirScan plane, which also took off from Oxy’s oil complex and was filming the entire operation. Colombian military pilots said in court testimony that throughout the day, the plane and helicopters returned to Cano Limon to refuel and review new mission plans in Room G.

There is a dispute over the targeting of the cluster bomb. Some say Romero was supposed to consult with ground troops before dropping it. But Romero said he talked only with the AirScan pilots and the pilot of an armed H500 Hughes helicopter also at the scene.

“The coordinates were made directly with the armed helicopters that were in the area and the Skymaster plane that was crewed by American pilots,” Romero told a military judge last year. “The troops were communicating directly with the armed helicopters and the Skymaster.”

A Colombian UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was also airborne. It had been donated by the U.S. primarily for use in anti-drug missions. It began firing rockets into the jungle. The Huey pilots have testified that they heard the AirScan pilots warn the Black Hawk pilot, “Careful, you’re shooting at civilians!”

For his part, Romero said he focused on his target: a thick stand of jungle 1,000 to 1,200 meters north of Santo Domingo, 200 meters west of the road where the Cessna had landed the afternoon before.

The Huey circled the area twice to be sure of the target, then Romero started the countdown: “Three, two, one, now!” he shouted. Hernandez pulled a steel cable and the bomb fell away.

Neither Romero nor his co-pilot can recall seeing the bomb hit. The pilots have been consistent with this account for three years.

The only problem: There is no stand of jungle 1,000 to 1,200 meters north of Santo Domingo, and 200 meters west of the road where the Cessna landed. There is only open field.

The Bomb

Santo Domingo is a nothing place, some three dozen wooden shacks hard against a curve in a two-lane highway. There is no electricity. No phones. No running water. Just big sky, open savanna and thick jungle.

Most of the people raise cattle or grow corn. Others have small stores. The Colombian government has no permanent presence, so FARC guerrillas move openly through town. Unlike other parts of Colombia, drugs are not a big part of the economy, though coca is grown and cocaine is produced in the region. The road where the Cessna touched down is one of the primary clandestine landing strips.

Once a year, in December, when the crops are harvested and Christmas is coming, the town holds a two-day street fair to raise money for civic projects. In 1998, the aim was to put a concrete floor in the two-room schoolhouse and add doors.

On Dec. 12, family and friends from hamlets throughout the region began arriving to play in a soccer tournament, watch a beauty contest and eat barbecue.

But in the afternoon, they began to hear gunfire, then explosions, coming nearer. Aircraft flew overhead throughout the night, shooting into the jungle.

Some people decided to stay, fearful they would be caught in the cross-fire. Others left. Still others tried to leave but turned back because of their own fear, or because soldiers stopped them, warning that it was too dangerous.

The next morning, Dec. 13, the town’s community leader and bus driver, Wilson Garcia, then 44, decided to go to the nearest town that had a phone, about 15 miles away, to call the Red Cross for help. Before he left, he told townspeople to wave white rags to show the aircraft above that they were civilians.

“Just stay calm,” he said.

So people remained. There was Nancy Castillo, who’d given birth to a baby girl just three months before. Salomon Neite, 58, a farmer who was about to retire and hand over his land to his two sons. Luis Martinez, 25, a soccer fanatic with a wife and child. Edilma Pacheco, 27, was working at the local store as a clerk. Giovanny Hernandez, 16, had come from a nearby town for the fair.

When the aircraft appeared about 9:30 a.m., people followed Garcia’s advice. They began waving white rags above their heads. Some even lay down on the pavement, hoping to better demonstrate their neutrality.

About 10 a.m., Garcia’s daughter Alba, then 16, and many of her friends were in the street near a broken-down red truck, a 1955 Chevrolet parked across from the town’s drugstore.

They watched as a helicopter came into view, then turned to pass over Santo Domingo from south to north. As it drew overhead, Alba looked up and saw about four dark objects falling.

“Look,” she said to a friend. “They’re throwing rolls of paper at us.”

Then, darkness.

Santo Domingo had just been bombed.

A tape of the operation viewed by The Times--identified by those involved as a tape made by AirScan--does not capture this moment. The camera is focused on a field less than half a mile away where relief troops were landing. But the survivors have vivid, slow-motion memories of what happened.

