Country Report on Terrorism 2015 - Chapter 2 - Colombia

Overview: In 2015, Colombia experienced overall decreased terrorist activity according to Defense Ministry statistics, due in large part to a unilateral ceasefire declared by Colombia’s largest terrorist organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although the government and the FARC reached tentative, partial agreements on land reform, political participation, drug trafficking, and victims’ rights (including transitional justice), no overall bilateral peace agreement had been concluded by the end of the year. The government continued exploratory talks with the other major terrorist organization in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), although formal peace negotiations had not started by year’s end. U.S.-Colombian counterterrorism cooperation remained strong.

The Colombian government continued its military pressure against insurgents in 2015, although it gradually reduced military actions over the course of the year, including certain periods when it suspended aerial bombardments against FARC targets. That suspension remained in place at year’s end. In response to the FARC observation of a unilateral ceasefire starting on December 20, 2014, President Santos announced on March 10 that the armed forces would refrain from bombing FARC guerrilla camps. However, following a FARC attack in Cauca department on April 15 that killed 11 soldiers and wounded 20 others, Santos ordered the military to resume aerial strikes against the FARC. The FARC lifted its self-imposed unilateral ceasefire on May 22 and initiated a wave of attacks against security forces and infrastructure for the next two months. The FARC then resumed its unilateral ceasefire on July 20, and it remained in place through the end of the year. On July 25, Santos again suspended aerial bombardments of FARC camps as a de-escalation measure. On September 23, the government and the FARC jointly announced their intention to sign a peace agreement by March 23, 2016. Meanwhile, Santos ordered the military to intensify strikes against the ELN in response to an October 26 ELN attack on a military foot patrol escorting election workers and ballots, which resulted in the death of 11 soldiers and one police officer and the capture of two soldiers (who were released several weeks later). In 2015, the number of members of Foreign Terrorist Organizations – including the FARC and ELN – killed in combat, captured, and demobilized, decreased compared to the previous year. In 2015, the number of civilian deaths from conflicts with guerilla organizations decreased compared to the previous year.

While Colombia has openly condemned ISIL and its objectives, Colombia is not a member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.

2015 Terrorist Incidents: The FARC and ELN focused on low-cost, high-impact asymmetric attacks, as they did in 2014. The most common forms of terrorist activity were the launching of mortars at police stations or the military, explosive devices placed near roads and paths, sniper attacks, roadblocks, and ambushes. In 2015, Colombian government statistics showed a decrease in attacks from 2014. Terrorist attacks on infrastructure – including oil pipelines and energy towers – also decreased in 2015 compared to 2014, according to Defense Ministry statistics. Security forces and government buildings were the most common terrorist targets, although civilian casualties also occurred throughout the year. Attacks were most common along the Venezuelan border in the departments of Arauca, Norte de Santander, and La Guajira; in the southwestern departments of Nariño and Cauca; and in the northwestern department of Antioquia. Among the terrorist attacks recorded in 2015, several were notable for their severity or significant press coverage:

  • Throughout the year, the ELN continued to place bombs throughout the country, including in Bogota. From February 2 through March 12, the ELN planted IEDs around Bogota, two targeting the police and one targeting a political party headquarters. Police arrested the Bogota-based criminal gang members the ELN had contracted to plant the devices, who admitted that planning was underway for additional attacks against police targets. On July 2-3, ELN pamphlets were found at the scenes of IEDs and pamphlet bomb explosions during evening rush hour at several locations in downtown Bogota, which caused minor injuries. Police arrested 15 ELN members/supporters, including two captured with bombs and pamphlets, although they were released by the court weeks later.
  • Throughout the year, the ELN continued its kidnapping activities. Among others, the ELN kidnapped a Dutch citizen in Norte de Santander department in January (released in February), seized two hostages at a road checkpoint for ransom in Choco department on February 11, and kidnapped four geologists preparing to carry out studies on mining for the Colombian Geological Service in Norte de Santander department on February 24.
  • Throughout May and June, FARC bombings of electricity towers and police stations in Norte de Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño departments left almost a million people without power for several days. These attacks included a June 1 FARC attack on electrical infrastructure in the poverty-stricken city of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast that left approximately 400,000 Colombians without power, a June 2 FARC attack on electrical pylons in the southwestern city of Tumaco that left approximately 200,000 people without electricity, followed by another attack on Tumaco on June 20 affecting 260,000 people.
  • On June 7, the FARC forced 19 oil tankers to dump their contents (estimated at 222,000 gallons of crude oil) on a roadway near Puerto Asis, Putumayo department, which caused a massive oil spill and a significant environmental hazard.
  • Beginning June 8, FARC guerrillas conducted strikes against oil pipelines, hitting the Transandino Pipeline five times and bombing the Caño Limon-Covenas Pipeline on June 17 and July 1. Environment Minister Gabriel Vallejo characterized the spills caused by the Transandino attack as “the worst oil spill in Colombia in the last 10 years.”
  • On October 26 in Boyaca department, an ELN attack on a military foot patrol escorting election workers and ballots resulted in the death of 11 soldiers and one police officer and the capture of two soldiers. The captured soldiers were released on November 16.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: The investigation and prosecution of terrorism cases in Colombia is governed by Section 906 of Colombia’s Criminal Code. The purpose of Section 906 is to develop an evidence-based system of justice where cases are tried before a judge based on testimonial, physical, or documentary evidence with a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof. Most terrorism cases are prosecuted under traditional legal statutes that are used for narcotics trafficking and organized crime, such as conspiracy and illegal possession of firearms authorized for exclusive use of the security forces. There are some specialized statutes that the Attorney General Office’s specialized Counterterrorism Unit uses, such as “rebellion” under Section 467 of Colombia’s Criminal Code, which criminalize “those who, through armed conflict, seek to overthrow the Constitutionally-enacted government of Colombia.” Other specialized statutes in the Criminal Code covering terrorism and related crimes include Articles 144, 340, and 343 – which criminalize terrorism, acts of terrorism, and participation in a terrorist organization; terrorism financing is a crime under Article 345.

