By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian illegal armed groups lost roughly 5,120 members in 2020 as the country's armed forces continued operations amidst the coronavirus pandemic to weaken them and stop them from growing in size and territory, said General Luis Fernando Navarro.
The figure includes combat deaths, captures, and desertions affecting the National Liberation Army (ELN), dissidents of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who rejected a 2016 peace deal, and other armed groups including Clan del Golfo, Los Caparros, and Los Pelusos, Navarro said.
All five armed groups are linked to drug trafficking and illegal mining, he added.
"The remnants (FARC dissidents) have lost some 1,100 men. The ELN lost more than 700 men due to legitimate state action in targeted strikes," Navarro, commander of Colombia's armed forces, told Reuters in an interview.
Colombia's military is authorized to bomb the groups, which hold strategic areas in the country's jungles and mountains for producing cocaine and illegally mining metals, mainly gold.
"They don't have the capacity to recover from the damage done by Colombian authorities, which is why we believe their plans are focused on containment and our objective is to take them to a turning point," Navarro said.
Excluding the members lost, the five groups finished 2020 with around 6,800 combatants, according to an intelligence report seen by Reuters. The groups ended 2019 with a similar number of combatants.
FARC dissidents and the ELN accounted for 2,500 combatants and 2,450 combatants respectively.
The result came during a year when the armed forces undertook operations to reinforce border security and deliver food and aid to people in need amid the coronavirus pandemic, Navarro added.
"We believe we've met our objectives, and will continue to meet them, with our strategy to keep diminishing these armed groups," Navarro said, adding that Colombia's military will have more territorial control in 2021 as part of its offensive against criminal organizations.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Bernadette Baum)