Yesterday morning, someone wearing a military uniform set off a car bomb near the Colombian military’s Nueva Granada War College in Bogotá. The explosion wounded twenty-three people. The head of Colombia’s army, Gen. Mario Montoya, was attending an event at the facility, but was unharmed.
"I imagine this has to be the FARC. I don’t see any other alternative," Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos told reporters shortly afterward. This morning, President Álvaro Uribe went still further. In response to the bombing, Uribe suspended contacts with the FARC, initiated weeks earlier, that were to lay the groundwork for a prisoner-exchange negotiation. The negotiations were to seek the release of sixty prominent individuals whom the guerrillas have held captive for several years. "The only way that now remains is to rescue the kidnapped people militarily," the president said.
But was the bomb truly the work of the FARC? It is certainly possible, but it doesn’t make sense for the guerrillas to carry out such a high-profile act at this particular time. In fact, there are good arguments to back up either hypothesis:
The FARC are responsible for the car bomb:
The FARC are not responsible for the car bomb:
- President Uribe claims that the government intercepted a telephone call from a FARC militia member, who left a message for top guerrilla leader Jorge Briceño ("Mono Jojoy") indicating that his orders had been carried out.
- The FARC leadership may have reasoned (poorly) that the bombing might bring prisoner-exchange negotiations closer by weakening public confidence in President Uribe’s "Democratic Security" policy.
- Several weeks ago, the army was shaken by accusations that army officers conspired to plant car bombs in Bogotá, pin the blame on the FARC, and get credit for discovering them. So soon after these revelations, it is unlikely that elements in the army would repeat the same type of stunt. Even if they were to plant a new car bomb, such elements would be unlikely to do it on the grounds of a military base, within close proximity of the army’s own commander.
- The U.S. and British governments have been warning for weeks that they had intelligence indicating an imminent attack in northern Bogotá. While neither government indicated who may have been plotting such an attack, it is safe to assume that the bulk of both governments’ intelligence effort is aimed at the FARC.
- The FARC leadership is anxious to free up to 500 of its veteran fighters from Colombian jails via a prisoner-exchange negotiation with the Colombian government. President Uribe had recently taken steps toward meeting some of the guerrillas’ pre-conditions for such a negotiation; the FARC was closer than it had been in years to securing the release of its jailed comrades. Why would the FARC jeopardize that now with a terrorist act in the heart of Bogotá?
- The Scandinavian-based website ANNCOL, which posts FARC communiqués, interviews with FARC leaders, and sympathetic portrayals of the group, has posted an article denying that the guerrillas played a role. "Could this be a new case of auto-atentados to clean up the ‘deteriorated image’ of the security forces?" the article asks. "Is this a new obstacle thrown in the way of the exchange of prisoners of war?"
- Colombia’s Army is currently weathering a scandal for planting and setting off car bombs, and trying to pin the blame on the FARC.
- The bombing killed nobody, and failed to harm Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, who was in a meeting nearby. This may have been luck – or it could be that the intention was to terrorize while minimizing military casualties, a hypothesis that would point away from the FARC.
- Bomb experts tell the Colombian press that the explosive used in the attack, R-1, is highly sophisticated, difficult to use, and has not been employed before in an attack in Colombia.
- In a debate about paramilitary power on Wednesday night in Colombia’s congress, evidence was revealed that a past attack blamed on the FARC – a 2005 car-bomb that nearly killed rightist Senator Germán Vargas Lleras – may in fact have been carried out by paramilitaries and army personnel.
Though either hypothesis is plausible at this point, the Colombian government is apparently certain that the FARC set off yesterday’s bomb. It is so certain that President Uribe quickly ended this month’s halting move toward dialogue, and used some of the strongest rhetoric we have heard from him in many months.
Did the FARC – against any possible conception of its own self-interest – set off yesterday’s bomb? Or are the guerrillas being falsely accused, as happened in May 2000 when the government suspended peace talks after extortionists with no guerrilla ties killed a woman by placing a bomb around her neck?
It is imperative that an investigation of yesterday’s incident move quickly to determine what really happened. It would be tragic to see hopes for dialogue dim for the wrong reasons.
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