By claiming responsibility for the car bomb attack that took place on January 17 in Bogotá, the ELN guerrilla group not only ensured the end of the peace talks with the Colombian government, but also showed its remarkable strengthening over the last two years. The question is: what implications does this have for the future of the group?
In a statement published on January 21, the National Liberation Army (ELN) confirmed its authorship of the attack at a police training school in Bogotá, which left 21 dead and 80 injured.
“The operation carried out against these installations and troops, was legitimate within the rights of war,” read the statement, adding that the attack was carried out in self-defense due to government attacks.
This declaration by the ELN confirms the findings of the Colombian authorities since the terrorist act. Within hours, the government pointed to the ELN as the perpetrators, after identifying the body of José Aldemar Rojas Rodríguez, alias “Mocho” or “Kiko”, who was named as ELN member by the Attorney General’s Office.
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As the preliminary results of the investigations became known, President Iván Duque put an end to peace talks with the ELN and activated arrest warrants for the 10 ELN members who were taking part in peace negotiations in Cuba, as well as for the members of the Central Command (Comando Central – COCE), the group’s leadership structure.
However, speaking from Cuba, Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán”, the ELN’s chief negotiator and a member of the COCE, admitted he had not been aware of the attack ahead of time. This reveals potential differences and distancing between faction within the guerrilla group concerning the peace process.
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The scale and brazenness of the Bogotá attack may have exposed fault lines within the ELN but it also revealed the full scale to which this group has grown in strength, since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia –FARC) began its demobilization at the end of 2016.
The ELN has become the most important criminal actor in the country, occupying territories previously controlled by the FARC and increasing its participation in drug trafficking and other illicit businesses.
In addition, the attack offers insights into the application of certain guidelines that were defined at the last two ELN congresses, such as taking their struggle into cities.
The ELN has put into practice once again a philosophy it discussed at its Fourth Congress in 2006 and ratified at its Fifth Congress in 2015, defining Colombia’s major cities as centers of political debate.
“We understand ourselves to be part of an ELN construction process, which looks at the entire city as well as urban, suburban and rural spaces … The FGUN (National Urban War Front) will continue to serve the 10 cities which are: Barranquilla, Cartagena, Cúcuta, Bucaramanga, Barrancabermeja, Medellín, Bogotá, Cali, Popayán, Neiva,” said a document drafted at the ELN’s Fifth Congress to which InSight Crime had access.
Given the lack of progress in peace talks, the ELN may be taking a major step forward in militarizing their struggle. Attacks on police stations in Bogotá and Barranquilla in recent years could also be part of this strategy.
Within this context, the figure of Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito”, becomes crucial, as he is the military chief for the ELN within COCE and the leader of the Eastern War Front, believed to have planned the Bogotá blast.
This action also reveals stronger ties between the ELN’s urban front and its richer, more established war fronts, like that of Pablito.
And this does not rule out further military action in more traditional rural battlegrounds, where the Eastern and Western war fronts will maintain their campaigns, as confirmed by Jaime Arias, aka “Uriel”, a Western Front commander in audio recordings broadcast by some media.
Despite these fronts’ determination to keep up the struggle, this attack also revealed the lack of power within the COCE to control the fronts, risking a less disciplined and centralized ELN engaging in illegal activities.
This would certainly weaken any attempts at future cohesion if the guerrilla group wanted to return to hypothetical peace talks.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.