The Attorney General Office’s specialized Counterterrorism Unit has prosecutors assigned at the national level in Bogota, and in regions of conflict throughout the country. The unit has developed a great deal of expertise in investigating and prosecuting acts of terrorism and insurgency with the Attorney General’s own Technical Criminal Investigative Body, Colombia’s National Police (CNP), and the country’s military forces. The Attorney General’s Office also has specialized prosecutors embedded with CNP anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion “GAULA” units throughout the country to handle kidnapping-for-ransom and extortion cases in real-time. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) assisted the National Judicial Police Council – presided over by the Attorney General and including members of the CNP and other agencies with investigative authority – in establishing a Standards and Training Commission to develop minimum standards for investigators, forensic experts, and criminal analysts. Colombia also worked on securing international accreditation for its forensic laboratories.

The CNP has specialized counterterrorism units in the Intelligence, Anti-Kidnapping, and Judicial Police Directorates, all with advanced investigation techniques and crisis response capabilities. Law enforcement units display clear and effective command and control within each organization. These specialized law enforcement units are properly equipped and supported with relevant training. Counterterrorism missions are demarcated to a limited extent between law enforcement and military units. Colombia’s contemporary military and law enforcement units have an improved record of accountability and respect for human rights. There is room for improvement in interagency cooperation and sharing of terrorism-related information. No single agency has jurisdiction over all terrorism-related investigations and post-incident response, sometimes resulting in poor information sharing and cooperation.

In 2015, Colombian authorities continued to operate military task forces to enhance coordination in combating terrorism. The CNP managed fusion centers to ensure all operational missions coordinate intelligence, investigations, and operations under the command of regional police commanders. Additionally, the National Police Intelligence Directorate continued to operate a 24-hour Citizen Security Center tasked with detecting, deterring, and responding to terrorist attacks, among other crimes.

Colombian border security remained an area of vulnerability. Law enforcement officers faced the challenge of working in areas with porous borders and difficult topography plagued by the presence of illegal armed groups and illicit drug cultivation and trafficking. The CNP lacked the manpower to enforce uniform policies for vehicle or passenger inspections at land border crossings. Biometric and biographic screening was conducted only at international airports. The Colombian government does not use advance Passenger Name Records. Of a total force of 180,000 officers, the CNP has only 1,500 officers assigned to Customs Enforcement (air, land, and seaports and borders) duties.

Colombia remained a key transit point for the smuggling of third-country nationals who may seek to enter the United States illegally. Porous borders with Ecuador and Venezuela facilitate the movements of third-country nationals through Colombia, and existing maritime narcotics smuggling routes facilitate their onward movement to Central America. While Colombian Immigration regularly detains third-country nationals who have entered the country illegally, the entity lacks both the personnel and enforcement authority to adequately respond to this threat, and the financial resources to repatriate citizens to their home countries via air. The Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating corruption by airport officials suspected of letting criminals travel with forged documents. At the end of 2015, five Colombian Immigration officials were facing corruption charges.

Colombia continued cooperation and information sharing with the Panamanian National Border Service, while improved relations with neighboring Ecuador led to some increased cooperation on law enforcement issues. However, starting in August, Venezuela closed the majority of its border with Colombia, deported more than 1,900 Colombians and deployed extra troops in the border region. In addition, more than 20,000 Colombians “self-deported” from Venezuela. Colombia and Venezuela have since agreed to improve coordinated security and law enforcement efforts, including expanding the Bi-National Joint Command and Control Center to include a Bi-National Center for Fighting Transnational Organized Crime, increasing troops along the border, and considering proposals for maritime and fluvial cooperation. However, the border closures remained in place at the end of the year.

