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
Here is an example of how U.S. aid is involved in human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch
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-
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle