Bogotá Bomb Shatters Peace Talks with Colombia’s Last Guerrillas

After Bogotá’s deadliest bombing since 2003, the government is likely to crack down hard on Colombia’s last guerrilla group, the ELN. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Colombia Kyle Johnson says any new military campaign should distinguish between ELN factions and is unlikely to inflict a lasting defeat on the rebels.

What happened?

On 17 January, a car drove into the General Santander police academy in Bogotá and exploded, killing 21 police officers and injuring 68 more. Though the perpetrator also died, the government does not yet consider the attack a suicide bombing – unheard of in Colombia – but rather that the driver’s death was the result of his panicking at almost being discovered. The bombing is Bogotá’s most lethal attack since 2003, and the third most lethal in the history of a city that in the past has suffered considerable violence.

The National Liberation Army, or ELN in Spanish, guerrilla group claimed responsibility for the attack on 21 January. By that time, Colombian authorities had blamed the group; President Ivan Duque effectively ended already-suspended peace talks with the ELN the day after the bombing, by demanding the arrest of the guerrilla’s negotiating team in Cuba.

Who is the ELN?

The ELN is Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla group after the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It has around 2,000 full-time guerrilla fighters, but also can count on a much larger militia structure: fighters who are ELN members, but live as civilians in their communities, carry out intelligence work and small-scale attacks, and coerce (while still coordinating) with certain local social movements. The group, which adheres to a socialist ideology, currently looks to militarily and politically resist the state and multinational companies present in its territories – a project it calls “armed resistance” – as opposed to overthrowing the government. The group also advocates creation of an international “anti-imperialist” front and explains its support for the Maduro regime in Venezuela in those terms.

Recently the ELN has become more directly involved in various illegal economic activities, notably the drug trade. Despite its stated opposition to drug trafficking, the group directly engages in it in various areas of the country. It extorts legal and illegal gold miners, international oil companies and any other economic actors areas under its control. The group is far more decentralised than was the FARC, handing its regional units significant autonomy to act according to general guidelines set by the national-level leadership.

The driver of the car-bomb, José Aldemar Rojas Rodríguez, was a longtime member of the ELN, according to Colombian authorities. They claim he was an explosives expert and a committed operative known as el Mocho, or el Mocho Kiko, because he lost his hand mishandling explosives (mocho means mutilated in Colombian Spanish), and member of the Eastern War Front.

Why would the ELN attack?

Several factors could explain why the ELN, which has displayed a half-hearted approach to peace talks with the Colombian government since they began in February 2017, bombed the police academy. The guerrillas are divided about the peace negotiations that were suspended by President Duque last September. Some favour talks, while others oppose them, because they wish to preserve and expand their illicit activities and/or because they hold the Colombian ruling establishment in contempt. Still others are in favour of a negotiated settlement, although they claim the time is not ripe because those elites are not yet ready to compromise.

The ELN has a history of violent and destructive internal divisions, and therefore views unity within the group as being of greater importance than achieving peace with the Colombian government. To maintain its cohesion, its collective leadership organ – the Central Command (COCE) – tends to both initiate peaceful gestures and allow more radical units to carry out sustained military activity, thereby avoiding a crisis with either pro- or anti-peace talk factions. Over Christmas and New Year, for example, the group as a whole declared and effectively carried out a unilateral ten-day truce; since then, factions opposed to talks have stepped up their military activity. The driver of the vehicle was part of the Eastern War Front, a guerrilla unit notorious for its rejection of talks.

In its communiqué taking responsibility for the 17 January attack, the ELN larger leadership body, the National Directorate, described it an act of “legitimate self-defence” in response to military attacks against the group that took place during its ten-day Christmas unilateral ceasefire. It also argued that given that peace talks were taking place without a bilateral ceasefire, the attack should not affect the negotiations.

More generally, the ELN has consistently claimed that the government is committing a “genocide” against community activists, killing them gradually but systematically. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, 431 activists have been killed across Colombia since the start of 2016, though by multiple, mainly non-state actors – not as a matter of government policy, as the ELN alleges. The insurgents also argue that President Iván Duque’s government is under the sway of paramilitary factions allegedly linked to former President Álvaro Uribe, Duque’s political patron and leader of his party, who led a fierce U.S.-backed counter-insurgent campaign during his tenure. Parts of the ELN still believe the best way to fight such a government is through a campaign of violence.

