Colombia has conducted its first ever aerial bombardment against drug trafficking organization the Urabeños, something which could have enormous ramifications on the political status of criminal groups in the country’s long-standing armed conflict.

Authorities confirmed that at least 12 members of the Urabeños were killed during the bombing on November 3 in the Pacific department of Choco, reported El Tiempo. This is the Colombian government’s first use of aerial bombardments against a criminalized neo-paramilitary organization, known by their Spanish acronym as BACRIM. 

General Rodolfo Palomino, director of Colombia’s National Police, said the bombing targeted an Urabeños camp that could have hosted an “amalgam” of forces from the Urabeños and rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN). 

El Heraldo reported the Urabeños’ second-in-command, Roberto Vargas Gutierrez, alias “Gavilan,” was killed in the strike, but authorities have yet to confirm his death. The bombing was conducted in the municipality of Unguia, one of Gavilan’s strongholds. 

Following the operation, President Juan Manuel Santos took to Twitter to congratulate the military and police. 

Felicitaciones @FuerzasMilCol y @PoliciaColombia por acciones vs. bandas criminales en Urabá dedicadas a terrorismo y narcotráfico.

— Juan Manuel Santos (@JuanManSantos) November 3, 2015

The bombing was part of the joint police and military operation dubbed “Agamemnon,” which has resulted in the capture of over 300 alleged Urabeños members since it was launched eight months ago, according to RCN Radio.  

Authorities stated that a total of five camps were destroyed, and that over a dozen rifles, one machine gun, four grenades, and ammunition were found at the site, according to El Tiempo. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The bombing of an Urabeños camp could potentially have major consequences on the BACRIM’s role in Colombia’s armed conflict. The government has carried out bombings against rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but up until now has refrained from targeting BACRIM out of fear it would confer political status on criminal groups. 

For their part, the Urabeños see themselves as the “third actor” in Colombia’s armed conflict, and the successors to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group that officially completed demobilization in 2006. The group has previously called for inclusion in peace talks, and earlier this year authorities brought forward proposals to facilitate the mass surrender of the BACRIM.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile

However, the recent air strikes do not offer conclusive proof the armed forces have the green-light to bomb BACRIM. David Correal, an investigator at the conflict monitoring site CERAC, told InSight Crime that the alleged inclusion of ELN forces in the Urabeños camps could, in theory, provide legal justification for the bombing. Correal said the decision to bombard criminal groups remains a controversial one, and that the Constitutional Court must first make a ruling before this practice can be considered legal. 

The timing of the bombing may have been influenced by the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC in Havana, Cuba. The two sides agreed to reach a final peace deal by March 2016, but rebel negotiators are resisting giving up their weapons without government action against the BACRIM, who alongside the FARC are the major players in Colombia’s illicit drug trade. The military, currently focused on operations against the FARC, could also be looking to carve out a role for itself in a post-conflict scenario. 

SEE ALSO: FARC News and Profile

If Gavilan — who controls the Urabeños’ prized trafficking routes along the western shore of the Gulf of Uraba near the Panamanian border — was in fact killed during the strike, this would be another significant setback for the criminal group. Agamemnon has yet to result in the capture of Urabeños boss Dario Antonio Usuga, alias “Otoniel,” but has significantly impeded the group’s drug trafficking operations in their home base of Uraba. While conducting recent field research in the region, InSight Crime found the Urabeños have responded to the increased security pressure by sending operators into Choco, leading to violent clashes with already established rebel forces.

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