Colombia's top police chief has said the armed forces may bomb more encampments belonging to criminal group the Urabeños, nearly a year after the government initiated a massive security surge meant to capture the group's top leadership.
Police chief Rodolfo Palomino told El Tiempo that 2016 could see more aerial bombings targeting criminal groups like the Urabeños, the remnants of Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) and the badly weakened Popular Liberation Army (EPL).
Last year, Colombia’s Prosecutor General Eduardo Montealegre authorized security forces to carry out bomb attacks against criminal groups dubbed "BACRIM" (from the Spanish acronym for "criminal bands"). This strategy had previously only been used against guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and allowed the armed forces to decimate the rebels' leadership.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Urabeños
In the interview with El Tiempo, Palomino said that bomb strikes will be used in certain conditions -- for example, if the Urabeños' forces are concentrated in a "bellicose" way, and if they are demonstrationg a "threat." The armed forces first bombed a BACRIM group in November 2015, resulting in the death of 12 alleged members of the Urabeños.
Palomino's interview with El Tiempo was published on the cusp of the one-year anniversary of Operation Agamemnon, launched in February 2015 and involving thousands of police and military officials. As a result of Agamemnon, at least five Urabeños camps have been detected so far, while six hundred people have been arrested, including 424 Urabeños members, Palomino stated. The police chief also confirmed that the remaining leadership of the Urabeños -- including the elusive alias "Otoniel" -- have been located on more permanent settlements.
Operation Agamemnon also prompted Colombian's criminal groups to shift their own strategies, including the establishment of rear guards and a heightened focus on attacking police forces and the use of landmines around their camps, according to Palomino.
InSight Crime Analysis
The legal parameters that allow the Colombian state to bomb criminal groups could have important political and human rights implications.
After the bombing in November 2015, the army argued that the camp was home to an "amalgam" of criminal groups, which, by implication, represented a threat to national security. The Urabeños retaliated by calling it an act of desperation, as the government had originally said it would wipe out the Urabeños two months after launching Operation Agamemnon.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy
Colombia's sanctioning of this new approach seems poised to stir additional controversy. One issue is the increased risk of civilian casualties. The nation’s guerrilla groups have had a largely rural presence for years, meaning that bomb strikes would often occur in isolated areas. In BACRIM camps, however, it is not as easy to determine the potential presence of civilians, such relatives, girlfriends, or forced collaborators.
Operation Agamemnon has already reportedly prompted the Urabeños to deepen their ties with local communities by giving away land, in return for providing refuge for Otoniel. It is unclear whether the armed forces would consider these civilians who house Otoniel as full-fledged members of the "Urabeños."
In the end, the BACRIM are criminal rather than insurgent or terrorist groups. Bombing them is not as clear cut as pursuing a similar campaign against the FARC.
The government will likely continue to argue that a bombing campaign will slow the Urabeños's expansion. The criminal group continues to spread across key drug trafficking regions in Colombia, as a recent Indepaz report indicates. The threat of bomb strikes have apparently struck fear into the organization, as was revealed in a series of seized handwritten letters between Urabeños leaders.