By Steven Salisbury*
(FPRI) — On June 17, the eve of Father’s Day, an explosive device ripped through a women’s bathroom in Bogota’s upscale Centro Andino shopping mall, reportedly killing three women and wounding at least eight people. A young French woman who reportedly had helped a children’s school in a low-income Bogota neighborhood died in the blast, and her mother was injured, according to news reports.
Based in Bogota, I coincidentally walked by Centro Andino about an hour and a half before the explosion, which authorities called a terrorist act. A big question is if this bombing is a portend of more terrorist bombings to come in Colombia—sadly, it wouldn’t be surprising.
This bombing happened, ironically, as Colombia’s largest guerilla group, the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is in the process of disarming and integrating into legal civilian society, after waging 52 years of war. A revised version of a peace accord between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC—which critics say is cosmetic, but which Santos and the FARC insist is significant—was ratified by the Colombian Congress November 30, 2016, after voters in a nationwide “plebiscite” rejected the first version of the accord by about 50.2% to 49.7% in the balloting last October 2, with about 62% of the electorate in abstention.
It would be irresponsible to jump to unsubstantiated conclusions about the Centro Andino bombing as the police investigation moves forward. (Authorities have publicly released drawings intended to approximate the respective faces of two men of interest or possible material authors of the crime, according to some eyewitness descriptions of them, say news reports.) However, we can ask the following question: For whom could the terrorist bombing in the Centro Andino shopping mall supposedly benefit (in a perpetrator’s warped mind-set)?
The following is a list of potential suspects—though it is not necessarily meant to point a finger at any particular group or person, nor is it a list in order of presumed preponderance of suspicion:
- The Clan del Golfo (“Urabenos”) or another drug-trafficking or post-rightist-”paramilitary” group known as BACRIMs, a Colombian acronym for criminal bands? The Clan del Golfo has reportedly made public calls in the past to be included in some sort of dialogue with the Colombian government, alluding to peace dialogues that the FARC and Colombia’s still active, second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have had with the government. Bombing a major city in an upscale part of town where the “elite” and upper classes frequent would put pressure presumably where the perpetrator(s) would feel it counts—in the view of the perpetrator(s).
- The ELN? The Marxist ELN high command has repudiated in tweets the Centro Andino terrorist attack. But observers point out that the ELN is a “confederated” organization, with autonomy among its units. The ELN high command doesn’t appear to have full control over its entire organization, according to Colombian Defense Ministry sources, though ELN leaders claim that the ELN has tight unity.
- The FARC? The FARC has publicly condemned the Centro Andino bombing. The organization is currently working towards disarmament and integration into legal civilian society. Having signed a peace accord, it would seem to be counterintuitve that the FARC would be behind the Centro Andino bombing, or other terrorist acts. Moreover, if found culpable of being involved in criminal violation of the peace accord, FARC members could lose the peace accord’s “transitional justice” benefits, face ordinary jail time, or even extradition to other countries courts.
But could the FARC somehow be connected to “sending a message” that if the Colombian government doesn’t comply with the peace accord? The FARC is very capable of hitting the state and “oligarchy” where it most hurts, in the high-class parts of major cities.
Both the Colombian government and FARC have pointed the finger at each other at times, complaining about the issue of perceived or real non-compliance or delays on some things in the peace accord. Each side is stressing its own commitment and desire to comply with the peace accord, despite problems that pop up.
There could be a hypothesis—as some Colombian military officers floated to me in the past without evidence—that the FARC could perhaps surreptitiously continue contacts with outlawed armed groups (even with dissident FARC groups with which the FARC has publicly denounced and disassociated itself) with an aim to have some sort of option whereby armed action could conceivably be used as a pressure tool so that the Colombian government complies with the peace accord. The FARC has vehemently rejected that notion, though, and says that it is fully dedicated to peaceful solutions.
- Dissident FARC armed groups? It cannot be excluded as a possibility. But why would dissident FARC groups want to draw even more heat on themselves, when they seem to be concentrated on their own narcotics interests in remote jungle areas—unless supposedly like the Clan del Golfo, they would want to put pressure to enter into some sort of dialogue with Colombian government?
- Another guerrilla group, such as the new shadowy Revolutionary Movement of the People (MRP, in its Spanish initials)? Not much is known about this apparently tiny group that some Colombian authorities reportedly think might have come into existence around late 2015, or even what it is about, except for maybe some pamphlets under the name of the MRP alluding to Marxist-style for-the-poor, anti-rich/anti-elite rhetoric. It is reported to have or have had some supposedly tangential connection to ELN urban networks and to some extremists in Colombian universities.
There are some press reports of indications supposedly pointing toward alleged MRP involvement in the Centro Andino bombing, and some of these reports mention past small-scale urban bombings where the MRP is a suspect. But a document circulating in social media and identifying itself as being purportedly written by the MRP has denounced the Centro Andino bombing and denied any involvement in it. (So far, there is no independent confirmation of the document’s authenticity.)
- Right-wing extremists? They could perhaps have a motive for trying to undermine the peace accord—which they may see as undermining their own interests, say regarding issues of political or land reforms, etc—and the Centro Andino terrorist attack could perhaps be aimed (in this possible scenario) to distract a public into raising doubts about the FARC’s intentions for peace and the future.
- A disgruntled employee, an extortionist or a mentally deranged person?
- A “lone wolf,” either a Colombian national or non-Colombian inspired by whatever reason? Colombia hasn’t had a history of Islamic extremist-inspired terrorism. The possibility of a “lone wolf” seems to be remote in the Centro Andino bombing, given past and recent trends of terrorism in Colombia.
The above are just some hypotheses on possible suspects—nothing solid established, yet. And remember that any person in the women’s bathroom where the bomb exploded or nearby—whether dead, wounded or not—could in standard police procedure have to be checked out for being perhaps a possible suspect. But let’s not jump to conclusions.
I returned to Centro Andino Father’s Day at about 12:30 p.m. (the day after the bombing), and it was mostly empty. There was a very small smattering of people in its food court at that time. Knowing the resiliency and strength of Colombians, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Centro Andino crowded, again.
But the sad forecast is that the Centro Andino bombing will not be the final terrorist attack in Colombia.
About the author:
*Steve Salisbury is an FPRI Associate Scholar and freelance journalist and private consultant based in Bogota and an FPRI associate scholar. He has contributed articles to Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and other publications, and worked as a TV field producer on programs for the Discovery/Travel Channel, the History Channel and FOX News.
This article was published by FPRI