From email@example.com Fri Jun 1 17:23:52 2001
From U.S. to Colombia militia: a bomb's saga
By Andrew Selsky, The Seattle Times, Wednesday 30 May 2001
BOGOTÁ, Colombia - Made in the U.S.A. in the 1970s. Shipped to a Central American government fighting leftist rebels. Stolen in 1992 as part of an assassination plot against a drug kingpin.
And planted last week by right-wing paramilitaries next to a communist newspaper's offices in Bogotá - the journey of a U.S. Air Force bomb from an ammo depot in Oklahoma to Colombia serves as a cautionary tale about where sophisticated munitions can wind up if not guarded carefully.
The 500-pound bomb, discovered May 21 by a security guard, is not a medium-level explosive like the two that blew up in the capital Friday, killing four people and injuring 26.
This one, more than 6 feet long, is built for devastating effect. If it had gone off, police said, it would have blown two city blocks to bits - the worst terrorist attack in Colombia in more than a decade.
The bomb, known as an MK-82, is favored by many air forces in the world "where maximum blast and explosive effects are desired," according to literature on the device.
The bomb, made in April 1973, was delivered in January 1974 to what was then known as the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot, now called the Army Ammunition Plant, in McAlester, Okla., said Capt. Almarah Belk, a U.S. Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon.
Belk said that because the bomb is so old, records are difficult to trace on where it was delivered next, and that it was more than likely part of an arms sale.
In fact, it appears to have been sent to El Salvador, part of a U.S. military-assistance package to the Central American country, which battled leftist rebels from the late 1970s until 1992.
In 1992, the Cali cocaine cartel - named after Colombia's third-largest city - bought four bombs from corrupt Salvadoran air-force officers. The purpose: to kill Pablo Escobar, the Cali cartel's rival who was imprisoned near Colombia's city of Medellín.
The plotters intended to kill Escobar - boss of the Medellín drug cartel - by dropping the four 500-pound bombs from helicopters onto the prison, according to El Salvador's top drug-fighting agency, the Executive Anti-Narcotics Unit.
Salvadoran agents busted up the plot, arrested nine people - including three Salvadoran air-force men - seized one of the bombs and confiscated almost $500,000.
But the agents acted too late to prevent three of the bombs from being loaded aboard a plane and flown out of El Salvador from a remote coastal airstrip.
The Cali cartel abandoned its assassination plot after Colombian authorities banned air traffic over Escobar's prison and installed anti-aircraft guns.
Months later, Escobar escaped from prison and was killed by police in a gunbattle in December 1993. The Cali-cartel chieftains wound up being arrested or slain in later years.
Meanwhile, no one knew where any of the three missing bombs were - until May 21.
The commander of Colombia's air force, Gen. Hector Fabio Velasco, confirmed last week that the bomb planted outside the communist newspaper, La Voz, is one of the bombs.
Carlos Castano, head of a right-wing paramilitary army which during the 1990s supported the Cali cartel's war against Escobar, acknowledged his outfit had buried the bomb under a load of bananas and oranges in the back of a pickup and parked it in front of La Voz.
After the bomb was discovered last week, police announced they had disarmed it.
But explosives experts later said the bomb posed no immediate threat - that it could not have detonated without having been dropped from a great height.
Castano told Colombian media Friday that his United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia planted the bomb as a warning to La Voz publisher Carlos Lozano - recently named to a government peace commission - to tread carefully.
Of concern is that two missing MK-82 bombs may still be somewhere in Colombia, a violence-wracked nation where mass killings are common. But of equal concern is that the paramilitaries might now get their hands on weaponry from the United States in a more direct fashion.
Washington is delivering millions of dollars in military assistance to Colombia to fight leftist rebels and drug traffickers. The Colombian government is also cracking down on United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, but the paramilitary group maintains covert links with elements in the armed forces.
"We already know there's information-sharing, that there's communications between various Colombian army units and paramilitaries, and coordination in the field," said Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch/Americas.
"It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to imagine that weaponry the United States is sending would also make it into the hands of the paramilitaries."
Copyright 2001 The Seattle Times Company