Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.
Columbia – Three women were killed and nine wounded after an explosive device detonated in a restroom in a busy upscale shopping centre in Colombia's capital on the 17 Jun 17. The Andino shopping mall in an exclusive area of Bogota was evacuated after the blast, which occurred around 1700 hrs local (2200 hrs GMT) in the women's toilet. The commercial centre was packed with people buying gifts ahead of Father's Day celebrations on the 18 Jun 17. Police said the device was placed in a toilet bowl in the second-floor restroom. President Juan Manuel Santos denounced the attack and promised to bring those responsible to justice. "We won't let terrorism frighten us," Santos said from inside the shopping centre. "Bogotanos should feel safe and protected. We won't let our guard down but we mustn't panic. That's what terrorists want." One of the victims was a 23-year-old French woman who had been volunteering in a poor area of the city, Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa told reporters. Streets surrounding the shopping centre were closed and buildings cleared as ambulances raced to the scene and security officials tried to establish who was responsible for the blast. Bomb squad specialists combed the area for additional devices. Santos ordered an investigation into the incident. Security has improved in Bogota over the past decade as police and military increased surveillance and put more armed officials on the streets. At one time all bags were checked at the entrance to shopping malls, but that has been vastly scaled back in recent years. Sniffer dogs still check cars at parking facilities in the capital. A peace accord signed last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) raised confidence bomb attacks might cease. The country's second-largest insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), in Feb 17 exploded a bomb in Bogota, injuring dozens of police. The Marxist ELN, currently negotiating peace with the government, in a tweet condemned the attack against civilians. Authorities said there have been threats of attacks in Bogota by the so-called Gulf Clan, a group of former right-wing paramilitary fighters who traffic drugs. El Clan del Golfo (the gulf's clan), formerly called Los Urabeños or Clan Úsuga, is a Colombian, drug trafficking neo-paramilitary group involved in the Colombian armed conflict. It is considered the most powerful neo-paramilitary group in Colombia with some 3,000 members in the inner circle of the organization. Their main source of income is drug trafficking. In late 2011 Los Urabeños declared war on Los Rastrojos over the control of the drug trade in Medellín. Los Urabeños is one of the organizations that appeared after the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. One of the many groups made up of former mid-level paramilitary leaders, the Clan have caused homicide rates to skyrocket in Colombia’s northern departments. The Urabeños, also known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, is currently one of the more ambitious and ruthless of Colombia’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). The group’s power base is in the Antioquia, Chocó and Córdoba departments, and they also have presence in La Guajira, Cesar, Santander and in major cities including Medellin and Bogotá. The Urabeños bring a military discipline to all their operations, and are well consolidated on the Caribbean coast, contracting local street gangs to act as informants, hit men or drug distributors. By avoiding infighting and paying their recruits well, the group has at times been able to steal territory from the Rastrojos, their most hated rival. "The Clan del Golfo" before named "Los Urabeños" from Urabá, the north-western region near the Panamanian border highly prized by drug traffickers as it offers access to the Caribbean and Pacific coast, from the departments of Antioquia and Chocó. However, the origins of the group can be traced elsewhere, in Colombia’s Eastern Plains, where Daniel Rendón Herrera, better known as ‘Don Mario,’ once handled finances for the paramilitary group Bloque Centauros. Cocaine traffickers had long competed with the FARC for territory and influence in the Eastern Plains. In 1997, top paramilitary commanders Carlos and Vicente Castaño began sending troops to the area in order to co-opt the drug business from the guerrillas. In 2001, the Castaños sold one of their armed groups, later known as Bloque Centauros, to another warlord, Miguel Arroyave, allegedly for US$7 million. It was Arroyave who convinced Rendón Herrera to come work for him. Under Rendón’s supervision, the Centauros became one of the wealthiest factions within the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombian (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). The Centauros trafficked cocaine, propped up local politicians, extorted ranchers and farmers, and collected security taxes for products ranging from alcohol to petroleum. But the Centauros soon began clashing with a rival paramilitary group, the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Casanare (Autodefensas Campesinas del Casanare – ACC). The ACC is one of the oldest vigilante groups in Colombia, headed by Héctor Germán Buitrago Parada, alias ‘Martín Llanos.’ It was allegedly ACC fighters who first began calling the Centauros “those from Urabá,” “Paisas,” or “Urabeños,” all references to the Antioquia region where many of the paramilitaries hailed from. By 2004, the fierce war between the ACC and the Centauros had left an estimated 3,000 people dead. Rendón fled the Eastern Plains in June after a falling out with Arroyave. Rendón then found refuge in the Urabá region, where his brother Freddy, alias ‘El Aleman,’ headed his own paramilitary group, the Bloque Elmer Cardenas. Shortly afterwards, Arroyave was ambushed and killed by his former allies, including Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias ‘Cuchillo.’ When Freddy Rendón chose to demobilize in 2006, his brother ‘Don Mario’ seized the opportunity to expand his drug trafficking operations in the Urabá gulf. He recruited many of the fighters once under Freddy’s command, as well as ex-members from the defunct AUC. From Urabá, the DTO deployed go-fast boats loaded with cocaine to Central America or the Caribbean, with some estimates putting it at 10 to 20 boats per week. By 2008, Rendón Herrera was one of the richest and most-wanted traffickers in Colombia. As the AUC blocs were officially demobilized, this new paramilitary groups called themselves Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces or Don Mario's Black Eagles in an attempt to legitimize their actions. Rendón attempted to expand his empire, moving into southern Córdoba, the Lower Cauca region in northern Antioquia and even venturing into Medellin, long controlled by the feared Oficina de Envigado. Rendón’s men soon began clashing with the Paisas, then a rural, armed wing of the Oficina. Police blamed Rendón’s organization for at least 3,000 homicides between 2007 and 2009. On April 15, 2009, a team of 200 police commandos captured Rendón on a farm in rural Urabá. Since Rendón’s capture, the remnants of his organization have fallen under control of the Usuga-David brothers, Juan de Dios and Dario Antonio, two former mid-ranking paramilitaries believed to have worked with Rendón since the 1990s. The two started out with an estimated 250 men following Rendón’s arrest, and have since managed to grow exponentially. On the 1 Jan 11, Juan de Dios Usuga-David was killed in a police raid on a ranch in Choco department. In a surprising display of strength, the Gulf's Clan organized a series of coordinated strikes protesting his deaths in northern Antioquia, handing out fliers which referred to the group's former name, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces. The Gulf's Clan also signalled their intention to respond aggressively to their leader's death when they publicly offered a $1,000 reward for each police officer killed in Antioquia, a public relations strategy best associated with kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Organization and structure
The Gulf's Clan rely on at least 1,200 members in their top level of command. Their base is near and around the Urabá gulf, including the Tierralta and Valencia municipalities in Cordoba and the eleven municipalities in the Urabá sub-region in Antioquia. The top command deploys teams of trained, armed men to rural areas vital for drug-trafficking operations. These include zones with natural sea ports along the Caribbean coast, or areas where coca base must be bought, like Caucasia or Tarazá in Antioquia (InSight has also heard reports of an Urabeño cell in Medellin). These cells then attempt to recruit local informants, especially collaborators who can inform them of the actions of the security forces. The Gulf's Clan are also known to contract local street gangs who help with retail and mid-level distribution of cocaine, extortion and select assassination. By “sponsoring” other low-level gangs, this group have been able to maintain small, select cells of highly disciplined men in the field, responsible for ever larger swathes of territory. There are also indications that the group has been successful enough in terms of recruitment to move into other key territories like Barrancabermeja, Santander, one of Colombia’s oil towns long prized by the Rastrojos. When it comes to drug trafficking, the Gulf's Clan are similar to rival DTOS like the Rastrojos or the Paisas in that they are uninterested in controlling the entire chain of drug production. But they have not proved as adept as the Rastrojos when it comes to brokering key alliances with other major players in the drug trade. The Gulf's Clan will buy coca base from the FARC, but the two groups will not collaborate much further than that. What is helping the Clan compete so far is their military discipline: so far they have proved immune to the kind of infighting tearing apart the Paisas or the Oficina. The Gulf's Clan may yet prove themselves capable of expanding their operations beyond the Caribbean coast and northern Colombia, if they are not derailed by their war with the Rastrojos.
On the 5 Jan 12 the organization launched an armed strike in much of northern Colombia to protest the killing of their leader 'Giovanni'. The strike completely paralysed several Colombian departments as shopkeepers and travellers were told to stay at home or face 'consequences'. In 2012 the Gulf's Clan also got into conflict with The Office of Envigado over the drug trade in Medellín. In 2017 the Gulf's Clan begun a "pistol plan" against the police officers because one of their leaders was killed.
Columbia/ELN – Two Dutch journalists were abducted in Colombia in an area near the Venezuelan border. Derk Bolt and Eugenio Follender went missing at the weekend of the 17/18 Jun 17 in Catatumbo, a region where several armed groups operate, including the left-wing ELN. They were searching for the mother of a Colombian child adopted in the Netherlands a few years ago. The Colombian authorities tweeted a demand "for the immediate release of the two men." Last year the ELN rebel group kidnapped a Spanish journalist and several Colombians in the same area. All were later released. The Colombian army says it has sent specialist forces to the region to search for the Dutchmen. They work for the Dutch TV programme Spoorloos, which traces lost relatives. Derk Bolt is a presenter and Eugenio Follender a cameraman. The ELN is the second largest left-wing guerrilla group in Colombia, behind the FARC. The FARC signed a peace deal with the government last November and are already disarming and preparing to enter civilian life. The ELN only started peace talks in Feb 17. The group has insisted on a bilateral ceasefire but the government says this would be conditional on the ELN ending kidnapping - something that has not yet happened. During the negotiations there have been military operations against that insurgent group as well as attacks against security forces by the ELN.
