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A Colombian Town Caught in a Cross-Fire

The World | SUNDAY REPORT

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

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.

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