BOGOTÁ — Colombia’s sprawling capital city is on high alert following two separate but possibly related bomb attacks Tuesday.
Despite official statements blaming the May 15 attacks on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, neither FARC nor any other militant group has claimed responsibility for the car bombing in northern Bogotá that left two people dead and 53 injured. Among the wounded was former Interior Minister Fernando Londoño, who is recovering in a local hospital after surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel ledged near his clavicle.
That blast — heard across this city of seven million — occurred only hours after police defused another explosive device weighing 38 kilograms near city police headquarters. It also took place the same day Colombia’s long-awaited free trade agreement with the United States went into effect after years of negotiations, enhancing the country’s image as a place to do business.
“State security institutions will not rest, but will make every effort to establish who is responsible for this act that not only took the lives of two bodyguards but also gravely injured Dr. Londoño and affected more than 40 other citizens,” said Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón.
Blast from the past
Colombia is no stranger to violence and bloodshed, but the manner in which the second bomb was triggered harked back to the dark days of the 1980s, when Bogotá was off-limits and where businesses feared to tread.
Gen. Luís Martínez, commander of the Bogotá police force, said the tactic applied by its unknown perpetrators is a first of its kind in Colombia.
Londoño, an outspoken critic of the FARC, had finished his “Hour of Truth” show at Radio Super and was heading for the gym when two unidentified men on a motorcycle approached his vehicle as it was stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Calle 74 and Avenida Caracas. The passenger got off, walked around the side of the car and placed a magnetic bomb, resembling a briefcase, on the front left wheel arch and driver’s door.
Fleeing to the other side of Avenida Caracas, the culprit ditched the wig and cap disguise he had been wearing and escaped on his associate’s idling motorcycle. The limpet mine-style bomb was detonated, instantly killing Londoño’s driver as well as a nearby member of his police escort. Given the nature of this busy intersection and its proximity to schools and universities, it’s a miracle that more people didn’t die in the attack.
“Every government has its intelligence agencies, ministries of defense and its security forces, and we are turning to our allies to open a dialogue and exchange information to be more effective in our investigations,” Pinzón told reporters.
Analyst: Bogotá still not safe from terrorists
Martínez said there is “convincing evidence” the attack was carried out by FARC terrorists, and that all efforts were being made to track him down. However, President Juan Manuel Santos — who in the wake of the bombing cancelled a trip to Cartagena to celebrate the FTA — has indicated that no evidence as yet shows the two bombs were in any way related.
Even so, the twin incidents brought back memories of the FARC bombing that destroyed the headquarters of Caracol Radio in August 2010.
“The incidents show that the perpetrators are able to coordinate attacks in Bogotá, the core of Colombia’s security imperatives, and to strike at targets protected by a security detail, as Londoño was,” said a Stratfor Global Intelligence spokesman. “That level of capability in Bogotá will be a concern for Colombian security forces, since the cities have remained relatively free from attacks even though the conflict has heated up, especially in the past year.”
For now, Bogotá remains on edge, police checkpoints have been established at various strategic points around the city, and authorities are asking citizens to report anything suspicious. Riding pillion on a motorcycle has been outlawed until further notice to prevent any repeat attacks of this type, following an emergency meeting between Santos and Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro.
Targeting of Londoño is no surprise
That Londoño — Colombia’s minister of interior and justice from 2002 to 2004 during President Alvaro Uribe’s first term — was a target has come as little surprise to Andrés Villamizar, director of the National Protection Unit, which provides security to former government officials.
“Londoño was continually under threat for his past as a minister in Uribe’s government and for his current work as a journalist,” said Villamizar. Most of the threats against Londoño, he said, were believed to be from the FARC, given his conservative stance and closeness to the military.
Villamizar added that the bomb used in this attack is strongly associated with the Basque nationalist group ETA and the Provisional Irish Republican Army — both of which have been linked to FARC in the past. “Given 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,” noted Bogotá-based security analyst Edward Fox of Insight Crime.
Santos has offered a 500 million peso ($280,000) reward for any information leading to the arrest of those involved in the incident. But as the Stratfor official suggests, “the attacks are a direct message to President Santos that increased operations by security forces in Colombia will be met with attacks in urban centers such as Bogotá.”
And while members of the Technical Investigation Team comb through the debris, determine the type of bomb and pore over close-circuit TV footage of the crime scene, politicians are busy reassuring the public that no stone will remain unturned. Said Petro, the city’s mayor: “These acts of hate and vengeance must not and cannot dominate Bogotá.”