The State Department said Monday that it has suspended all funding to Colombia's premier air force unit for failing to investigate a bombing four years ago that left 18 civilians dead, including seven children.
The decision against the Colombian air force's 1st Air Combat Command marks the most drastic action yet taken against a Colombian military unit receiving U.S. aid in the fight against drugs and leftist rebels. It sends a clear signal of growing U.S. impatience with stonewalling in the bombing of the village of Santo Domingo, one of Colombia's most notorious human rights cases.
The State Department action was also meant as a warning that U.S. funding -- which has amounted to nearly $2 billion over the last few years -- will be used to pressure the Colombian government to actively cooperate in human rights cases, U.S. officials said.
The decision will require the U.S. to suspend delivery of some of the $2 million in fuel that it annually sends to the Colombian air force to combat drug trafficking. The U.S. will also have to stop training pilots from the air force command unit.
Washington has refused to provide aid to Colombian military units before, but this marks the first time aid has been suspended to a unit that was already receiving it.
The United States is "still looking for a fuller explanation of what happened," said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're not satisfied by the explanation provided by the Colombian air force."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who authored an amendment that requires the suspension of U.S. aid to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country in the event of human rights infractions, said he was satisfied with the State Department's action.
"It has been many years in coming, but it sets the right example and does justice to our principles," said Leahy, who has monitored the case from the beginning. "I would hope the Colombian government would take prompt action against the officers involved in the cover-up."
A Colombian helicopter crew belonging to the 1st Air Combat Command unit dropped a U.S.-made cluster bomb on Santo Domingo on Dec. 13, 1998, while fighting leftist rebels hiding in nearby jungle, according to an investigation by the Colombian inspector general's office. The probe concluded that the pilots should have known that they were attacking civilians, not guerrillas.
A pilot and crewman were suspended from military duty for three months.
The Times reported last year that a U.S. customs plane tracking a suspected drug flight was involved in initial operations that led to the bombing the following day. In addition, two U.S. companies, Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum and Florida-based AirScan Inc., helped in the planning and execution of the operation around Santo Domingo, according to military and court records. Santo Domingo lies 30 miles south of an oil pipeline operated by Occidental that is the object of frequent guerrilla attacks.
Members of the Colombian helicopter crew have testified that they planned the operation and fueled their aircraft at Oxy's headquarters in the region.
They also said they received targeting information from U.S. citizens who were flying a surveillance plane belonging to AirScan that was patrolling the battlefield. At the time, AirScan was under contract with the Colombian air force to patrol the pipeline.
AirScan has denied any involvement in the operation. Oxy has said it can neither confirm nor deny that it had a role in the operations the day of the bombing.
The pilot of the AirScan plane was identified by Colombian pilots as Joe Orta. The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether one of its officers, Barbaro "Joe" Orta was that pilot. Orta has since left the service and has not responded to repeated attempts to contact him.
Colombian air force Gen. Hector Fabio Velasco has maintained that rebels were responsible for the bombing, though he has changed his story several times over the years, at first denying that any aircraft dropped bombs during the operation.
He has also fought to keep the case from being tried in a civilian court, insisting that it is a military matter. The military case continues against the helicopter pilot and crewman, who maintain their innocence, saying they dropped the bomb where the AirScan crew told them to -- in jungle outside the town.
Neither Velasco nor the Colombian Ministry of Defense responded to requests for comment Monday.
Human rights groups hailed the State Department's decision to decertify the unit's eligibility to receive U.S. aid as a significant step forward in pressuring the Colombian military to respect basic human rights.
While the military has improved its record in recent years, human rights groups worry about possible backsliding as a result of hard-line President Alvaro Uribe's vow to crack down on the leftist guerrillas who have waged war against the government for nearly 40 years.
"It's a positive sign that the U.S. is using the tools at hand to show that the commitment to human rights is not just on paper," said Robin Kirk, the Colombia specialist for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "I hope it will send a very strong message to the officers paying attention that this kind of behavior is a career ender."
The decision was made in December but announced only Monday during an interview in Washington between Colombian reporters and Phil Chicola, the State Department's chief of Andean affairs.
The Times later confirmed the decision.
Although fuel shipments will be curtailed and training of the air force unit's pilots will end, skeptics said that in practice, the unit does little that directly affects U.S. involvement in combating drug trafficking in the region. Colombia provides 90% of the cocaine found in U.S. cities and the majority of heroin sold on the East Coast.
The unit has the air force's only advanced fighter jets, French-built Mirages and Israeli-made Kfir jets, a U.S. official said. It also has an AC-47 gunship, which is being refurbished by the U.S., and training aircraft.
The fighter jets are also occasionally used in bombing missions against the Colombian rebels, but they are expensive to operate, and the air force often uses the OV-10, a prop plane, for bombing missions.
"The air force is just not a central focus of U.S. military aid to Colombia," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert who works for the Center for International Policy, a center-left think tank in Washington.
"It's been increasing now, since there's more emphasis on intelligence gathering. But the [U.S.] can work with other units without affecting that program," he said.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.