The war on drugs: Ambushed in Jamundí
Why the massacre of an elite US-trained Colombian police team prompted Congress to freeze drug-war funding.
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The plan has achieved significant results in terms of coca fields eradicated, clandestine drug laboratories burned and tons of drugs seized. Thousands of people involved in the drug trade have been caught, killed, put behind bars, or extradited to the US.Skip to next paragraph
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Further, the decades-old drug-fueled conflict between right-wing paramilitaries, leftist guerrillas, and the government has abated perceptibly, say analysts. A halting process of demobilizing the paramilitaries is under way, and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has lost ground to the army. President Alvaro Uribe was re-elected this May in a landslide thanks to his success in improving security in the country.
But the drug trade and the war against it continue to spawn violence, massive displacements of population, and high levels of corruption here, tearing at the social fabric of the country. And Colombia continues to be heavily, some say dangerously, militarized, with its army taking on internal security roles that would be prohibited in the US and many other democracies.
Now the Jamundí ambush is forcing some officials in Colombia (the No. 1 producer of cocaine in the world) and the US (the No. 1 consumer) to reevaluate their approach.
"We have spent $4.7 billion in Colombia ... and we brush under the rug a host of uncomfortable questions – about the military ... degrees of corruption, and overall efficacy of the drug war effort," says Bruce Bagley, an expert on drug trafficking at the University of Miami. "And then, along comes a Jamundí and calls the entire presumption of this war on drugs into question."
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When the shooting started near the psychiatric home, Morales dove into a wide gutter along the driveway, covering his ears with his hands and pressing his face as close to the concrete as he could bear. When he finally emerged, he saw more than a dozen Colombian soldiers from the alpine battalion of the Army's 3rd Brigade descending from the hills. On the ground outside the gate were 11 bodies, riddled with bullets.
"They were my most effective, trustworthy, elite group," laments Brig. Gen. Oscar Naranjo, director of the judicial police. Seven of the men in the team were members of the police's top counternarcotics unit: a group of approximately 200 police who have gone through rigorous vetting and training by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Those seven killed in Jamundí were part of a 15-person team that had, in the past 18 months, smashed 15 drug rings, captured 205 traffickers, including 23 wanted for extradition to the US, and seized nearly 4.4 tons of cocaine.
That day in May, they had come to the Cauca Valley, 195 miles southwest of the nation's capital, together with an informant and three police specialists, on a tip that 440 poundsof cocaine were stashed in the psychiatric home.
A tragic case of "friendly fire," is how Army commander Gen. Mario Montoya originally described the "shoot out," protesting that the troops had no advance knowledge of an undercover operation and had mistaken the police for kidnappers.
But as the smoke cleared, a different narrative began to take shape.
"This was not a mistake, this was a crime; this was a deliberate decision, a criminal decision," Attorney General Mario Iguarán announced a few days later. The soldiers, he bluntly charged, "...were doing the bidding of a drug trafficker." Eight of the policemen were shot in the head, and two were shot in the back, according to forensic reports. "This is one of the gravest cases in our history," says General Naranjo. "This is active corruption, and my men are dead. This cannot be tolerated."
According to a senior official investigating the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, the police unit that day may have been looking not just for drugs, but for a specific drug trafficker: Diego Montoya Sánchez, a reputed head of the Norte del Valle (North Valley) cartel.
Since the dismantling of the Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Norte del Valle Cartel has become Colombia's most powerful drug ring. Officials say that the two factions of the cartel are behind 30 percent of the cocaine sent to the US, and Montoya is on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list, right beside Osama bin Laden, with a bounty of $5 million on his head. According to the investigator, the police unit had been told Montoya was hiding in the psychiatric home, posing as a patient.