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Who is responsible for the Bogota, Colombia bombing this week?

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Ricardo Mazalan/AP

(Read caption) Police and firefighters work at the scene after a bomb exploded in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, May 15.

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• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

While the Marxist rebels the FARC appear to be the most likely culprits behind the May 15 assassination attempt on Colombia's former Interior and Justice Minister, Colombia's far-right arguably also had good reason to mastermind such an attack.

A security video of the attack, now in possession of the Attorney General's investigative arm, the CTI, details exactly how the incident played out. The video shows a man carrying a supermarket bag walking down Caracas Avenue in northern Bogota. He casually passes a stationary black armored vehicle carrying former Interior Minister Fernando Londoño, and attaches a device to the left side of the vehicle near the fuel tank before fleeing. According to Caracol Radio, the driver of the car was told of the device and opened the door to check. Upon doing so, the device was detonated, killing him and a bodyguard instantly, and injuring at least 50 others, among them Londoño.

Londoño is one of Colombia's more divisive figures. A staunch right-wing ally of former President Alvaro Uribe, he served briefly as Interior and Justice Minister from 2002-2003. Since leaving government he became a radio personality, hosting his own show titled "The Hour of Truth," in which he frequently lambasted President Juan Manuel Santos for his soft security policies and suggestions of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), whom he labelled "terrorists" and "murderers," reported the AP. These views had resulted in him receiving death threats from the guerrilla group, something the government has confirmed in the wake of the attack.

The head of Bogota's Metropolitan Police, General Luis Eduardo Martinez, was quick to assign blame for the bomb, stating, "What I can confirm with bluntness, with vehemence, and with a lot of sorrow for our fatherland is that behind [the attack] are the FARC terrorists, the mad, the unhinged rebels."

The guerrillas are similarly thought to be responsible for planting another bomb in Colombia's capital, which was disabled in a car outside a police station in southern Bogota just hours before the attack on Londoño. It would be a remarkable coincidence if the two events were unrelated, making it highly likely one group is responsible for both. The FARC are clearly the prime suspects, though analysis of the details surrounding the case suggest more then one hypothesis.

Assessing the FARC's Culpability

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Although the frequency of FARC bomb attacks in Colombia's cities has diminished over the last decade, the rebels have long relied on this tactic. The most infamous case came in February 2003 when a car loaded with 200 kilograms of explosives detonated underneath the exclusive El Nogal social club in Bogota, killing 36 and injuring 200 more. Although the FARC officially denied involvement in the bombing, e-mails recovered in 2008 from the computers of slain FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias "Raul Reyes," implicated the rebels, with Reyes apparently praising the success of the attack.

The last notable bomb attack in the capital attributed to the FARC came in 2010 when a car bomb was detonated outside the Caracol Radio offices soon after Santos became president. Nine people were injured.

This is not to say, of course, that the rebels have confined their operations to Bogota. The group has a proclivity for explosives, evidenced most recently by the devastating February bomb attack in the southwest port city of Tumaco that killed seven and injured up to 70 others.

The bomb detonated in the most recent Bogota attack was reportedly the first of its kind used in Colombia, according to director of the National Protection Unit Andres Villamizar, and is more strongly associated with the Basque nationalist group ETA and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, both of whom have been linked to the FARC in the past.

One question is why the FARC would elect to carry out such a high profile attack when the idea of peace talks with the Santos government is being tentatively broached, as this could arguably harm the guerrillas' negotiating position should talks ever be held. However, the attempt on Londoño could actually strengthen the FARC's position. Attacks in the nation's capital instill something like a national hysteria, and this could help increase both domestic and international pressure on the government to start peace talks. A FARC bomb attack like the one registered last week in the northeast Catatumbo region may also kill and injure many people, but it has none of the symbolic importance of an attack in the nation's seat of government. The Londoño attack could have also been intended to bolster the FARC's negotiating position as urban bombings are displays of their ability to significantly disrupt public order in Colombia's cities. 

Another possibility is that the attempt to kill Londoño was not ordered by the ruling Secretariat but rather came from further down the FARC's hierarchy, with the intention of striking a symbolic blow against one of the rebels' more outspoken critics. If this is the case, there are two rebel factions most likely to have orchestrated the bombing. The first, and most likely, is the FARC's Bogota militia, the Urban Network Antonio Nariño (Red Urbana Antonio Nariño- RUAN), which is controlled by the group's Eastern Bloc (guerrilla fighting division) and has been operating in the capital for many years. The second is the Teofilo Forero Mobile Column, one of the FARC's most powerful units. The Mobile Column is controlled by the Southern Bloc and was responsible for the El Nogal bombing in 2003.

Considering all of these factors – the FARC's history of using explosives, the urban bombing as a display of strength, and the identity of the target – it is hard to see another criminal group as having a stronger motive than the rebels. However, unlike General Martinez, President Santos has been hesitant to condemn the FARC for the attacks, instead stating that the government is for the moment unable to assign guilt to one group. This opens the possibility that the extreme-right could be suspects.

Why Not The FARC?

On the day of the attack, members of Colombia's Congress passed the sixth of eight scheduled debates on the "Framework for Peace," a heavily criticized constitutional amendment that essentially gives the government room for [manoeuvrings] in any future peace negotiations. This would be achieved by offering legal benefits and lenient sentences to demobilized paramilitaries and guerrillas. If the amendment becomes law it could also allow former guerrillas to become politicians.

This government initiative has angered the political right – among them Londoño – leading Alvaro Uribe to declare that it would do "enormous damage to democracy." The same group has also been extremely vocal in their displeasure with Santos' security policies, perceived as being far weaker than those of his predecessor Uribe.

The right's motive therefore would stem from wanting to harm Santos' security credentials, stall the amendment, and ultimately show that he has no control over security in Colombia. If that is the case, Londoño is, paradoxically, the perfect target. Attempting to assassinate a member of the political right would instantly place the spotlight on leftist rebels while having the desired effect of conveying a deteriorating security situation to the rest of the world. Even Londoño's daughter has stated that she is uncertain if it is the extreme-right or left who are culpable.

Conspiracy theories of the right attacking their own are not uncommon. In 1995, Conservative Party member Alvaro Gomez Hurtado was killed, with many assuming that the FARC were behind it. Years later, however, it became clear that the more likely culprits were in fact Gomez's political allies, who had him killed because he opposed some of their politics.

Londoño's case is very different from Gomez's, but as Gomez's murder demonstrates, Colombia's right could be willing to sacrifice one of their own if it achieved their political goals and increased pressure on the FARC. The Framework for Peace will likely never be accepted by conservatives in Colombia and they will not let it pass without a fight.

Ultimately, all the information released so far implicates the FARC most strongly. The guerrillas also have far more to gain from such an attack than their political opposites. Moreover, if the bomb used in the attack was indeed as advanced as the government claims, the FARC are far more likely to be able to obtain such a device than a group of disgruntled conservatives.

Until more information is released, however, conspiracy theories will likely continue. Despite the government's offer of nearly $300,000 as reward for information leading to the capture of those responsible, it could be some time before the true perpetrators are identified.

– Edward Foxis a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.

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