AT 9:30AM ON January 17th, José Aldemar Rojas arrived at General Santander police academy in Bogotá in a car packed with 80kg of explosives. He drove through a cargo entrance and headed towards the heart of the compound. Details are still emerging, but it seems that when policemen tried to stop him, he reversed and crashed into the women’s dormitory. The resulting explosion killed at least 21 people, including Mr Rojas, and injured 68 more.
The attack on Colombia’s capital brings back memories of the worst moments of the country’s long wars against leftist insurgent groups and against Pablo Escobar, a drug-trafficking kingpin. In 1989 he ordered the bombing of a building that then housed Colombia’s intelligence agency, killing 52 people and injuring 1,000. The last big terrorist attack in Bogotá was in 2003 when the FARC, a leftist guerrilla group, detonated a bomb that killed 36 people at a private members’ club. But Escobar is dead and the FARC disarmed in 2017 under a peace agreement signed by Colombia’s then-president, Juan Manuel Santos. Bogotanos thought they had seen the end of large-scale urban terrorism.
The government has blamed the National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller guerrilla group, for the latest attack. The armed forces’ intelligence service has identified Mr Rojas as an explosives expert who lost his arm in a past explosion; he is said to have belonged to the ELN’s Domingo Lain cell, which is located in Arauca, on the border with Venezuela. The ELN has so far said nothing.
For decades the ELN, which now has about 2,000 armed fighters and an unknown number of followers, was overshadowed by the much bigger FARC. Like the FARC, it had sought to overthrow Colombia’s government in a Cuba-style revolution. These days it combines that fight with such criminal activities as drug-trafficking and kidnapping. Its strongholds are in Nariño, on the border with Ecuador, as well as in Antioquia in central Colombia and Arauca and Norte de Santander in the north-east.
If it was behind the attack on January 17th, the ELN has shown that it poses a threat in a major population centre. Mr Santos opened peace negotiations with the group in 2017. His successor, Iván Duque, who took office in August 2018, suspended them because the group refused to free the 17 hostages it holds. The bombing in Bogotá means that peace talks are unlikely to resume anytime soon. That may have been the point of them.
In some ways, the ELN is a knottier problem for the government than the FARC were. It is a loosely organised group with a weak chain of command. Unlike the FARC’s guerrillas, ELN combatants do not live in camps, which makes it harder to bomb them. Its members dress like civilians.
In 2014 the ELN established a “national urban battalion” with operations in ten cities as part of a strategy to shift its insurgency away from rural areas. The battalion’s commander is said to be Jaime Galvis (known as Ariel), one of the ELN’s most brutal leaders and a member of its central command. Colombia’s intelligence services have no idea where he is or even what he looks like now (no photographs of him have appeared since the 1990s). The operation suggests that the urban cells have the capacity to coordinate with units in the countryside, says Gerson Arias, who participated in negotiations with the guerrilla group.
The bombing is sure to complicate Colombia’s relations with its neighbour, Venezuela, which provides a haven for the ELN. Colombia’s government was among several that refused to recognise the legitimacy of Venezuela’s dictatorial president, Nicolás Maduro, after he began his second term on January 10th. Even as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia over the past three years to escape Venezuela’s shortages and hyperinflation, the ELN fighters have found refuge there. The ELN runs training camps in Venezuela close to the border. Colombian intelligence suspects there are links between the ELN and the Cartel of the Suns, a drugs gang controlled by members of the Venezuelan regime.
As long as Mr Maduro’s government survives the conditions of chaos it has created, it will be an unavoidable partner in any peace process. Yet Colombia’s relationship with Venezuela has never been worse. Mr Duque has recognised the president of Venezuela’s democratically elected national assembly, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s legitimate president. After the attack in Bogotá the Colombian government may seek ways to retaliate, probably politically, against its neighbour. An internal conflict may soon have a growing international dimension.