Nobody knows who carried out Saturday’s bomb attack in Colombia’s capital Bogota, but there are several likely suspects with the motives, opportunity and means to carry out such a high-impact attack.
Rather than killing innocent civilians, the objective of Saturday’s attack seemed to have been to destabilize Colombia’s peace process and coerce Colombia’s public opinion against the authorities.
Not only did the attack take place just three days before the FARC‘s disarmament deadline, but it provided fuel on fire for the many Colombians who already are skeptical of the process.
Saturday’s bombing confirmed their fears the peace process would not effectively increase security in the country, and in particular the cities where the FARC has not been able to carry out high-impact attacks for years.
A similar spoiler attack took place months after the United Kingdom and the IRA signed peace in 1998, killing more civilians than any terrorist attack carried out during The Troubles.
In Northern Ireland, the culprits were an IRA dissident group called The Real IRA. In Colombia, a culprit or compelling evidence is yet to be found. However, several groups have both the motives and the means to carry out such high-profile attack.
Dissident members of the military
An often omitted suspect would be a dissident element within the military. These dissident officials would have both the most compelling motive, the capacity, the know-how and the means to carry out a precision attack like Saturday’s bombing.
In no way may this be interpreted that the institution is behind the attack or even that such actions can count on the support of a significant number of members of the military, because it does not. Colombia Reports has talked to multiple members and retired members of the security forces who have served their country honorably and have unanimously expressed support for peace.
Notwithstanding, corrupt military officials have already been arrested for leaking classified information with the intent to undermine the peace talks with the FARC and there is evidence indicating others have tried to bribe demobilizing guerrillas to abandon the process.
Moreover, members of the military have carried out similar so-called “false flag” operations before.
On May 31 2002, a week before former President Alvaro Uribe took office, members of the Bogota-based 13th Brigade planted as many as seven car bombs in an attempt to create panic, now-jailed former army commander Mario Montoya was forced to admit in 2006. One of the bombs exploded, killing one civilian and injuring several soldiers.
Former US ambassador Myles Frechette recently warned that individual members within the military and lobby group ACORE were actively pressuring President Juan Manuel Santos to prevent the retired generals from being tried before a transitional justice tribunal.
The peace deal with the FARC includes a transitional justice tribunal set to try more than 24,000 state officials charged or convicted of war crimes, including the most horrendous of all war crimes committed during the armed conflict, the mass executions of at least 4,500 civilians who were falsely presented as combat kills.
Look, ACORE is an extremely powerful organization in Colombia. You can already see how they’re blackmailing the president so they don’t give members of the military the same treatment as those of the guerrillas in human rights cases. There comes a time they say “no, the hell you don’t.”
Former US Ambassador Myles Frechette
Additionally, members of the military would have access to explosives and the knowledge of how to optimize the impact of a terrorist attack on public opinion while minimizing the number of casualties.
Colombia’s largest paramilitary group, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), has the motives, the capacity and the intelligence to carry out terrorist attacks like that of Saturday.
Its predecessor, the AUC, has carried several high-impact attacks like the assassinations of, for example, journalist Jaime Garzon.
In fact, the National Police only weeks ago leaked an internal memo in which officers were warned that the heirs of paramilitary umbrella organization AUC were planning “possible high impact actions in capital cities, especially in Medellin and/or Bogota.”
While the group does have access to vast quantities of TNT, the group has never carried out any explosives attacks and has only carried out low-impact attacks allegedly targeting community leaders and policemen, meaning the Bogota attack would be a major deviation of the group’s traditional modus operandi.
While not in line with the paramilitary group’s MO, AGC involvement in the Bogota bombing would be consistent with the leaked police memo and the paramilitaries’ involvement in the recent low-impact spoiler attacks.
Especially the killing of family members of demobilizing FARC guerrillas of which the group has been blamed can be considered spoiler attacks as they directly undermine guerrillas’ confidence in the peace process.
Additionally, the group has allegedly increased the assassination of police officers in a possible attempt to undermine state authority, however, not once using explosives.
The group most certainly has a motive. For years it has asked the government to be included in the peace process with the FARC, but its requests have consistently been ignored in spite of the group’s control over vast territories and presence in almost all the country’s major cities, including Bogota.
Because of the group’s long-time infiltration in state institution and recruitment of both former and active security officials, the group could potentially have obtained the technology and intelligence to carry out the attack.
Nevertheless, for the group to effectively use the attack as a bargaining chip to force negotiations, it would have to claim responsibility, which it has not.
Dissident FARC guerrillas
While the majority of the FARC troops accepted the peace deal with the government, dissident groups opposing the peace process have emerged and have already actively tried to frustrate the process, for example by kidnapping a UN official in the south of the country.
A number of these groups also has experience in bomb-making.
Their former organization bombed the exclusive Nogal club, located near the Andino mall, in 2002, proving the FARC had every capacity and ability to carry out high-impact terrorist attacks inside the most exclusive areas in the capital.
With weapons and explosives caches still waiting to be retrieved or detonated across Colombia, the dissident FARC guerrillas most definitely have access to explosives.
What is uncertain is if they have been able to maintain or obtain the support of dissident urban militia members or associate criminal gangs in Bogota as these contacts where maintained by the dissidents’ former national guerrilla organization.
An attack like Saturday would be a show of force of epic proportions for the groups’ none of whom are expected to have more than 250 members.
Without the support of the dismantled national FARC network, an attack like Saturday’s seems out of reach of the post-FARC guerrillas still in the process of formation.
Colombia’s last standing Marxist-inspired rebel group the ELN are another possible suspect. According to some media, they’re even the prime suspect because of earlier bomb attacks in the capital.
However, the modus operandi in previous alleged ELN attacks does not correspond to the latest bomb attack.
The ELN generally takes responsibility for its attacks, making sure it it is clear every Colombian knows what their military prowess is.
While the rebels have generally avoided targeting crowded areas, the ELN admitted responsibility for the bombing at the Santamaria bull ring in Bogota in February that left one policeman dead and 25 people injured.
On Saturday, the country’s last-standing Marxist rebel group immediately and fiercely rejected the attack and for good reason.
Considering the impact of the attack on the peace process with the FARC, ELN involvement would almost certainly mean the end of ongoing peace talks with the government, which already has been under pressure because of the guerrillas’ persistent kidnapping of civilians.
In other words, the attack was simply against the interest of the ELN. The guerrillas may be violent and cruel, but not self-destructive.
4) Aguilas Negras
The Aguilas Negras are Colombia’s most extreme right armed group or collection of groups with every motive to prevent the political inclusion of the FARC.
However, there are doubts whether the group is a national organization or just a disperse collection of extremist supporters of hard-right former President Alvaro Uribe.
The group has been actively working against the peace process, but allegedly only through low-impact spoiler attacks against community leaders.
While ideologically aligned with Uribe, there exists no evidence the group is in any way tied to the former president or his Democratic Center Party.
The group has access to explosives because of its activity in illegal mining, but there exists no indication the group would be able to produce an explosive artifact that could be detonated inside a shopping mall.
5) Movimiento Revolucionario Popular
Authorities were quick to leak the possible implication of an alleged extreme leftist group called the People’s Revolutionary Movement.
While its existence has yet to be confirmed, the group in January was accused of setting off a pamphlet bomb, which is not really a bomb, but an explosives device that ejects political pamphlets.
The group was also accused of bombing healthcare offices, again leaving pamphlets denouncing Colombia’s substandard healthcare system.
Hypothetically, the group could have made an alliance with FARC dissidents and obtain the bomb-making expertise necessary for an attack like Saturday’s. The likelihood of this, however, is virtually non-existent.