General resigns amid U.S. pressure and new evidence suggesting that pilots knowingly fired on civilians during a 1998 bombing raid.
By T. Christian Miller
Times Staff Writer
BOGOTA, Colombia — The head of the Colombian air force resigned Monday after growing pressure from the U.S. State Department and startling new evidence suggesting that Colombian pilots knowingly fired on civilians in a 1998 bombing raid directed by private American contractors that left 18 people dead.
Government officials confirmed late Monday that President Alvaro Uribe had accepted the resignation of Gen. Hector Fabio Velasco but denied that the move had anything to do with the bombing in the small town of Santo Domingo, which occurred after a Colombian army unit came under fire from leftist rebels in the area.Velasco "has been saying for some time that he wanted to resign for personal reasons," presidential spokesman Ricardo Galan said. "This time it went through."
The Santo Domingo incident has become one of the country's most notorious human rights cases and the biggest obstacle in relations between the United States and Colombia, normally close allies.
U.S. officials said that former Ambassador Anne Patterson approached Uribe in June to offer him proof that Velasco had deliberately stonewalled the investigation into the bombing. Late last year, the State Department had suspended all U.S. aid to the air force unit involved in the bombing, citing the stalled probe.
After reviewing the evidence, Uribe indicated to Patterson that Velasco would not be in charge of the air force by the end of the year, U.S. officials said.
Velasco's resignation was also apparently speeded by the appearance of a previously undisclosed portion of a videotape of the operation in which the two U.S. contractors on board a plane directing the operation could be heard screaming at Colombian helicopter pilots to stop firing at civilians fleeing the town soon after the bombing took place.
The tape offers the first witness evidence that the Colombians, who had been warned that civilians were among those fleeing, intentionally attacked the villagers.
"This [expletive] is shooting at civilians," says one contractor, who is trying to guide the operation. He switches suddenly to Spanish: "Stop shooting! Stop shooting!"
"There are children in this bunch!" says the other contractor, who is scanning the fleeing civilians with a video camera.
It remained unclear Monday if the unnamed pilot continued shooting and if any of the victims were slain by the gunfire. Most are believed to have been killed by the bomb. Seven children were among the dead.
Velasco could not be reached for comment Monday. Local media reported that he had been offered a posting as either ambassador or military attache to Israel. "This is an internal matter for the Colombian government," a U.S. official said. "All along, we've asked for a thorough investigation from them. We feel that they made a final determination based on the results of their investigation."
The Santo Domingo incident, the subject of a Times investigation last year, began Dec. 12, 1998, when a Colombian army unit came under fire from leftist guerrillas hidden in the jungle a few hundred yards from the town and asked for air support.
According to secret Colombian court testimony, the air force planned the bombing mission at the headquarters of a Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum oil operation about 30 miles north of Santo Domingo. Occidental, which has repeatedly declined to comment on the incident, is being sued by survivors of the attack.
The air force relied on the advice and guidance of a crew of private U.S. contractors working for AirScan Inc., a Florida-based company that provided aerial surveillance services to Occidental, according to the U.S. Embassy and court testimony. AirScan has denied its role in the operation. It is also being sued.
The AirScan crew, headed by Joe Orta, an active-duty U.S. Coast Guard pilot on vacation at the time of the incident, videotaped the jungle around Santo Domingo and directed the Colombian air force pilots to drop a bomb in the jungle a few hundred yards from the town, according to testimony. The pilots have denied dropping the bomb on the town.
An air force investigation into the incident dragged on for more than four years without producing results, leading to U.S. suspicions of a cover-up. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) repeatedly demanded action on the case.
Those suspicions grew stronger when investigators with the Colombian human rights agency sent metal fragments taken from the victims' bodies to the FBI. The agency concluded that the shrapnel probably came from a U.S.-made cluster bomb.
The human rights investigators then sanctioned the crew of the helicopter that dropped the bomb for attacking civilians. The crew members were suspended for three months from military service — the most severe punishment allowed by Colombia's human rights agency.
But an air force judge ordered a second sample of fragments sent to the FBI for further analysis. The agency concluded that the second sample was so different from the first that someone had tried to mislead the analysts. Another new piece of evidence came to light this June, when a civilian prosecutor reviewed all the tapes of the bombing, which had been in the possession of the air force.
Previously, the air force had allowed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to transcribe only those portions of the tape up to the moment of the bombing. Those transcripts showed that the AirScan crew and Colombian air force suspected that the rebels had taken up a position in the town but also knew that civilians were present.
When the civilian prosecutor reviewed the tapes in their entirety, however, he discovered Orta's shouted warnings to the Colombian pilot, who was apparently shooting at a truck fleeing the town.
The townspeople have long testified that a Black Hawk helicopter approached the truck and opened fire, despite the presence of dead and wounded in the back and some people in the truck wearing white T-shirts on their heads to signal their status as civilians.
"We were shouting at them to stop," Olimpo Cardenas, a villager who was in the truck, said in an interview with The Times last year.
The new evidence suggests at least the possibility that a second Colombian helicopter crew could have been involved in human rights violations, according to one person involved in the case. The helicopter that dropped the bomb was not armed with machine guns.
The person, who did not want to be named because the case is under investigation, said the prosecutor had not yet shown an interest in pursuing more allegations against the air force.
"We have been asking him to do this for a while," the person said. "It would be very illuminating."