Colombian authorities captured, killed, or arrested several high-profile perpetrators of terrorist acts in 2015:

  • In January, the military captured Carlos Andres Bustos Cortez (alias Richard), the second in command of the FARC’s Teofilo Forero mobile column in central-southwest Colombia, accused of engineering terrorist attacks against police stations, buses, shops, and electrical infrastructure.
  • In March, the CNP worked with the Attorney General’s Office and military to capture five members of a criminal organization the ELN had reportedly hired to place and detonate explosives in Bogota.
  • On May 21, a Colombian military aerial bombardment targeting the FARC’s 29th Front killed 26 FARC fighters in Cauca department, the biggest blow to the FARC in a single attack in several years.
  • In October, Colombian authorities arrested Jairo Alirio Puerta Peña (alias Omar or Cuñado), a FARC member allegedly linked to massacres in Bojaya, Choco department in 2002 and Pueblo Bello, Antioquia department that left hundreds of civilians dead, as well as an attack on a helicopter that killed a number of soldiers in 2000.
  • In December, Colombia’s Supreme Court approved the extradition to the United States of FARC member Octavio Orrego (alias Sebastián) for kidnapping the three Americans in 2003 and killing another American five years later. President Santos denied the extradition, however, based on the ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC.

While kidnappings have declined in recent years, they remained a threat, especially in rural and insurgent-affected portions of Colombia. Organized extortion networks inhibited economic growth, displaced civilians, and subverted the rule of law where they were active, and the alleged failure of victims to accede to extortion demands was regularly cited as the cause for terrorist attacks. The CNP Anti-Kidnapping and Anti-Extortion Directorate have an international kidnapping unit to address kidnappings involving foreign nationals.

Law enforcement cooperation between Colombia and the United States remained strong. Evidence sharing and joint law enforcement operations occurred in a fluid and efficient manner.

Colombia continued to participate in the Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance program. The program provided instruction and resources to assist Colombia in building advanced, self-sustaining CNP capabilities to secure borders from terrorist transit, to investigate terrorists and terrorist incidents, and to protect critical infrastructure. Colombia continued to establish itself as a regional provider of law enforcement and counterterrorism training, particularly with regard to anti-kidnapping efforts and dignitary protection.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Colombia is a member of the Financial Action Task Force of Latin America, a FATF-style regional body. Colombia stands out as a regional leader in the fight against terrorism financing, and has become a key part of a regional financial intelligence unit initiative aimed at strengthening information sharing among Latin American countries. Colombia’s financial intelligence unit, Unidad de Informacion y Analisis Financiero, is a member of the Egmont Group, a global association of financial intelligence units. On April 15-16, more than 90 prosecutors and investigators from the Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Panama, Paraguay, and the United States met in Cartagena for the first U.S. Department of Justice Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training (OPDAT) Regional Counterterrorism Workshop focused on safeguarding the financial system in Latin America from abuse by terrorist organizations, including Hizballah, FARC, and ELN. A second OPDAT Regional Counterterrorism Workshop focusing on Terrorism Financing in Free Trade Zones in Latin America took place in Panama City, Panama in late October, with participation from seven countries, including Colombia. On November 13, OPDAT hosted a one-day seminar on Terrorism Financing and Terrorism-Related Money Laundering in Barranquilla, attended by approximately 42 Colombian prosecutors and investigators.

For further information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes:

Countering Violent Extremism: Colombia employed a strong and modern multi-agency approach to countering radicalization to violence and violent extremism, with a focus on encouraging individual members and entire units of the FARC and ELN to demobilize and reintegrate into society. In 2015, the number of FARC and ELN members who demobilized decreased slightly. The demobilization and reintegration programs provide medical care, psychological counseling, education benefits, technical training, and job placement assistance for demobilized combatants. In order to receive benefits, demobilized combatants must check in monthly with program managers. Recidivism rates were estimated at between seven and 20 percent.

The Colombian armed forces and police employed a number of fixed and mobile radio transmitters to broadcast strategic messaging to individuals considering leaving the FARC or ELN. Such messaging was also seen in print, television, and alternative media. The Colombian military and police employed the same media forms to counter FARC and ELN recruitment efforts. Additionally, the Ministry of Defense organized highly publicized festivals and social events with celebrity participation to discourage the recruitment of vulnerable youth. Moreover, with international community support, the government’s Inter-Institutional Committee for the Prevention of Recruitment of Children supported numerous recruitment prevention initiatives all over the country reaching more than 500,000 children at high risk. The Committee also worked with mayors to include prevention of recruitment activities in their development plans.

International and Regional Cooperation: Colombia is a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum and is actively involved in the UN, OAS and its Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, the Pacific Alliance, and the Union of South American Nations. The CNP operates an INTERPOL office of approximately 70 analysts, agents, and support staff. Colombia also led the creation of the American Police Community (Ameripol) in 2007, and helped found the Latin American and Caribbean Community of Police Intelligence in 2005, whose Technical Secretariat is based in Bogota.

Colombia is becoming a leader in providing security training and assistance to other countries in the region. The CNP and military continued to operate schools that train security personnel from around the region. In 2015, Colombia conducted 118 security trainings for more than 2,864 non-Colombian individuals – a significant increase over 2014 – on citizen security, crime prevention and monitoring, military and police capacity building, anti-kidnapping, anti-extortion, hostage negotiation, and cybersecurity training. Colombia also provided judicial training to regional judges and prosecutors handling drug trafficking and terrorism cases, offered basic and advanced helicopter training to pilots from countries throughout Latin America, and maintained its elite Lancero and Jungla Special Forces courses open to students from other countries.