The Colombian government has reclassified the country's most powerful criminal bands as a pseudo military threat, authorizing the full use of force against them and raising questions over the legal and political ramifications of the new status.
On May 5, Colombia's Minister of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, announced at least three criminal bands -- previously referred to as BACRIM by the government for the Spanish bandas criminales -- would now be classified as Organized Armed Groups (Grupos Armados Organizados), reported El Espectador. The change permits authorities to "use all of the state's force, without exception" in their efforts to tackle the groups.
The targeted groups include "Clan Úsuga," "Los Puntillos," and "Los Pelusos."
Villegas characterized the former BACRIM as more than organized crime groups, saying they "generate levels of violence that go beyond normal tensions and disturbances."
Clan Úsuga, also known as the the Urabeños, are a powerful criminal band with an active presence in 22 of the country's 32 departments. Los Puntillos and Los Pelusos are two lesser-known emergent criminal operations.
Los Pelusos reportedly operate with some 200 armed members in the department of Norte de Santander, controlling much of the illicit coca cultivation along the border with Venezuela in that department. Los Puntillos operate with some 300 armed members in Colombia's Eastern Plains with purported access to military grade weapons.
InSight Crime Analysis
The new classification paves the way for increased use of military force against the groups formerly known as BACRIM, the appetite for which has been growing for at least the last half year. Colombia's military launched the first ever airstrike against the Urabeños in November 2015, and in April 2016 Colombian authorities outlined a greater role for the military in the ongoing fight against organized crime, BACRIM included.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the BACRIM
Increased military offensives and the use of airstrikes against BACRIM, however, raise concern. Unlike Colombian guerrilla groups, which operate largely from secluded camps, BACRIM like the Urabeños operate among the general population. This raises the risk of collateral damage and, more broadly, serious legal and human rights concerns regarding the state's role in bombing its own citizens.
Classifying BACRIM as something more than a criminal group also complicates the legal question of how national and international actors should engage with them. The new designation places the groups in a legal grey zone, making them something beyond a common criminal entity but short of an armed actor in Colombia's internal conflict.
It is unclear what effect the classification will have on the possibility of any future negotiations or demobilization effort. The Urabeños have intimated that it wants to be included in ongoing peace negotiations, while the government has previously denied that possibility.