The new 7,000-strong unit will be deployed on the border with Venezuela and in drug trafficking hot spots.
Colombia On Friday, launched a new military unit to target coca crops and cocaine production, illicit mining and illegal armed groups who use these activities for financial gain.
Colombia’s decision to launch the unit, known as CONAT in its Spanish initials, came as the country prepared to restart aerial spraying of coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate – possibly from end of March – depending on government approval by the Constitution. Search.
“The unit was born to strike, suppress and break down the structures of drug trafficking and transnational threats linked to illegal mining, trafficking in wildlife and people, and – of course – all transnational forms of crime. terrorism, ”President Ivan Duque said at a military base in Tolemaida.
Colombia, considered the world’s largest producer of cocaine, suspended aerial spraying of glyphosate in 2015 following warnings from the World Health Organization that the chemical was potentially harmful to health and the environment.
The new unit, made up of 7,000 people, will be deployed in areas such as the Catatumbo region on the border with Venezuela, as well as in the provinces of Cauca and Putamayo, Defense Minister Diego Molano said.
Colombia has faced constant pressure from the United States, one of the main destinations for cocaine, to reduce the size of crops of coca, the main ingredient of the drug.
In 2019, coca crops covered some 154,000 hectares (380,000 acres) in Colombia, with a production potential of 1,137 tons of cocaine, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. There are no figures available for 2020.
The armed forces eradicated 321,240 acres (130,000 hectares) of coca last year, according to the government, and seized 500 tons of cocaine.
Drug trafficking has long been the engine of Colombia’s internal armed conflict, which has left more than 260,000 dead and millions displaced.
During his speech, surrounded by helicopters, tanks and hundreds of soldiers, Duque also said the force would “unscrupulously” pursue members of the ELN – the last rebel group active in Colombia, as well as gangs. drug and ex-FARC rebels who abandoned the terms of a 2016 peace deal, he said.
“Soldiers, this is a morally necessary, morally correct battle … Let’s go for the defense of Colombia!” he said.
When he first announced the creation of the elite force earlier this month, he said many of its targets “are protected in Venezuela” although he did not mention direct military action. in the neighboring country. Duque did not mention Venezuela on Friday.
But his statement prompted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to pledge to “respond forcefully”.
From Caracas, he said the country’s security forces should “clean the barrels of our rifles to meet them at all levels to which we must respond if Ivan Duque dares to violate the sovereignty of Venezuela.”
Colombia and dozens of other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, which prompted Venezuela to sever diplomatic ties with its neighbor in 2019.
Colombia has repeatedly accused Venezuela of providing refuge to left-wing armed groups, a charge Caracas has denied.