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A Colombian Town Caught in a Cross-Fire

The bombing of Santo Domingo shows how messy U.S. involvement in the Latin American drug war can be.

March 17, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTO DOMINGO, Colombia — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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