The front of the red truck was smashed in by a direct hit, its right front fender falling to the ground. Smoke filled the air. A woman screamed, “They killed my children!” People began fleeing the town on foot.

Alba woke to find herself bathed in blood, her arm nearly severed.

Across the street, at the drugstore, Maria Panqueva was knocked flat by a piece of steel that hit her leg. The woman standing next to her, Nancy Castillo, was killed while nursing her 3-month-old, the top half of her head nearly sliced off. The baby was found lying next to her, screaming.

In a nearby house, Margarita Tilano was stunned by the noise. Then she heard screams. Her daughter, Katherine Cardenas, 7, and granddaughter, Edna Bello, 5, were dead. Her grandson, Jaime, 4, was wounded and would die on the way to the hospital.

Down the street from the blast, Amalio Neite, 22, was blown six feet from where he had been standing. He turned to see his brother holding his father, Salomon, writhing on the ground, a hand over his stomach to keep in his intestines.

Eighteen people died and more than 25 were wounded, some of them crippled for life. Today, Alba cannot move her left arm. Its scars resemble the crude stitching on a rag doll.

At the eastern edge of Santo Domingo, Olimpo Cardenas was about 150 yards away with his back to the explosion. When it occurred, he turned around to see dead and wounded everywhere.

Cardenas jumped on a motorcycle and rode out of town to the home of a friend who owned a Ford flatbed truck. The two men drove back slowly. At 10:20 a.m. they pulled up in front of the drugstore, where many of the dead and wounded had been taken.

They loaded up about seven of the victims.

As they left town, they saw another helicopter hovering above them. About 200 meters away from town, they heard a burst of gunfire, and saw earth and concrete flinging up next to them. Then the helicopter flew off.

Cardenas, who had gotten out of the truck, stayed until he was sure everyone had left town. Then he walked out on foot.

“I was the last one out,” he said. “The place was a ghost town.”

The Investigation

The dead and wounded began arriving at hospitals in the afternoon. Most told a similar story: At 10 a.m., a military helicopter had dropped a bomb on Santo Domingo.

But separate investigations by the Colombian air force and army concluded that the carnage was not the military’s fault. They said that guerrillas had installed a car bomb inside the red truck, the epicenter of the damage. They said the plan was to lure Dragon Company into Santo Domingo, then detonate the bomb. But after troops arrived to reinforce Dragon Company and save the unit, the bomb went off by mistake, killing the villagers.

The military said that conclusion was based on both testimony and forensic proof--both of which were later called into question.

Fragments from the town tested positive for chemicals commonly found in homemade explosive materials, according to court records. Two FARC deserters who gave themselves up after the bombing blamed the incident on their former comrades. Another witness, a local man who reported seeing the FARC at work on the truck, recently recanted, saying a military officer from the 18th Brigade had paid him to lie.

Air force officials also said a cluster bomb would have destroyed structures or left large craters, a puzzling claim since AN-M41s have a relatively small charge designed to kill people, not destroy buildings.

“I think, and it’s only a suspicion . . . that the guerrillas put the bomb there,” Gen. Hector Fabio Velasco, the head of the Colombian air force, said in an interview last year.

Olaya, the air force’s local link to the army, refused to turn over documents to civilian federal prosecutors when they arrived Dec. 17, according to military court records.

Velasco continued to insist that no bombs had been used in the operation, even after air force officials had sent notice to headquarters about the use of the cluster bomb. Velasco later explained that the air force classifies cluster bombs as low-power explosives, not as bombs.

The military’s insistence that the combat and the air force bombing occurred far from town is also in question.

Using a satellite-guided measuring device accurate to within a few meters, The Times traveled to Santo Domingo several times to measure distances mentioned in the military’s accounts of the incident.

The military has said in interviews and military court testimony that the fighting began where the Cessna had landed, about 6 kilometers, or a little more than 3.5 miles, from Santo Domingo.

The actual distance between Santo Domingo and the landing site, based on the coordinates supplied by the military to the court, is 3 kilometers, according to a hand-held Global Positioning System that can measure distances between geographic coordinates.

