United Nations Mission Attacked In Southwest Colombia

The United Nations Mission in Caloto, Colombia was attacked by unknown assailants on Sunday, August 6th during a collaborative operation to uncover and extract weapon caches left behind by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP). The assailants stormed the site carrying rifles and other weapons, after which additional police units were able to resist the attack and move UN officials and FARC-EP members out of harm’s way. One Colombian National Police Officer suffered gunshot wounds to his abdomen and leg and was rushed to Valle del Lili Clinic in Cali where he remains in stable condition. The rest of the team made up of UN observers, police officers and members of the FARC-EP were unharmed.

Although it has not yet been determined who was responsible for the attack, there is some speculation from the police that the National Liberation Army (ELN), the nation’s longest operating Marxist rebel group, may have been behind it. The ELN has refuted these allegations on twitter stating “The ELN denies responsibility for the attack on the U.N. Mission to Colombia.” As of this year, the ELN has been negotiating a peace deal with the government that includes a three-month bilateral ceasefire that started on July 25th, 2017. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos stated in the terms of the ceasefire that the guerrillas must end all forms of aggression and violent activity towards innocent civilians. If the ELN is found guilty of Sunday’s attack, it would be considered a violation of these terms, which could potentially affect the peace agreement that is supposed to be finalized by Pope Francis’ highly anticipated visit to Colombia on September 6th, 2017.

Also under speculation are members of the FARC-EP who refused to lay down their weapons as part of the historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP in 2016. In May 2017, UN official Herledy López was kidnapped by armed FARC-EP members in a convoy of vehicles in the southern Guaviare province. The attack on the UN peace worker has raised some concerns about the status of the peace agreement. If it is determined that members of the FARC-EP group are also behind Sunday’s attack, the government may need to engage in discussions with FARC-EP leaders to ensure the peace agreement remains intact.

The UN Mission in Colombia is responsible for the extraction and storage of weapons and ammunition as well as the destruction of unstable material found in arms caches across the nation. After the FARC-EP handed over their weapons in June 2017, the UN Mission has been working closely with members of the FARC-EP to plan, coordinate and locate arms caches. The Colombian police force units also provide the mission with security during operations in the field. As of July 7th, 2017, the UN Mission has located 660 arms caches, of which 456 have been extracted while the rest are currently in the planning process according to the UN. The execution of operations by the UN are to continue until September 1st, 2017, at which point the arms caches that have not been dismantled will remain at the disposal of the government. The UN Mission team had already performed its first extraction at the time of the attack, removing more than 50 kg of explosives, grenades and other arms according to the UN. This was the first armed attack on UN peace observers since the mission launched. It may be the case that Sunday’s attack was a one-time occurrence, however, extra precautions should be taken moving forward to ensure the safety of UN observers, members of the FARC-EP and police officers.