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The following report was first published on the 31st of January 2019. Events may have changed since then.
Colombia – National Liberation Army claim for car bombing suggests intent to escalate violence, including in major cities
- National Liberation Army claim for car bombing suggests intent to escalate violence, including in major cities
- President Duque’s decision to call off peace talks and pursue militant leaders will likely lead group to increase attacks
- Increased attacks on security forces in cities will pose collateral risks to business staff and travellers
The left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest active insurgent group, claimed responsibility on 20 January for the car bombing that killed 21 people at a police academy in Bogota three days earlier (see our Special Report). President Ivan Duque meanwhile said he had ordered his peace commissioner to sever all contact with the ELN over potential peace talks, and that he had reactivated arrest warrants for the ELN’s commanders on 18 January. Duque also asked Cuba, which has hosted ELN leaders since tentative peace talks began in 2016 and has acted as a guarantor nation, to extradite ELN leaders to Colombia. Separately, on 23 January an army patrol in Suarez, in the south-western department of Cauca, seized a large amount of explosives from a vehicle and arrested two ELN members.
The ELN’s claim was not surprising given the speed with which the police had already collected and publicised ample evidence linking the group to the attack. Within 24 hours, the authorities had identified the driver of the vehicle who died in the attack, Jose Aldemar Rojas, 56, as an ELN veteran explosives expert, and arrested and charged an accomplice called Ricardo Carvajal Salgar. Detectives also used traffic camera recordings to trace the vehicle’s route from a workshop in the south of Bogota, where further evidence showed that Rojas had begun planning the car bombing at least a year earlier. A fragment of circuit board collected by the forensics team allowed the police to establish that the explosives were detonated by an adapted car alarm remote control. Furthermore, the position of Rojas’ remains indicated that he was stepping out of the vehicle when it exploded, and that it had likely gone off sooner than planned. This led the police to rule out a suicide attack, which would have been unprecedented in Colombia.
Israel Ramirez Pineda, alias ‘Pablo Beltran’, one of the five members of the ELN’s Central Command, said from Cuba that the attack had been justified because the target was a “military installation”. Duque said such remarks showed that the ELN was a ruthless criminal organisation, there was no sense in exploring peace options with the group, and all contacts would be severed immediately. Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, had held several rounds of exploratory talks with the ELN. These were unofficially abandoned early last year, although Duque said after taking office in August that talks could resume if the ELN first freed all its kidnap victims and ceased attacks. However, despite the gravity of the attack, Cuba on 21 January rejected Duque’s demand to extradite ELN commanders on the grounds that such a move would violate the existing dialogue protocols, to which Cuba was party. These stipulated that if either side called off the talks, ELN representatives had fifteen days to return to clandestine locations in Colombia.
The ELN’s 17 January car bombing, which police said used 80 kg of the explosive pentolite, was the most lethal of a series of attacks by the group over the past three years. On 30 January last year, the ELN killed five police officers in a bomb attack on a police station near the Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla. In June 2017, three people were killed when a device exploded in a shopping centre in Bogota. In addition, the Army detained two ELN members in a vehicle in Cauca with 118 kg of pentolite on 23 January. Their vehicle was bound for the nearby city of Cali, although the exact target has not been disclosed. These incidents support the authorities’ analysis that the ELN has been gaining strength over the past three years and that it therefore presents a rising threat, including in cities.
Overall, the speed with which the judicial investigation was completed shows the Colombian police’s efficiency and high level of competence as a law enforcement agency. However, the evidence collected combined with the details surrounding other incidents also show that the ELN is increasing its strength and capabilities, and is spreading from its traditional rural strongholds to urban areas. Duque’s decision to abandon any peace talks, as tenuous as they were previously, means that the ELN will feel less constrained and will therefore pursue violent attacks more emphatically over the coming year. These are likely to include more car bombings in major cities. While these will continue to primarily target police and military installations, their frequency, scale and the number of fatalities they cause are likely to rise, meaning that the collateral security risks such events pose to business visitors and travellers will increase. The Government has not yet announced a military response to the Bogota bombing, but the security forces are highly likely to take a more aggressive approach to the ELN in the coming months, especially if further urban attacks take place.
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