BOGOTÁ, Colombia—The death of at least one teenage girl in an aerial bombardment of a jungle camp operated by a narco-trafficking group has touched off outrage aimed at Colombia’s Defense Ministry, which has been under pressure to bring a range of armed groups to heel.
Military authorities on Wednesday declined to publicly identify the 12 people they say were killed on March 2 when the air force bombed a camp in southern Guaviare province used by a cocaine-smuggling group.
“This was an operation against narco-terrorists that are planning attacks against the population,” the defense minister, Diego Molano, said in an interview with W Radio.
The bombing comes as the administration of President Iván Duque has been under fire from New York-based Human Rights Watch and rural community organizations for its inability to stop violence directed by narco-trafficking gangs against civilians. In 2020, 133 community leaders were slain, up from 108 in 2019, a United Nations team that works in Colombia on these cases said.
The defense minister declined to say how many of those who died were children until medical examiners complete an investigation on the bodies that have been recovered. But he acknowledged in an interview with Semana magazine that one of those killed was a 16-year-old girl and that two of the five people captured in the military operation were also minors. The two children are now in the care of child-welfare services, an agency Mr. Molano once headed.
The attorney general’s office, which is investigating the identities of those killed, declined to comment. In 2019, then-Defense Minister Guillermo Botero was forced to resign after eight children between the ages of 12 and 17 were killed in a similar strike.
Mr. Molano said that a criminal group led by Miguel Botache, who is also known by his alias of Gentil Duarte, forcibly recruits children and turns them into fighters.
“Who’s responsible for recruiting those youths and converting them into war machines? It’s those organizations, not the national army,” he said.
In a separate interview, Mr. Molano told Semana that “even though they’re youths, they are a threat to society.” But he added in that interview and others that military intelligence was unaware that children were at the camp ahead of the strike.
Political opponents accuse Mr. Molano of justifying the killings of child combatants.
“The war machine is that which kills kids, minister,” Sen. Iván Cepeda, a leftist lawmaker, said in a Twitter post.
Mr. Molano couldn’t be reached for comment. But in an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal, he said that the army is committed to destroying five criminal organizations, which include the National Liberation Army rebel group and the Gulf Clan, and eradicating drug crops.
“They are narco-criminals, who kill community leaders, who commit collective homicides,” he said, describing the violence that plagues some parts of rural Colombia.
Among those organizations is Mr. Botache’s group. They had been members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. But when the FARC, as it was known, made peace with the state in 2016, his fighters stayed in the jungle, trafficking drugs.
Just before they broke off from the FARC, several of Mr. Botaches lieutenants told the Journal in a jungle camp visit that they were reluctant to give up the control they had amassed over farmers who produce coca, cocaine’s raw ingredient.
“I don’t think I’ll be leaving the countryside,” said one of them, Ivan Lozada. “We’ve never had so much power.”
Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at email@example.com
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