WASHINGTON -- On Thursday, March 14, in the Colombian city of Cali, two American citizens were shot to death. They had been negotiating with FARC leftist guerrillas for the release of their kidnapped father. U.S. authorities in Colombia learned of the killings but issued no statement. Indeed, they did not even inform their newly installed superior, Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs.
I was told about the killings last Wednesday by congressional sources, who had been alerted Tuesday by a U.S. Embassy official in Bogota. I contacted Reich, who was travelling with President Bush in Latin America. It was the first Reich knew of the killings seven days earlier, and he was not happy about being in the dark.
Colombian police, following the U.S. Embassy's example, said nothing publicly. One police official told congressional contacts in Washington that the embassy "suppressed" news of the killings. State Department officials informed me this was not connected with terrorism, but was part of internal drug wars -- contradicting Colombian police sources. A U.S. drug enforcement officer said the brothers were "party to" a money-laundering investigation, possibly as witnesses and informers. Whatever the truth, the U.S. government kept the murder of American citizens under cover.
This fits a pattern established during the Clinton administration and continued by the Bush administration's Clinton holdovers in Latin American policy positions. Since 1990, 73 American citizens have been taken hostage in Colombia (more than 50 by narco-terrorist guerrillas). Since 1995, 12 have been murdered. These atrocities go unmentioned as the U.S. minimizes the tragedy of a Western Hemisphere neighbor left prostrate by terrorists.
The 11th and 12th murders stemmed from the FARC kidnapping last Dec. 20 in Colombia of an American citizen held for ransom. His sons, Jaime Raul Orejuela, 30, and Jose Alberto Orejuela, 28, residents of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., arrived in Cali March 13 to negotiate the release of Jaime Sr. One day later, as the brothers left a fast-food restaurant, motorcycle-riding gunmen shot them in the back.
The Orejuela family once dominated the Cali drug cartel, but Colombian police sources say it is not clear how the two murdered brothers and their father were related to major drug kingpins. A State Department spokesman said Jaime Sr. was indicted in a 1992 U.S. drug case, but a Justice Department source found no such indictment. A police official told my congressional sources the killings followed a botched attempt to kidnap the brothers after ransom negotiations collapsed.
Secrecy and inattention surround the deaths. Associated Press Online reported the murders the day they were committed, attributing the news to "a Cali police official" talking "on condition of anonymity." The only American newspaper account was a one-paragraph AP report on page A-24 of the March 17 Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel.
In response to my questions, the State Department said that the U.S. is "cooperating with Colombian authorities" in investigating the murders. In fact, the State Department has ignored Americans held prisoner and murdered in Colombia, dating back to three missionaries abducted by the FARC nine years ago and probably killed since then.
The missionaries' families have been frustrated in failing to receive a report needed to obtain death certificates. "These families have suffered enough and should not be held hostage to the bureaucratic indifference that would further delay this overdue notification," Chairman Dan Burton of the House Government Reform Committee wrote the State Department last Dec. 15.
"Bureaucratic indifference" has been the watchword. With Reich's assumption of command delayed by the Democratic-controlled Senate, Clinton holdovers remain in key posts. News about the Cali killing was suppressed by the Bogota embassy on orders of Ambassador Anne Patterson, a career diplomat who held Latin American policymaking posts in the Clinton administration and was nominated for the Colombian post by Bill Clinton in his last months as president.
The decision at the White House Feb. 26 not to extend the war on terrorism to Colombia has yet to be reversed. On March 6, a bipartisan resolution was introduced by the Republican chairman and senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee -- Reps. Henry Hyde of Illinois and Tom Lantos of California -- calling for a change in policy. "Any attack on an American citizen is an attack on America," George W. Bush has declared. So far, however, Colombia is excluded.