The Colombian Navy launched Operation Armor (Operación Armadura) to close narcotrafficking routes organized armed groups clashed over in the Pacific coast of Colombia. The strategy that kicked off in mid-August 2018 seeks to increase the Navy’s presence in Chocó department, near the Panamanian border.
A group of 350 units of the Pacific Naval Force—consisting of elements of the 21st and 23rd Marine Battalions, the Second Marine Brigade, Bahía Solando Coast Guard Station, and troops of the Navy’s Unified Action Group for Personal Freedom (GAULA, in Spanish)—deployed to Juradó municipality in the Pacific coast of Chocó. In addition, the Navy mobilized three ships from the Caribbean Naval Force and receives air support from the Pacific Naval Aviation Group.
“The border [with Panama] is a highly important strategic area for logistics support of any illegal group,” Navy Vice Admiral Orlando Romero Reyes, commander of the Pacific Naval Force, told Diálogo. “It can be used to smuggle weapons, drugs, and supplies. It’s also a hard-to-reach area for Navy and Armed Forces’ long-term stay.”
Impact on the community
The fight for territorial control among the various organized armed groups in Chocó’s coast and the dense Darién jungle on the border with Panama affected indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in the region. Turf wars between organized armed groups who want to take over strategic corridors previously controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia increased since July, resulting in several injured citizens and the death of a minor.
According to a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published September 1st, the clashes affected 12 indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities from Bahía Solano and Juradó municipalities in Chocó department. The families are confined, have limited mobility and access to goods and services, or find themselves in temporary shelters, the report indicated.
In early August, authorities held security councils in the municipalities of Juradó, Bahía Solano, and Nuquí, where communities reported the incidents. The meetings prompted an increased security presence to guarantee locals’ safety.
“It encouraged us to create new initiatives, make some changes, and intensify efforts,” Vice Adm. Romero said. “That’s when we decided to launch Operation Armor.”
Increased military presence
To meet the goal, the Navy Marine Corps trained service members who deployed to Bahía Solano and Juradó as a permanent force, and assigned about 60 additional units to the Second Marine Brigade. Unified Navy command posts in Bahía Solano, Nuquí, and Juradó were also reactivated to conduct and oversee operations.
“We have armed and unarmed efforts, armed efforts such as the significant increase in military presence to protect populations,” Navy Lieutenant Colonel José Amaya Barrera, commander of the 23rd Marine Battalion based in Bahía Solano, told Diálogo. “Land and maritime units also take part in the effort, with logistics support such as coast guard units that conduct maritime patrols, and escort fishermen and coastal vessels supplying townships and municipalities in our area of responsibility.”
GAULA elements in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department, on the Pacific coast, support the operation by handling extortions reported in conflict areas. “There is a unit specialized in kidnapping and extortion, GAULA, which operates against these threats, such as human trafficking, and works on prevention with all our merchants under the campaign ‘I [do not pay, I] report,’” Lt. Col. Amaya said.
The operation started strong and dealt a blow to the structure of the Clan del Golfo, neutralizing two leaders. On August 24th, authorities announced the capture of alias Ernesto, who controlled the group’s actions in the Pacific, and alias Platino, who led narcotrafficking operations.
“During the last follow-up meeting [on September 11th], we analyzed the issue specifically in Juradó municipality, and Chocó’s ombudsman and attorney general recognized the advances in security,” Lt. Col. Amaya said. “We spent late night hours carrying out preventive work at piers and checking airstrips, so they would only be used for legal activities.”
In addition to the arrests, authorities seized 1,454 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride and 223 kg of marijuana during the operation. Authorities also confiscated logistics equipment, supplies, and speedboat fuel the organized armed groups used in their illegal operations.
“Most importantly, Operation Armor will join the international strategy […] to prevent drugs from getting to Mexico and Central America,” Vice Adm. Romero said. “We agreed with the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Ecuador, and Costa Rica to close that sea corridor.”