Many questions and suspicions surround Mondayâ€™s tragic â€œfriendly fireâ€ incident between units of Colombiaâ€™s army and police. Members of the 3rd Brigadeâ€™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 JamundÃ, just south of Cali.
The policemen â€“ a ten-man unit that had captured hundreds of drug suspects, including twenty-three wanted by the United States â€“ 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 FBIâ€™s ten most-wanted fugitives.
They were met by about twenty-eight soldiers, who opened fire and tossed grenades. A confidential source told Caliâ€™s El PaÃs that only one of the policemenâ€™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. â€œThe 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,â€ the chief of Colombiaâ€™s Judicial Police (DIJIN), Gen. Ã“scar 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, â€œWeâ€™re from the Judicial Policeâ€¦ donâ€™t shootâ€¦ we have families, we have children.â€
Colombiaâ€™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. â€œWe are not going to wait for a group to arrive before opening fire,â€ said Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya. â€œThe men were simply deployed in response to a suspicious situation that presented itself in the zone.â€
The question that many Colombians are asking â€“ and which Colombian reportersâ€™ coverage hints at â€“ is a tough one: Was this really a case of accidental â€œfriendly fire,â€ or was it something more sinister?
In the worst case, the Army battalionâ€™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, NariÃ±o 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 Mondayâ€™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 Colombiaâ€™s most-wanted drug traffickers. An El Tiempo editorial describes the zone of the firefight as â€œfree of guerrilla presence, but one where narcos and â€˜parasâ€™ proliferate, and where more than fifteen ranches have been seized by authorities confiscating drug traffickersâ€™ assets.â€
Colombiaâ€™s attorney-generalâ€™s office is investigating this incident, as is the government internal-affairs branch (ProcuradurÃa), 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 agentsâ€™ distinctive clothing or hear their shouts?
- If the firefight lasted for thirty minutes, why was there no pause to verify the police agentsâ€™ identity?
- Why was there not a single survivor from the entire police unit?
- As El Tiempo asks, â€œWhy did a group of soldiers participating in a preventive action (securing the elections) use what appears to have been an annihilating degree of force?â€
- Is there truth to reports that the victimsâ€™ bodies and weapons were â€œmanipulated before the arrival of the attorney-generalâ€™s office and its investigators?â€
- What explains the observations in the preliminary report of the Regional ProcuradurÃa indicating that â€œseven of the bodies were by the side of the road, in a gutter and in â€˜strange positions for a firefight?â€™â€
- 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 informantâ€™s murder), this case can tell us much about the current state of accountability in Colombiaâ€™s security forces. The U.S. Embassy in BogotÃ¡ should follow the resulting investigations very closely, and to respond promptly to any requests from investigators for technical assistance.