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U.S. Pair's Role in Bombing Shown

1998 Colombian incident was directed at guerrillas but killed 18 civilians. Videotape reveals chaos, drama of the day.

March 16, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — 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.

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