Mexico – At least 11 people, including four children, have been killed in Mexico's Veracruz in the latest spurt of violence linked to criminal gangs. Among the 24 Jun 17 victims were a federal police commander and two agents, who were ambushed by armed men in the city of Cardel, in Veracruz, one of the country's most violence-ridden states. "Organised crime has sparked a serious problem of violence in Veracruz," Miguel Angel Yunes, the Veracruz governor, said in a statement, calling the 24 Jun 17 violence "an act of terrible barbarism". In the nearby city of Coatzacoalcos, the dead included two adults and four children who died in a hail of bullets as they ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant. Authorities said two women were fatally shot in the town of Orizaba, also in Veracruz. Much of the violence is the result of turf battles between two rival drug trafficking gangs, the Zetas and Jalisco Nueva Generacion. Mexico registered more than 2,000 murders in May, a record high for any month since 1997, underlining the country's struggles to deal with the trade in narcotics. There were 2,186 murder investigations in May, according to the latest government statistics released on the 21 Jun 17 surpassing the previous monthly high of 2,131 in May 2011. Some cases may include multiple homicides, and the number of murder victims reported in May was 2,452, the highest for any month in a separate series of data that only goes back to 2014. The deadliest state was Guerrero, in the south, a hotspot in Mexico's war on drugs where 216 people were killed. Murder investigations in the first five months of the year totalled 9,916 cases, up nearly 30 percent from the same period in 2016. The violence surrounding the multibillion-dollar drug trade has contributed to a slump in the popularity of President Enrique Pena Nieto, and could undermine support for his Institutional Revolutionary Party in next year's presidential race.
United States – A police officer was stabbed in the neck at the Flint airport by a man with a knife in what authorities are investigating as a possible act of terrorism. The suspect was immediately taken into custody on the 21 Jun 17 and hours later federal prosecutors announced the Canadian man was charged with committing violence at an airport. They identified him as Amor Ftouhi of Quebec province. The criminal complaint says Ftouhi stabbed Lieutenant Jeff Neville with a large knife and declared "Allahu Akbar", the Arabic phrase for "God is great." The FBI, which is leading the investigation, said Ftouhi said something along the lines of "you have killed people in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and we are all going to die". The FBI added in the criminal complaint that Ftouhi asked an officer who subdued him why he didn't kill him. Neville is in stable condition after initially being in critical condition. The attack just before 1000 hrs local (1400 hrs GMT) at Bishop International Airport prompted an evacuation and extra security elsewhere in the Michigan city which lies about 100km north-west of Detroit. Michigan State Police Lieutenant Mike Shaw said "everything is on the table" as far as a motive for the attack. Witnesses described seeing the suspect led away in handcuffs by police, Neville bleeding and a knife on the ground. "The cop was on his hands and knees bleeding from his neck," Ken Brown told The Flint Journal. "I said they need to get him a towel." US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement any attack on law enforcement officers will be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law". "I've just spoken with officials at the FBI about the attack on a police officer in Flint, Michigan that is being investigated as an act of terrorism," said Sessions. "President Trump has prioritised the safety of all law enforcement officers, and this Department of Justice is committed to that goal."
United States/Syria – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be preparing a chemical-weapons attack that would result in the "mass murder" of civilians, the White House has said while warning Syria's government that it would pay a "heavy price" if it goes ahead. The White House on the 26 Jun 17 said US intelligence observed potential preparations similar to those in the run-up to a deadly chemical attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Apr 17 that the US blamed on Assad's forces. More than 70 people were killed in that attack, including many children. The US launched missile strikes against a Syrian air base in response. "The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children," Sean Spicer, White House spokesperson, said in a statement. "The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its 4 Apr 17 chemical weapons attack." Assad has strongly denied the allegation that his forces used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, describing it as a "100 percent fabrication". Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Gaziantep for al-Jazeera, said the public warning even took some military leaders in the US by surprise. "Analysts have said that it is not common for [the White House] to make a public warning like this instead of through diplomatic channels," she said. For their part, Syrian activists are asking why the US is merely issuing a warning instead of acting if they really believe a chemical attack is imminent, she said. Assad has said repeatedly that his forces turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action. The agreement was later enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution. However, Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, has previously said that there is "no doubt" that Syria has in fact retained some chemical weapons. Human Rights Watch, the US rights organisation, said in May that Syrian forces used nerve gas in four attacks since December - part of a "clear pattern" that could amount to war crimes. "As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," Spicer said in his statement. "If, however, Mr Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price."
