Congress begins considering 2007 aid Colombia’s candidates and the United States
May 242006

Many questions and suspicions surround Monday’s tragic “friendly fire” incident between units of Colombia’s army and police. Members of the 3rd Brigade’s Farallones High Mountain Battalion killed ten members of an elite Judicial Police counter-drug unit, plus a civilian informant, in a 30-minute firefight near the town of Jamundí, just south of Cali.

The policemen – a ten-man unit that had captured hundreds of drug suspects, including twenty-three wanted by the United States – were acting on a tip indicating that 200 kilograms of cocaine were stashed in a nearby safe house. The cocaine reportedly belonged to North Valle Cartel leader Diego Montoya, one of the FBI’s ten most-wanted fugitives.

They were met by about twenty-eight soldiers, who opened fire and tossed grenades. A confidential source told Cali’s El País that only one of the policemen’s weapons showed signs of having been fired.

The incident took place in broad daylight (about 6:00 PM) in an open, flat, populated area. “The zone where the events happened is not forested, it is not jungle, it is a suburban area with country inns [casas de recreo], which it seems would not present difficulties for an identification process,” the chief of Colombia’s Judicial Police (DIJIN), Gen. Óscar Naranjo, told El Tiempo.

The police were wearing Judicial Police caps and jackets, and identified themselves to their attackers, but to no avail. Witnesses say that they heard men shouting, “We’re from the Judicial Police… don’t shoot… we have families, we have children.”

Colombia’s Army insists that it was a case of mistaken identity, and that the soldiers were on edge in the face of possible guerrilla pre-election attacks. “We are not going to wait for a group to arrive before opening fire,” said Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya. “The men were simply deployed in response to a suspicious situation that presented itself in the zone.”

The question that many Colombians are asking – and which Colombian reporters’ coverage hints at – is a tough one: Was this really a case of accidental “friendly fire,” or was it something more sinister?

In the worst case, the Army battalion’s members might have been protecting drug traffickers, and trying to stop the police operation. It is also possible that they were fooled by local narcos who, upon learning of the police operation, set a trap by warning the Army that guerrillas were in the immediate area. Either way, as is often the case, the police unit did not inform the military about the operation beforehand, largely for fear that the information could end up in the wrong hands.

Disputes between military and police units over drugs have happened before. In Guaitarilla, Nariño in March 2004, a clash between soldiers and police killed six police and four civilians; while what exactly happened remains murky, it has been widely alleged that the firefight stemmed from a police attempt to rob a cache of cocaine. Unlike Guaitarilla, however, this police operation came all the way from the top, approved by Gen. Naranjo, the DIJIN chief.

The zone where Monday’s killing took place is no stranger to drug-mafia activity; Valle del Cauca department was home to both the defunct Cali cartel and the still-active Northern Valle Cartel, many of whose members are some of Colombia’s most-wanted drug traffickers. An El Tiempo editorial describes the zone of the firefight as “free of guerrilla presence, but one where narcos and ‘paras’ proliferate, and where more than fifteen ranches have been seized by authorities confiscating drug traffickers’ assets.”

Colombia’s attorney-general’s office is investigating this incident, as is the government internal-affairs branch (Procuraduría), and a commission of generals will perform its own internal inquiry. In order to figure out what exactly happened, to determine whether drug corruption played a role, and to ensure that any wrongdoing is punished, all of the above bodies must find answers to tough questions like the following.

  • Why did the attacking soldiers not notice the police agents’ distinctive clothing or hear their shouts?
  • If the firefight lasted for thirty minutes, why was there no pause to verify the police agents’ identity?
  • Why was there not a single survivor from the entire police unit?
  • As El Tiempo asks, “Why did a group of soldiers participating in a preventive action (securing the elections) use what appears to have been an annihilating degree of force?”
  • Is there truth to reports that the victims’ bodies and weapons were “manipulated before the arrival of the attorney-general’s office and its investigators?”
  • What explains the observations in the preliminary report of the Regional Procuraduría indicating that “seven of the bodies were by the side of the road, in a gutter and in ‘strange positions for a firefight?’”
  • Why did the body of the civilian informant show signs of shots fired at close range?

Though it involves no violations of human rights or international humanitarian law (with the possible exception of the civilian informant’s murder), this case can tell us much about the current state of accountability in Colombia’s security forces. The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá should follow the resulting investigations very closely, and to respond promptly to any requests from investigators for technical assistance.

4 Responses to “Friendly fire or foul play?”

  1. jcg Says:

    Foul play is the most likely possibility, definitely. Still, the exact nature of the incident remains open to debate.

  2. Colombia Hoy Says:

    Today Presidet Uribe offered more than $400,000 in reward for information related to the participation of the drugdealers in the murder of the policemen in Jamundi. At the top level of the government there is a big concern because of the link of “Don Diego” on those killings. He is a kind of succesor of Pablo Escobar and the the most wanted criminals in Colombia. Today, it is almost clear that Jamundi is a case very similar to what happened in Guaitarilla two years ago. In some areas the army is corrupted and ends working for the mafia.

  3. jcg Says:

    Colombia Hoy: I think that you are generally correct, but it is apparently still not totally clear if that is or isn’t exactly the case here. It’s a pretty good guess though.

  4. Camilo Wilson Says:

    The thoroughness of the killings does indeed suggest a massacre. But beyond this, why do such events seem to happen with some frequency in Colombia? And why in Colombia does speculative intrigue lend itself to a range of sinister explication?—viz., reckless haste to show results in a counterinsurgency/counter-narcotics war; military/police complicity with the drug mafia or with paramilitaries; a pathological secrecy surrounding counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency operations that hinders information sharing and effective multi-agency coordination; some bizarre combination of these or other scenarios, etc., etc…

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