Two Americans helped direct a bombing attack that killed 18 civilians, including seven children, in a small Colombian village, according to court records and a recently discovered videotape that reveals for the first time the depth of U.S. involvement in the incident.
The two men, identified in court records as Joe Orta and Charles Denny, were flying in a surveillance plane owned by AirScan Inc., of Florida, with a third crewman, Maj. Cesar Gomez, a Colombian air force officer. The men were helping direct an attack against leftist guerrillas fighting the Colombian army near the village of Santo Domingo four years ago.
The three men, who were videotaping the operation from the sky, can be heard discussing guerrillas' positions, directing air traffic and choosing the best place to drop a U.S.-made cluster bomb to provide air support to troops on the ground.
The Times has previously reported on the Santo Domingo incident. But the videotape, which recently surfaced in an ongoing court proceeding, provides the fullest picture yet of the Americans' participation in the operation.
It also clears up lingering questions about the operation: Contrary to Colombian military testimony, the videotape shows that the nation's air force believed that leftist guerrillas were hiding in Santo Domingo on the day of the fighting.
However, neither the Americans nor the Colombian indicate on the tape any intention to drop the bomb on the town. Instead, they pick a site in nearby jungle, which might suggest that the deaths of the townspeople were the result of an accident.
The videotape reveals the chaotic minutes leading up to the bombing. As the Huey helicopter carrying the bomb nears its target, confusion breaks out as different Colombian air force aircraft begin converging in the air above the village.
"OK, Cesar, there are a lot of airplanes; we're going to control this," Orta says in Spanish.
A few minutes later, another pilot, identified as "Hunter," asks the AirScan plane if anyone can see the helicopter carrying the bomb.
"No, I can't see him; he is the only one that I can't see. Now I see him," Gomez says as the camera flashes around the jungle.
"Good, then direct him so that he can drop the cluster," says Hunter, pilot of a Hughes H500 helicopter.
"Ahh, it already dropped, it already dropped," says one of the pilots flying the Huey.
"There's the smoke," Hunter says.
The tape ends a few minutes later. Neither smoke nor the destruction in the town is seen on videotape because the camera is focused on a nearby field where Colombian military troops are landing.
The Santo Domingo incident has become one of the most controversial human rights cases in Colombia. The head of the nation's air force has denied responsibility, saying the townspeople were killed after a guerrilla car bomb exploded during combat.
However, last fall, Colombia's inspector general sanctioned two air force crew members in the Huey, Capt. Cesar Romero and technician Hector Mario Hernandez, after concluding that they had intentionally dropped the bomb on the town.
Then, in December, the United States decided to suspend all funding to the two men's unit, the 1st Air Combat Command, citing the lack of a "clear and transparent" investigation into the bombing. It was the first time that a Colombian military unit actively receiving U.S. funds had been sanctioned under a human rights amendment sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that prevents aid from flowing to suspect military units.
Last month, Colombia's Supreme Court ordered the case to be transferred from a military tribunal to a civilian court, a move long demanded by human rights investigators fearful of a biased review of the case.
Civilian prosecutors have just begun to look into the 4-year-old case, which is now bound into more than 30 volumes of court documents that stack 20 feet high. They have not discarded calling the Americans to testify, a move that the U.S. Embassy has pledged to support.
"It might be very interesting in hearing what they have to say," said one prosecutor, who asked not to be identified.
The videotape has long been at the center of controversy. An earlier version introduced into evidence by a Colombian military court contained no sound, leading the pilots accused of dropping the bomb to criticize the air force for mounting a cover-up.
In November, the air force produced a portion of the videotape with audio, giving it to the U.S. Embassy for transcription since much of the conversation on the tape is in English between Orta and Denny. The Times was able to obtain a copy of both the tape and the transcript, which cover four hours of the daylong operation.
The incident began on Dec. 12, 1998, when a U.S. Customs plane tracked a plane allegedly loaded with arms as it landed on a road north of the village, which is located in the war-torn province of Arauca in northeastern Colombia.
The plane was allegedly delivering the weapons in exchange for cocaine provided by leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC for its initials in Spanish.
Colombian army forces arrived on the scene but were overwhelmed by the guerrillas, who trapped them near a bridge about 600 yards outside the town of Santo Domingo.
The town lies some 30 miles south of a petroleum complex operated by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. The army and air force used Occidental's facility as a base to plan a rescue operation for the trapped army units, according to testimony.
