BOGOTA, Colombia – The death of at least one teenage girl in an airstrike on a jungle camp run by a group of drug traffickers has sparked outrage from Colombia’s Defense Ministry, which is under pressure to bring some armed groups into line.

Military authorities on Wednesday refused to disclose the names of the 12 people who were reportedly killed on March 2 when the air force bombed a camp in the southern province of Guaviare used by a group of cocaine smugglers.

It was an operation against narco-terrorists planning attacks against the population, the defence minister said,

Diego Molano,

said in an interview with W Radio.

The explosion took place while the President’s administration

Ivan Duquet

has been criticized by the New York-based Human Rights Watch and rural organizations for failing to stop drug gang violence against civilians. 133 community leaders were killed in 2020, up from 108 in 2019, according to a UN team working on cases in Colombia.

The defence minister refused to say how many of the dead were children until coroners have completed their examination of the bodies found. However, in an interview with Semana magazine, he admitted 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. Both children are currently in the care of the children’s home that Mr. Molano used to run.

The attorney general’s office, which is investigating the identities of those killed, declined to comment. In 2019, Guillermo Botero, then Minister of Defense, had to resign after a similar attack killed eight children between the ages of 12 and 17.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano at a press conference in Bogotá last week.

Photo:

Defence Minister/Columbia Reuters

Molano said that the criminal group, which was led by

Miguel Botas,

who also calls himself Gentile Duarte, recruits children by force and turns them into fighters.

Who is responsible for recruiting these young men and turning them into war machines? It is these organizations, not the national army, he said.

In another interview, Molano told Semana that although they are young, they are a threat to the community. But he added in this and other interviews that military intelligence did not know the children were in the camp before the attack.

Political opponents accuse Mr. Molano of justifying the killing of child soldiers.

This is the war machine that kills children, Mr. Minister, Senator Ivan Cepeda, a left-wing lawmaker, said in an interview.

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Mr. Molano could not be reached for comment. But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, he said the military plans to eliminate five criminal organizations, including the rebel group National Liberation Army and the Gulf Clan, and also destroy drug cultivation.

These are drug criminals killing community leaders, committing mass killings, he said, describing the violence in some rural areas of Colombia.

Mr. Botache’s group is such an organization. They were members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. But when the notorious FARC made peace with the state in 2016, its fighters remained in the jungle and managed the drug trade.

Shortly before their secession from the FARC, several of Mr. Botache’s lieutenants told the magazine during a visit to a camp in the jungle that they were reluctant to give up their control over farmers who produced coca, the basic ingredient of cocaine.

I don’t think I will leave the village, said one of them, Ivan Losada. We’ve never had so much power.

Email Juan Forero at [email protected] and Kehal Vias at [email protected]

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