BOGOTA: Colombia on Thursday authorized the use of all military force, including air strikes, against the country’s three biggest criminal gangs in a major escalation against “organized armed groups.”
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas announced the directive late Thursday after a special session of a Senate committee in a violence-torn region of northwestern Colombia.
“Directive 15 permits the application of all the force of the state, without exception, against organized armed groups or groups who have major hostile capacity,” he said.
Until now the military has been used only against leftist guerrilla groups, who have been negotiating an end to their half-century-old conflict.
The new strategy specifically targets three major crime groups — the Clan Usuga, Los Pelusos and Los Puntilleros.
“Those three organizations from today will be pursued autonomously or in coordination by the armed forces and the police,” Villegas said, speaking from the region of Apartado, a stronghold of the Clan Usuga.
They have been classified as “organized armed groups” because they use camps, uniforms, long arms — usually taken to mean weapons with longer barrels — and have a territorial presence, he said.
A government source said that besides air strikes, the state’s use of force could include “air assault operations with special forces, ambushes, high precision snipers, supporting artillery fire.”
Top money launderer arrested
The decision to use the military comes amid an intensifying government crackdown on the crime groups, which emerged from right-wing paramilitary death squads that were disbanded during the 2002-2010 presidency of Alvaro Uribe.
President Juan Manuel Santos told Agence France-Presse in a recent interview he would bomb the groups to finish them off “if the law allows it.”
Villegas said 90 alleged members of the crime groups had been arrested over the previous 24 hour period.
Separately, Colombian authorities announced the arrest of Nidal Waked, a Panamanian described by US agencies as “one of the world’s most significant money launderers and criminal facilitators.”
He is wanted in Florida on money laundering and fraud charges.
Colombia’s attorney general’s office said Waked was arrested Wednesday after arriving at Bogota’s airport on a flight from Panama.
Human rights risks
The decision to militarize the fight against organized crime marks a sharp turn in strategy toward a new war just as the government is nearing a peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
“It’s a new war because military force is going to be used that is lethal and seeks to reduce the enemy — as opposed to the police, which carry out arrest warrants,” said Jorge Restrepo, an analyst at a Bogota think tank.
“And it’s necessary because of the capacity of these groups to generate violence,” he said.
Using the military suggests that the government will act without the guidance of the judicial system, he said, adding that it “raises the risk of human rights violations, not only against members of those groups, but also of communities.”
The directive asserts that “a group’s objectives or motives will not be relevant for the application of the lethal use of force within the framework of international humanitarian law.” AFP