The pilots indicated on a map that they dropped their bomb in a stand of jungle 1,000 to 1,200 meters from Santo Domingo, 200 meters west of the road. But that stand of jungle is at maximum 650 meters away.

As to the testimony of more than 30 survivors, military officials said they were probably lying--either out of fear or sympathy for the guerrillas.

Colombian military officials weren’t the only ones clouding the story.

Days after the bombing, Leahy fired off a letter from his Senate office demanding information. Then-Ambassador Curtis Kamman responded with a detailed note that only further confused matters.

Kamman made no mention of the involvement of the U.S. P-3 plane on the day before the incident, though he said Colombian air force planes had done surveillance of the Cessna that landed outside Santo Domingo, initiating the operation.

He also told Leahy that embassy officials had viewed a five-hour tape of the incident, which showed that Santo Domingo had remained “intact” at the time people in the town reported being bombed. The tape “directly refut[ed]” their claims, he said, and supported the military’s story of a guerrilla car bomb that had exploded at another time.

Kamman said in an interview that he did not know the origin of the tape and had “no information” on AirScan’s involvement in the incident.

But if the tape was the same one viewed by The Times--and there is no evidence that any other aircraft filmed the operation--it is unclear how embassy officials missed the wreckage of the red truck and the loading of bodies on the truck. Both are visible on the tape.

The Breakthrough

By June 1999, almost all the investigations were over or dormant. The general conclusion: The guerrillas and the people of Santo Domingo had attempted to pull a fast one, and they had failed.

Still, civilian investigators were not convinced. The first forensic examinations of Santo Domingo had been done in the days after the bombing, when combat was still going on. Two teams of experts had been shot at. No team spent more than 90 minutes in the town.

So the investigators--a federal prosecutor and the procuraduria, a sort of inspector general--requested a more thorough look. Teams went back to Santo Domingo in June 1999 and February 2000.

In June, they determined that the red truck had been hit from above by an explosive device. In February, they compared metal fragments that remained in the town’s wooden buildings to fragments of an exploded AN-M41. The two sets of metal were similar. They also discovered six craters in and near the town, corresponding with the six bomblets, according to military court files.

Then, in perhaps the biggest breakthrough, federal prosecutors dug back through the evidence to find metal fragments taken from the bodies of two bombing victims.

They sent these fragments, taken from a 42-year-old woman and a 16-year-old boy, to the FBI via the U.S. Embassy. They also sent some of the fragments they had found in their February hunt.

On May 1, 2000, the FBI produced its report. The fragments were “consistent” with a U.S.-made AN-M41. One piece had “NO E BOM” stamped on the side. The phrase “NOSE BOMB FUZE” is printed on AN-M41 cluster bombs.

The FBI analysis also found that there were no signs that the cluster bombs had been delivered through an “improvised” delivery system--i.e., it had not been modified to be used as a car bomb.

This was enough to convince prosecutors they had a case. They accused the crew of the Huey of aggravated homicide and aggravated personal injury, although they left open the question of whether the crew had bombed the village on purpose or accidentally.

Then, because the act was committed in a military setting, they turned the case over to the air force to reopen its investigation of the crew--Romero, Jimenez and Hernandez.

But the military made little progress in the investigation. Velasco, the air force general, told reporters in Colombia that more than $1 million had been spent by unknown parties to manipulate evidence to make his pilots appear responsible.

After nearly a year, fearing that the military was not conducting an impartial investigation of itself, the civilian prosecutors asked to regain control. The case has been tied up in jurisdictional wrangling ever since. The most recent decision places the investigation in the hands of the military.

“The military was hiding the truth,” said one former prosecutor who was involved with the case. “We knew the investigation wouldn’t happen if it stayed with the military.”

Defense lawyers for the men now say they believe that the bomb fragments were not taken from townspeople, but guerrillas. Under this theory, the guerrillas were killed after the cluster bomb dropped on them in the jungle. Their comrades then transported the bodies into Santo Domingo.

They point out that there are no photos of the bodies during the autopsies, that not much blood was found at the scene and that some of the bodies arrived nude, perhaps meaning they were stripped to hide their identity.

