By Nelson Matta Colorado, EL COLOMBIANO, August 26, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Ministry of Defense has ordered the suspension of bombings of the criminal groups, as a measure intended to protect the minors that have been recruited, but it also affects the de-escalation of the Armed Forces operations, in the interest of the search for “total peace”.

The head of the agency, the legal scholar Iván Velásquez, stated that “the children that were recruited forcibly by illegal organizations are victims, and for that reason, the military actions that are carried out cannot put their lives in danger. The bombings must be suspended; we will evaluate a specific time when an absolute directive can be issued, but for now we have to hold back.”

Although the official announcement was just made this Thursday, it was only the confirmation of a fact that had been suggested secretly a month ago. The Armed Forces had decided on their own to stop Operation Beta (as the bombardiers called it in their Army jargon). As EL COLOMBIANO reported at the time, judicial sources revealed that a week before the inauguration of Gustavo Petro, the Armed Forces cancelled three aerial attacks on ELN objectives in Antioquia, Chocó, and southern Bolívar.

“No officers want to expose themselves to sanctions by the new command staff, especially because the administration’s policy on those aerial attacks was not clear,” stated the source.

Beyond the fact that bombs were not exploding, there are other plans in the arsenal of the Presidential Palace to minimize the conflict. They include a new model for extradition and for attention to the illegal plantings.

In the history of the bombings against the Clan del Golfo, there have been 30 deaths

  1. The consequences of suspending air attacks

The decision by Velásquez confirmed the position of the political parties that made up Historic Pact, which, during Iván Duque’s term, criticized the bombings and promoted censure motions—which failed—against the Defense Minister at the time.

However, in the war zones, the bombings could have unwanted consequences, like an increase in the child recruitment statistics.

The former Senator and political analyst, Alfredo Rangel, offered his opinion on this: “The Defense Ministry ended up validating the way that the criminal groups used children as human shields, in order to prevent actions by the Armed Forces. So child recruitment increased. It was a humanitarian disaster and a protection for the criminal groups.”

In recent decades, the air attacks were the strategy that tipped the balance of the conflict in favor of the government, pushing back the insurgent groups, and containing their expansion. The bombs are the weapon they fear the most, the one that keeps them from gathering their top commanders in the same encampment, and displaces their troops into a lot of different gangs.

In the same manner, the Beta operations were protecting the confidence of the soldiers and the Police in those cases where accessing enemy territory would put their lives in danger, because of the fields of land mines or security rings of artillery.

In that respect, we should note that the government had suspended this strategy unilaterally and without the armed groups having made any commitment—before or at the same time—to the cessation of hostilities.

It’s also true that the killing of teenagers in this kind of attack has resulted in the government being accused by international agencies of violating the parameters of International Humanitarian Law (DIH in Spanish). In September of 2021, for example, four children, including a 13-year-old girl, were killed in a bombing of the ELN in Chocó.

All of those issues have to be balanced by the Defense Ministry and the new military command staff.

The story behind the gestures toward a peace agreement with organized crime

  • Waiting for the gangs to stop killing

The cancellation of Operations Beta is going the same way as other governmental proposals that seek to change security policies regarding drug trafficking and organized crime.

One of them is called “total peace”, in which the government would open the doors to the armed groups to negotiate a peace agreement, in the case of the ELN, or agree on placement in the justice system, for the Clan del Golfo and other gangs.

With the guerrillas, the first step has already been taken, with a meeting in Havana of delegates from both sides, and the suspension of the arrest warrants for the insurgent negotiators.

When Petro announced that decision, he emphasized that one of the reasons is that the negotiators could meet with their subordinates in Colombia and handle things regarding an agreement, a situation that could also go forward if there were no risk of bombardment of the encampments.

As a gesture of peace, the ELN released six kidnapped soldiers and one kidnapped police officer last week. Other groups that have also been asking for a place to land, like the Clan del Golfo, joined in these demonstrations. The Clan suspended its Plan Pistola against the Armed Forces, and the FARC dissidents voluntarily released 12 prisoners in Valle.

In view of these actions, the President stated that it was now time to be specific about procedures. “We have a lot of messages asking for peace, asking to negotiate. How sincere are they? It’s time for actions; actions that have to signify an end to the killing, and an end to their conflicts among themselves,” said Petro.

Among the organizations that have sent letters are the “Fariana Dissidents”, including “La Oficina”, “Los Caparros”, “Los Mexicanos”, Los Rastrojos”, and former bosses of the AUC[1], like “Don Berna”, and “Macaco”.

Agreeing on peace with all of the groups, including the urban gangs, implies a responsibility that goes beyond justice and politics. Are there funds to oversee a disarmament of such magnitude, and won’t those who surrendered and reintegrated be upset? That has been a historic complaint of those who demobilized.

  • Conditions on Extradition and Eradication

President Petro has made three important announcements. The first is that the cultivation of coca by campesinos should be decriminalized, and that they should receive alternative treatment with plans like the Comprehensive National Program for Substitution of Illegal Crops (PNIS).

The second is the interruption of forced eradication and the end of fumigation with glyphosate.

His third proposal, which he suggested in a meeting with representatives of the White House, is placing conditions on the extradition of the drug traffickers.

Here is how the President explained it: “The drug trafficker who does not negotiate with the government will be extradited; the drug trafficker who negotiates with the government and re-offends will be extradited without any negotiation of any kind with the United States. And the drug trafficker who negotiates legal benefits with the Colombian government, and ceases entirely to be a drug trafficker will not be extradited.”

The representatives of the United States promised to study the proposal. The Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy, Rahul Gupta, observed that, “President Joe Biden is aware that much of the drug policy in the past has marginalized some people; it has not worked for a lot of populations, and we need to do better.”

The statements by the government are not without controversy. The opposition, for example, catalogs them as benefits for the criminals; they say that in the long run it will strengthen the criminal organizations.

The former presidential candidate Federico Gutiérrez stated that “the big decisions adopted by the administration are giving more protections to the people that commit crimes than to the citizens that obey the law. Change has taken place, but in a manner that favors the murderers, drug traffickers and the corrupt, or anybody that decides to commit a crime.”

Minister Velásquez pushed back on the criticisms, alleging that “all of this about peace does not mean weakness; nor is it a surrender by the government or by the Armed Forces. Peace is a process of collective construction where all of the actors in the conflict have to play a role.”

He added that, in spite of the fact that now there will be no more bombings, he is evaluating the investments necessary so as not to diminish the capacities of the Air Force.

[1] AUC, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

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