Follow-on Report – Russia (27 Jun 17): Russia on the 27 Jun 17 denounced US "threats" against the Syrian regime after the White House said leader Bashar al-Assad may be preparing another chemical attack and would face a "heavy price". "We consider such threats against the Syrian leadership to be unacceptable," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists. Moscow has consistently rejected accusations that Damascus was behind a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria in Apr 17. Washington sparked Russian ire by launching a retaliatory cruise missile strike over the alleged attack, in the American's first direct military action against regime forces in Syria. The two-paragraph communiqué did not offer any evidence justifying the sternly worded warning.
Follow-on Report (28 Dec 17): U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has said that Syria appears to have heeded a U.S. warning against launching a new chemical attack, as Russia accused the United States of "bellicose rhetoric." "It appears that they took the warning seriously," Mattis told reporters on the 28 Jun 17 who were flying with him to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defence ministers the next day. "They didn't do it." The Pentagon said that activity was detected at the Syrian Army's Shayrat airfield. And the White House said similar activities had been seen before the nerve agent Sarin was allegedly dropped on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on the 4 Apr 17. The Damascus government denied that it was preparing a chemical attack. President Bashar al-Assad has previously said the Khan Sheikhoun incident was fabricated. Iran accused the United States of a "dangerous escalation" in Syria, while the Kremlin denounced Washington's "unacceptable threats." Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron agreed with Trump in a phone call on the 27 Jun 17 on "the need to work on a joint response in the event of a chemical attacks in Syria," the French presidency said. U.S. forces have increased their presence in Syria to about 1,000 in recent months as the Pentagon steps up its campaign against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group. But the U.S. forces have increasingly clashed with Iran-backed forces operating in the same battle space. The White House made it clear that the latest warning against Syrian chemical attacks was not aimed only at Assad but targeted his allies as well. "The goal is at this point not just to send Assad a message, but to send Russia and Iran a message," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said. Assad did not respond to the U.S. warnings as he toured an air base in western Syria that hosts Russian aircraft and troops on the 27 Jun 17. Accompanied by the Russian Army's chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, Assad climbed into the cockpit of a Russian Su-35 fighter jet. "The Syrian people will not forget the support of their Russian brothers," Assad wrote in the visitors' book at the Hmeimim base.
United States/Travel Ban – Authorities in the United States have unveiled tough new security measures for international flights arriving in the country, but held off from a threatened expansion of a carry-on laptop ban. The Homeland Security Department said on the 28 Jun 17 it would now require enhanced screening of personal electronic devices, passengers and explosive detection for the roughly 2,000 commercial flights landing daily in the US from 280 airports in 105 countries. Officials said the agency would issue directives to about 180 air carriers, including US airlines. "Security is my number one concern," John Kelly, secretary of homeland security, said during a speech at the Centre for a New American Security. "Our enemies are adaptive and we have to adapt as well." Kelly said the changes will be "seen and unseen" and will be phased in over the coming weeks and months. He said airlines that do not comply or are slow to enforce the new standards could be forced to bar large electronics from both carry-on and checked luggage. They could also lose permission to fly into the US. The current ban, which affects only foreign carriers flying to the US from 10 cities, allows passengers to travel with larger electronics packed in checked baggage. The original laptop and electronics ban has been in place since Mar 17 amid concerns about an undisclosed threat described only as sophisticated and ongoing. That ban applied to nonstop flights to the US from Amman, Jordan; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Cairo; Istanbul; Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar; and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The roughly 50 affected flights are on foreign airlines. The government had considered expanding the laptop ban to include some European airports, though in recent public comments Kelly had suggested the government was looking at alternatives. Kelly also said the US would push harder for foreign airports to accept "pre-clearance" immigration operations manned by US Customs and Border Patrol officials to process US-bound passengers before they board their flights. Such operations have already been established in 15 locations in six countries, including Canada, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates. But it raises sensitive sovereignty issues to have US law enforcement officials operate inside another country. US officials remained vague about the specific requirements of the new programme. Airlines will be pressed to adopt a mix of new measures, including installing new screening technology, making more use of chemical sniffer dogs, and other unspecified steps. But the precise requirements in each case would depend on individual airlines, the airports they fly from, and their current levels of security. Some will have to make only minor improvements, they said. Asked about timeframes, officials would only say that they would give adequate time for the airlines to adapt. "We are raising the bar globally" for security standards, one senior official. They also said they expect nearly all carriers to be able to meet the new standards.