What will the consequences be for peace in Colombia?

A day after the attack, President Duque appeared before the nation to announce an end to the peace process. He branded the ELN a “criminal machine of kidnappings and attacks” and ordered that arrest warrants against the ten members of the ELN’s delegation to the peace talks in Havana be reinstated, effectively putting an end to the already-suspended talks. Although Duque did not rule out a return to the negotiating table, he insisted this could only be on the basis of the ELN’s release of all hostage and renunciation of all criminal activity – two conditions that are unacceptable to the rebels, and which caused the talks to stall last year. An intensified military counter-insurgency campaign is likely to quickly begin, especially along the Venezuelan border, where President Duque travelled 21 January to oversee security policy in the region.

The implications could be severe. Colombia signed a peace agreement with the FARC, which had been the country’s largest guerrilla group, in late 2016. But many regions of the country – Arauca and Catatumbo (on the border with Venezuela), and Chocó and Cauca (on the Pacific coast), among others – have become less secure as the ELN has expanded its presence. Negotiations with the ELN were stumbling well before President Duque suspended them indefinitely. In the absence of a peace process, Colombians in these peripheral regions fear that a spike in fighting between the guerrillas and the state, or between the guerrillas and rival armed factions, will trap them in the crossfire, cause more forced displacement, and imperil the rural reforms promised as part of the 2016 deal with the FARC.

Duque’s government, which lost significant public support late last year owing to unpopular tax reforms and a spate of student strikes, potentially could regain it if it successfully targets ELN leaders and substantially weakens the group’s capacity to hit back. A new cadre of senior military officers, appointed by the president since his election, will also be looking to prove themselves and may believe that attacking the ELN is their best chance. While Duque has not yet called explicitly for a shift to a more belligerent security policy based on killing or capturing leaders and bombing suspected camps, he – and his party – have implied that it will look to do just that.

The success of such a militarised strategy faces long odds. While the ELN is smaller and weaker than the FARC when it disarmed, it is hard to see the Colombian military defeating it. ELN units can retreat and hide in Venezuela; the territories in which they operate, including the Pacific region of Chocó, are extremely difficult for the state to control due to the presence of mountains and jungles and the state’s legitimacy deficit; moreover, the group rarely concentrates large groups of fighters, complicating the ability to conduct effective air or ground strikes. Finally, while the ELN is not necessarily popular in rural areas, it enjoys deep roots in many of its strongholds.

Of course, the army nonetheless will seriously damage the group. It will bomb some guerrillas camps and arrest or kill certain of its mid-level commanders. But that is a far cry from a genuine military victory, as even some military officers admit.

What are the implications for the region of a return to hostilities?

This attack will further exacerbate the diplomatic spat between Colombia and Venezuela. While President Nicolás Maduro’s government publicly condemned the bombing and the Colombian press denied Venezuela’s involvement, the ELN hides and operates there and is expanding its presence in southern Venezuela with the complicity of the state’s authorities.

Colombia has other grievances. It accuses Caracas of allowing ELN – including the Eastern War Front – to operate unchecked across Venezuelan territory. If the Colombian armed forces cannot make quick inroads against this ELN faction, Bogotá may well blame it on lack of Venezuelan cooperation, and together with Latin American allies in the Group of Lima and the U.S. press the Organization of American States to expel Venezuela. Colombia could also seek to persuade Washington to declare Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism (and impose stricter unilateral sanctions), or push the International Criminal Court to widen its preliminary investigation into Maduro’s government by charging that the ELN is committing abuses of human rights and war crimes with the consent of Caracas.

What can be done to preserve the possibility of a return to peace talks in the future?

With peace talks now over and the anticipated return of more aggressive counter-insurgency operations, the Colombian government at a minimum ought to distinguish between those ELN units opposed to talks and those that have traditionally backed the peace process (including those led by ELN chief negotiator, Pablo Beltrán), instead of treating the ELN as a monolith. Likewise, it should strive to maintain at least indirect communications with the group to address humanitarian concerns, such as the release of kidnapping victims, and to be ready in the event talks were to resume. Critically, any offensive against the ELN should respect locals’ human rights and avoid indiscriminate treatment of civilian suspected of being potential ELN sympathisers to avoid fuelling anger against the government and support for the insurgency.