“There has been too much international pressure to condemn these men,” said Ernesto Villamizar, a top Bogota lawyer who represents one of the pilots. “This is going to be a very long process, and at the end, the truth will come out that the munitions dropped from this helicopter had nothing to do with the deaths in Santo Domingo.”

Military officials also question whether the fragments analyzed by the FBI actually came from the explosion in Santo Domingo, citing doubts over the chain of custody.

“The FBI said, yes, this is a fragment, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Velasco said. “There isn’t any proof that these fragments were really from there.”

Despite the charges against him, Romero has advanced in rank to captain. Jimenez believes that he was denied promotion because of the investigation. Nonetheless, both men are now regularly flying combat missions with the Colombian air force.

Romero continued to receive training in the U.S., despite strict regulations that prevent instruction when there is even the suspicion of human rights violations.

The U.S. Embassy said Romero received a refresher flight-simulation course at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, in September 2000--three months after the prosecutor’s May ruling ordering an investigation against him for possibly killing 18 civilians, and only one month after the military reopened its investigation into the incident.

Embassy officials said they were unaware of the investigations at the time of Romero’s training. No formal system exists to exchange data between the embassy and the prosecutor’s office on suspected human rights violators, and embassy officials say there are no plans to implement one.

An Error?

For all the investigation that has been done, one central question remains: If the Colombian air force did drop a cluster bomb on Santo Domingo, was it deliberate or a mistake?

Those who believe the bombing was a war crime point out that visibility was perfect on Dec. 13, 1998, that the townspeople had clearly signaled they were civilians, and that at least two helicopter pilots testified they had seen them.

So even if the pilots believed there were guerrillas in town, they had to have known that innocent people would be killed if a bomb was dropped. Finally, it is difficult to make such a mistake with an AN-M41, a simple gravity bomb. To have hit Santo Domingo, the bomb had to have been launched very close to it.

“The military has never said it was an error. If it was a mistake, why aren’t they just admitting it?” said one lawyer monitoring the case who did not want to be identified because of its sensitivity.

But many of the same facts also argue for the possibility of error. Romero has always said he dropped the bomb 1,000 to 1,200 meters from the town. Two other pilots, however, said they believed the bomb was dropped between 500 and 600 meters from town.

If Romero’s helicopter was at the height and speed he said it was, the bomb would have traveled about 500 meters from where he launched it, according to an analysis done by the Federation of American Scientists, using testimony from the case. That means that if Romero was heading in the direction of the town, something he denies, the bombs easily could have landed in Santo Domingo.

If it was an error, some believe, the Colombian military is still culpable.

“There’s a pretty fine line between intent and tragic accident,” said David Stahl, a Chicago attorney who is on the advisory board of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University. “I think what happened is the Colombian armed forces put themselves in a situation where a tragic accident was all but certain to happen.”

There are still crucial details that could clear up the mystery. For instance, the Huey pilots said they never flew over Santo Domingo. Romero said the helicopter was north of the village and flying west. The co-pilot said they dropped the bomb while heading northwest.

But the pattern of the impacts found by civilian investigators, and the recollections of survivors, contradicts that testimony.

Survivors say the helicopter that passed over the village just before the explosion was traveling from south to north. The analysis by the American scientists indicates the helicopter that dropped the bomb most likely passed over the town, and was probably headed either northeast or southwest.

“The key discrepancy is the direction. You can’t match [the pilots’ testimony about their direction] with the direction of the bomb,” said Michael Levi, a physicist who did the analysis.

The Americans who worked for AirScan might be able to resolve the confusion. But two lawyers involved with the case said AirScan has told the military court that the men no longer work for the company and that it has no information on their whereabouts.

Oxy officials, meanwhile, said they have never investigated what role the company and its facilities might have played. Nonetheless, they rejected any ties to the disaster.

“We’re truly sorry about what happened--though we don’t know the details--but in no way can we feel that we have any responsibility,” Dominguez said.

Human rights advocates say the U.S. government is duty-bound to conduct its own investigation into the role played by Orta and Denny.

