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Colombian soldiers guilty in drug slayings

/ Source: The Associated Press

A cashiered army lieutenant colonel and 14 soldiers were convicted Monday of murdering 10 elite counternarcotics police agents in an ambush that showed how deeply drug corruption threatens Colombia's security forces.

Lt. Col. Byron Carvajal and his soldiers face up to 60 years. Prosecutors want Judge Edmundo Lopez to impose the maximum.

The convictions came despite numerous attempts to subvert the trial, including a prosecutor's offer to help the defense in exchange for more than $400,000, senior police officials and prosecutors familiar with the case said.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing investigations, said the bribe was never paid and the prosecutor who sought it was removed from the case before he made the offer.

Officers killed in cocaine raid
Carvajal was convicted of ordering the May 22, 2006, ambush in the town of Jamundi, where an informant told police they would find at least 220 pounds of cocaine at a psychiatric center. When police pulled up, the soldiers cut them down with 420 bullets and seven grenades. No drugs were found.

Carvajal, who was not at the scene, said his soldiers believed they were surprising leftist rebels. The other defendants refused to testify to avoid incriminating themselves.

Defense attorney Yudy Castro said the soldiers never meant to kill police. "It was an error," she said.

Prosecutors didn't present evidence about suspected motives. Top army officials initially called it tragic "friendly fire." Senior police officials told The Associated Press that they believe the soldiers were protecting a major drug trafficker.

One thing is clear, chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran said: "It was a massacre related to organized criminals."

Longtime corruption problem
Mafias have long infiltrated Colombia's security forces — back to the days of the slain drug lord Pablo Escobar. A retired army general and cashiered navy admiral are among those under investigation for allegedly aiding drug lords. But soldiers have rarely killed their colleagues in the service of drug mafias.

While witnesses linked Carvajal to Wilson Figueroa, a drug trafficker captured last year in Cali, those ties were not explained.

Colombia has received some $700 million in U.S. foreign aid annually since 2000, much of it for counternarcotics operations.

The slain agents, some of whom trained in the United States, belonged to the most elite unit of Colombia's judicial investigative police, working closely with DEA agents to seize cocaine and arrest traffickers, said Col. Nicolas Munoz, the agency's deputy director.

Most died of shots to the head, neck and chest. In the midst of the fusillade, some managed distress calls, and Gen. Carlos Sanchez issued a radio order to the troops: "Stop. Stop please. Stop, they're police."

Police got off just 30 shots. Not a single soldier was wounded.

The courtroom, filled with relatives of the slain officers, was silent as the verdict was read.