While Occidental officials have said they can neither confirm nor deny the company's role in the operation, the videotape makes clear that the pilots were in constant contact with a commanding officer at Cano Limon, the name of the oil complex.
AirScan was under contract at the time with the Colombian air force to patrol the pipeline that carried the oil, the object of frequent guerrilla attacks. AirScan denies any involvement in operations on Dec. 13, the day of the bombing, although U.S. Embassy and Colombian officials have confirmed the company's role.
On the tape, Orta, the plane's pilot, is a central figure, serving as a translator and guide for Gomez, who then relays orders and suggestions to his commanders. Denny, who does not speak Spanish, operates a video camera with infrared capabilities, using it to search for guerrillas in the town and the surrounding jungle.
Orta and Denny are careful to refrain from giving orders, repeatedly telling each other that all decisions must be made by the Colombians. The three men in the plane also note the presence of children and other civilians in the village.
The men spend much of the time in the early morning in a fruitless effort to locate the guerrillas in the thick jungle outside town. They conclude that the guerrillas are hiding in Santo Domingo after seeing some people in the town take off their shirts.
Villagers have denied that guerrillas were in the town that morning. In interviews last year, some of them mentioned taking off their shirts to wave them at aircraft above to signal that they were civilians.
"That's the problem I think we have here, is that these guys have gone home and changed clothes," Orta says on the tape.
"Yeah, they don't want to fight no more," Denny says.
As the morning progresses, the gunfire becomes more intense, with both ground troops and helicopters reporting taking fire from guerrillas in the jungle. The military operation also becomes chaotic.
Radio communication between ground troops and the air force is poor. At one point, the H500 helicopter fires a Skyfire rocket that lands a few yards from the Colombian troops, injuring one of them.
Gomez decides that the only way to protect the troops is to call in a "Beta" -- air force terminology for a rocket or cluster bomb attack. The air force decides to land relief troops in a nearby field, and simultaneously drop the bomb to distract the guerrillas and protect the troops.
"I am asking for a bombardment over there, for this point," Gomez says on the tape.
"That's good," Orta says in Spanish. He then speaks in English: "They are calling in an air strike on the wooded line, the wood line there south of the bridge."
"South of the bridge?" Denny asks.
"South of the bridge to the town; he's going to call in a strike," Orta says.
In court testimony, Romero, pilot of the Huey, said he dropped the cluster bomb in the jungle between the bridge and the town.
Romero has said that he believed that distance to be between 1,000 and 1,500 yards from the town. But the bridge lies only 600 yards from the town, according to a measurement taken at the site by The Times using a satellite-guided measuring device.
And in the tape, Gomez tells other pilots firing in the jungle between the bridge and the town to aim for a site about 300 meters, or 325 yards, north of the town.
"Hit about 300 meters north of the town; 300 meters north of the town is where we need support," Gomez tells the pilot of a Colombian UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter also in the area, giving him directions on where to fire a machine-gun burst.
Finally, Hunter, the code name for the H500 pilot, tells Romero to make sure to drop the bomb in the jungle "really close" to the town.
"Where do you want it, Hunter? Tell me where you want it," Romero says.
"We want it on the west edge of the jungle," Hunter says.
"The jungle to the west, or the one's that's really close?"
"The one that's really close," Hunter says
If Romero intended to drop his bomb 325 yards away, the town would have fallen well within range of the device, which would have traveled about 550 yards horizontally from the point of launch, according to a Federation of American Scientists' study based on Romero's testimony of how high and fast his helicopter was traveling at the moment of the bombing.
If the bomb was dropped that close to the town, it would amount to a violation of human rights, according to Doug Cassel, director of the Northwestern School of Law Center for International Human Rights.
Cassel has followed the case closely over the past several years, presenting it last month to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a tribunal sponsored by the Organization of American States. The commission will decide whether to accept the case for a hearing.
Cassel, who has seen the transcript, said international rules of war require military operations to reduce or minimize civilian casualties.
"Not only can you not deliberately target civilians, but you can't target military objectives if you reasonably expect there'll be excessive civilian casualties," Cassel said. "In this case, there's no evidence that dropping a bomb on Santo Domingo did them any good against the guerrillas, but there's lots of evidence that it did tremendous damage to civilians."
The AirScan surveillance video, photos and legal documents pertaining to Santo Domingo are available on the Web at www.latimes.com/santo domingo