A car laden with 80kg of explosive pentolite was detonated at the General Santander Police Academy in south Bogota, Colombia, this past Thursday. The bombing took place during a police cadet promotion ceremony, killing twenty-one and injuring a further sixty-eight. The attack has been blamed on the left-wing guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Jose Aldemar Rojas Rodriguez, a 57-year-old long-time ELN member who specialised in explosives , was identified as the driver behind the attack. Rodriguez was also killed in the explosion. A second man, Ricardo Carvajal, was later arrested in Bogota after confessing to his involvement in the bombings during an intercepted phone call.
Many Colombians were reminded of the fearful decades of bombings in Bogota by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Highlighting the young age of the cadets killed in the explosion, one person lamented that ‘they were kids that had nothing to do with this war…peace is never going to exist in Colombia’. Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, Miguel Ceballos, has resolutely declared that there is ‘no space for dialogue with the ELN until they hand over all the kidnapped people and completely renounce their criminal acts…there has been no desire [for peace] on behalf of the negotiating team of this group’. President Duque, who halted peace talks with ELN when he took power in 2018, has branded the attack ‘a crazy terrorist act’. He reminded the nation that ‘Colombians have never yielded to terrorism…this will not be an exception’.
This terrorist attack carried out the ELN has rightly been highlighted as a tragic and pointless act of violence carried out against innocent people. Twenty of those killed in Thursday’s attack were young police cadets between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two. Members of the ELN are said to have been planning this attack for six months. The Colombian government has attempted since 2017 to engage the ELN in negotiations for peace, with an aim to bring harmony to Bogota after decades of warfare with guerrilla groups and drug cartels. It is understandable that Duque and other government officials feel unable and unwilling to continue to pursue any dialogue with the ELN, and they should be commended for their resolute promises made to the country to bring justice to those responsible. However, peace discussions must continue to understand the ELN continue to understand the ELN. Violent acts of terrorism are unacceptable, but without dialogue they will continue.
The ELN are a Colombian guerrilla group made up of over 2000 members. They were founded in 1964 to address the unequal distribution of wealth and land and sought inspiration from the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Operating mostly in rural areas, the ELN finances itself from criminal activity including drug trafficking, extortion and kidnappings. Alongside other guerrilla groups, including FARC, they terrorised Colombians by attacking landholders and multinational companies, blowing up pipelines, and bombing the capital city during a time in which Escobar’s Medellin drug cartel also brought fear to the streets. Since FARC, the largest guerrilla group involved in the Colombian wars, signed a peace agreement in November 2016, bombings in the capital have become far less frequent. Since efforts to negotiate peace with the ELN began in 2017, the group have carried out a further estimated 400 terrorist attacks.
The ELN depend on the threat and acts of violence to convey their political message, and as a result they have expressed an absolute unwillingness to engage in dialogue with the Colombian government to work towards a peace agreement. However, the Colombian government must persevere with this effort. Several years ago, FARC was a feared guerrilla group but they are now a political party operating under the same name. The same hope must be held for a resolution with the ELN. Political analyst Ariel Avila has said that the road to defeating the ELN will be a ‘long and painful’ one, but it is one that must be travelled down as Colombia continues on its journey towards peace.