Bogota-- Three American civilian airmen providing airborne security for a U.S. oil company coordinated an anti-guerrilla raid in Colombia in 1998, marking targets and directing helicopter gunships that mistakenly killed 18 civilians, Colombian military pilots have alleged in a official inquiry.
The air attack on the village of Santo Domingo in oil-rich northeast Arauca province took place on Dec. 13 of that year amid efforts to hunt down a 200-strong column of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Survivors said the aircraft attacked them as they ran out of their homes to a nearby road with their hands in the air to show they were noncombatants.
The raid caused some of the worst "collateral damage" inflicted on civilians by the armed forces in the recent history of Colombia's 37-year conflict. Shortly after the incident, President Andres Pastrana criticized the military's actions, saying that security forces "cannot respond to barbarism with barbarism."
The alleged role of the U.S. airmen -- emerging only now -- has raised fresh questions about American involvement in a war that is increasingly being outsourced to private companies not accountable to the U.S. Congress. According to the State Department, about 300 U.S. civilians are in Colombia, most of whom work on contracts ostensibly linked to anti-drug efforts, which Washington has funded with more than $1 billion as part of the Pastrana government's "Plan Colombia." Some have even piloted helicopters in raids on drug plantations and installations in southern Colombia.
The pilots in the Santo Domingo incident were providing security for Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp., which operates the nearby Cano Limon oil field, Colombia's second largest. Investigators at the Colombian prosecutor general's office have asked the U. S. Embassy in Bogota to help obtain information from the American airmen involved in the attack, who worked for a private Rockledge, Fla.-based air surveillance contractor called AirScan International Inc.
Embassy officials issued a terse statement Wednesday saying that the airmen were not contract employees of the U.S. government and that the embassy did not help oil companies solve their security issues. Although it occurred 2 1/2 years ago, the Santo Domingo attack is becoming a cause celebre for human rights organizations protesting creeping U.S. involvement in Colombia's guerrilla war.
They say the fact that U.S.-donated helicopters dropped cluster bombs and rockets on Santo Domingo is a disturbing demonstration of how the Colombian military has sometimes used U.S. aid that in theory is earmarked only for anti- narcotics operations.
"Here is an example of how U.S. aid is involved in human rights abuses," said Robin Kirk, senior researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. "This is really the first test case of how the U.S. government is going to abide by its own human rights laws," Kirk said, referring to the so-called Leahy Law that restricts U.S. aid from being spent on counterinsurgency operations.
Colombian Air Force pilot Cesar Romero told military judge Capt. Luz Monica Ostos in testimony last month about the Santo Domingo attack: "The coordination was done directly with the armored helicopters that were supporting us and with the (Cessna 337) Skymaster plane flown by U.S. pilots. The Skymaster and gunship crews talked directly to the ground troops."
While Romero conceded that the U.S.-donated Vietnam-era Huey UH-1H helicopter he piloted bombed a target marked by the Cessna, he said he had no intention of causing civilian casualties.
If Romero and Jimenez are eventually accused of criminal action in the deaths of innocent civilians, they could face up to 30 years in jail. It is unlikely that the U.S. airmen will face any charges, analysts say.
The raid came a day after army intelligence sources and the Skymaster plane detected rebel movements in the area. Air force helicopters strafed Santo Domingo with machine-gun fire, air-to-surface rockets and cluster bombs. Eighteen civilians were killed, including nine children, but no guerrillas. At the time, the Colombian armed forces and U.S. officials conceded that the aircraft and almost all weaponry involved in the attack had been supplied under a 1989 U.S. aid package that was exempt from current congressional restrictions. An inquiry was launched immediately after the incident, but final results have been delayed by military and civilian courts arguing over jurisdiction.
In testimony to the military tribunal late last month, helicopter co-pilot Lt. Johan Jimenez backed Romero's accounts of the role of the AirScan spotter plane. "The Skymaster pilot chose the places for troop disembarkment, pinpointed vulnerable areas and pointed out guerrilla presence," Jimenez said in an official transcript shown to The Chronicle.
"The (Colombian) Blackhawk (helicopter) and Skymaster pilots are the ones that helped the pilot of our Huey UH-1H to identify the target with visual aid from the ground," added Jimenez.
The Colombian pilots said the Skymaster -- equipped with infra-red sensors and high-resolution cameras -- was contracted by Occidental. Since 1997, the plane has constantly patrolled over the 120,000 barrel-a-day Cano Limon field and along the length of the 500-mile pipeline that pumps crude to the Caribbean coast. Oil infrastructure is regularly sabotaged by the FARC and the small National Liberation Army (ELN), which accuse multinationals of plundering the country's natural resources. Juan Carlos Ucros, Occidental's legal representative in Bogota, said the company had "no contractual links with the pilots or the plane" at the time of the attack.
But a senior official for the Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol, which has a stake in the Cano Limon field, said yesterday that Occidental had always funded the Skymaster plane but had switched from paying AirScan directly to channeling payments through the Colombian Defense Ministry.
"I have confirmed that the plane is paid for by Occidental although the contract has been held at various stages by either the Occidental-Ecopetrol partnership or by the Defense Ministry," said the official, who requested anonymity.
AirScan director John Manser, speaking from company headquarters, said the Skymaster plane and crew were originally contracted to Occidental and Ecopetrol in 1997. The company then trained Colombian crews and eventually leased and later sold the spotter plane to the Colombian air force. Manser confirmed that the three U.S. airmen named in the Colombian investigation -- Joe Orta, Charlie Denny and Dan MacClintock -- had worked for AirScan in Colombia but had since left the company. He declined to say whether the men, like most of the company's employees, were former U.S. servicemen.
Air Force chief Gen. Hector Fabio Velasco has declined to comment about the allegations but told reporters briefly that there may have been U.S. "trainers" aboard the spotter plane piloted by Colombians.