So far, the U.S. has not done that. After being asked by the procuraduria’s office, embassy officials in Bogota checked their records and found that one of the men had registered his U.S. home address with the embassy during a stay in Colombia. They refused to turn over that information to Colombian authorities.

Embassy officials said they are prevented by the Privacy Act from releasing any information. But, they said, if they receive a request from the prosecutor’s office, which currently does not have jurisdiction over the case, they might be able to help by working through existing treaties.

At least one State Department official has expressed reluctance to pursue the U.S. pilots. “Our job is to protect Americans, not investigate Americans,” one human rights group quoted the official as saying.

Nor has the embassy made much progress with promises it has made to have a copy of the tape its diplomats viewed independently analyzed. In 1998, Kamman said the tape he had seen would be reviewed for further analysis. Current Ambassador Anne W. Patterson made that same promise in a letter to Leahy in July 2001.

Human rights groups find it strange that the United States, which has urged Colombia for years to investigate possible human rights violations, is not doing the same.

“If the U.S. government is serious about promoting human rights, we think they have the legal duty to seriously investigate human rights violations,” Stahl said. “So far, we’ve been disappointed.”

Northwestern’s human rights center staged a mock trial of the Santo Domingo incident in 2000. They found the Colombian government responsible for the bombing.

Conclusion

For most of the three years since the bombing, the people of Santo Domingo were seen as liars, leftist sympathizers or guerrillas. It was only in recent years that some government officials came to believe them.

The tape proved to be an asset for them. The times and events recounted by the townspeople--who never saw the tape until recently and could not have known what it contained--are consistent with what the tape shows. The tape does show people with white material above their heads or in white clothing wandering the streets during the morning. The red truck does suffer damage between 9:45 and 10:10 a.m. And people can be seen loading what appear to be bodies onto a truck about 10:30 a.m.

To be sure, there are inconsistencies among the more than two dozen witnesses. Some say the bomb that struck Santo Domingo left a trail of smoke--an accurate description of the Skyfire rockets that other helicopters were firing at the guerrillas.

The tape does not corroborate the account of machine-gun bursts from a helicopter as the injured fled town in the flatbed truck. Though there are small holes in the road where the people said the helicopter fired at them, the video does not show the truck driver swerving, nor dirt or concrete being kicked up.

In December, the town held a ceremony to commemorate the third anniversary. There was a small parade, and one of the judges of the informal tribunal at Northwestern University flew in from Chicago. Victims and human rights workers gave speeches in the main square of Tame, the biggest nearby town.

Some families have split over the stress of lost children, shattered lives and the fight for recognition. Margarita Tilano and Olimpo Cardenas separated, for example, and now live in different towns.

Nancy Castillo’s husband left soon after her death, and her baby girl, now 3, is being cared for by relatives. Alba Garcia lives with her grandmother in a nearby town.

Most of those who remain in Santo Domingo dismiss the investigations. A civil suit is inching along, filed by 24 of the families. The average claim seeks damages of $5,000. The biggest is for $43,000.

“We want there to be justice, for sure,” said Maria Panqueva, the drugstore owner. “But we have lost the most beautiful thing we had: the trust in what’s right.”

Still others are worried about the future. For three years now, the people of Santo Domingo have challenged the Colombian military.

That sort of defiance may be enough to make them targets of Colombia’s violent paramilitary groups, which have recently moved into Arauca, allegedly with the support of local military officers.

The groups are known for the massacres of civilians they accuse of being rebel sympathizers. So far, Santo Domingo has not been touched. But in the surrounding area, more than 60 people have been killed by paramilitary fighters since August, allegedly including Riveros, the witness, and a congressional representative.

Those who remain in Santo Domingo worry about what nightmares may come.

“I have talked and talked and talked and talked. I have talked to investigators, to the military, to the press, to human rights groups. And I have told everyone the same thing,” said Tilano, who lost a child and two grandchildren in the bombing.

“If you want to do justice, do your work well,” she said, “so there will be no more massacres of children, so defenseless people won’t be killed, so they don’t shoot at us anymore.”

*

Times special correspondents Ruth Morris, Zoe Selsky and Mauricio Hoyos contributed to this report.


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