On January 17th, Colombians and the world at large were brutally reminded that peace has yet to be fully achieved in Colombia. The police academy Escuela de Policía General Santander was victim of a terrorist attack that killed 21 people and injured an additional 68. Driving a car loaded with explosives, a man sped through security checkpoints and crashed into a wall of the academy, where the car exploded. The National Liberation Army (ELN) claimed responsibility for the attack, which was labeled an “attack on [Colombian] society” by Colombian President Iván Duque.

According to the ELN, they did it as retaliation for the Colombian government violating their negotiated Christmas ceasefire and bombing ELN camps on December 25th. The guerrilla group claims that their attack was justified under the rules of war because it was defensive in nature, and targeted “non-civilians”. The police academy, they say, cannot be considered a civilian target because they offer military intelligence.

Their actions have been condemned by many entities. In an interview with Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, the VP of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation Ariel Ávila speculates that the guerrilla group wants to recreate the chaotic and violent past of the country in order to remind everyone that they are still alive, that they have control over territories, and that they are growing stronger. The former FARC leader Pablo Alape has accused the group of deliberately sabotaging their chances of negotiating a peace agreement with the government. Colombian diaspora consulted for this article shared a similar opinion, categorically dubbing the ELN as a dangerous terrorist group.

Founded in 1964, the ELN was initially a small guerrilla group. With only 2 000 armed members, it barely compared to the FARC’s 18,000 men. The ELN shares the FARC’s goal of overthrowing the government, but is much more ideological in nature: it hopes to copy the Cuban revolution. Much of its funding comes from illicit activities such as kidnapping, illegal mining, and drug trafficking. The group has received support from Venezuela’s Chávez and Maduro governments, who have let ELN members take refuge and set-up trafficking routes in their country. Colombia’s communist neighbour allegedly benefits from the narcotic activities, and sees the ELN as an ideological ally.

Does this mean that peace in Colombia is impossible without military action?

For the past two years, the group and the Colombian government have held talks to secure a peace agreement. While initial negotiations seemed promising, hope quickly started to crumble. In the summer of 2017, the FARC officially dissolved and the ELN became the largest insurgent group in Colombia. This emboldened the group: it doubled its attacks, and increased raids on pipelines and assaults on police. Members heightened their activity after Duque was elected President, to protest his hard stance on the group. Their violent actions only toughened Duque’s position – he halted negotiations in September, and won’t resume talks until the ELN frees its hostages and ceases all armed insurgencies. He also rejected ELN’s political demands, insisting that he would only discuss disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration with them. The ELN refuses to bend to Duque’s conditions, deeming them unacceptable.

Duque is unlikely to change his mind, especially after the bombing. The attack prompted him to reinstate arrest warrants for 10 members that are part of the negotiation table. This will likely to win him the support of the Colombian electorate, who thought the previous government was too lenient with the FARC. Does this mean that peace in Colombia is impossible without military action? A military victory over ELN would be difficult to achieve. The guerrilla has a very complex structure and most members are civilians. Furthermore, the ELN still benefits from Maduro’s unofficial support, and is suspected of smuggling weapons from his country.

If Maduro was to be ousted, the ELN would lose a powerful ally on which it relies for protection, financing, and weapons.

As such, it will be interesting to see if recent events in Venezuela will impact the situation in Colombia. A week ago, Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of his country, a move immediately endorsed by many Western and Latin American countries. If Maduro was to be ousted, the ELN would lose a powerful ally on which it relies for protection, financing, and weapons. Without Maduro’s regime, the ELN would perhaps be weakened enough to be forced to comply with Duque’s requests.

That remains a big presumption – Maduro will not give up his spot so easily. He remains the official President of his country and continues to benefit from the support the Venezuelan military. He is also recognized as the legitimate President by powerful states such as Russia and China. But nothing is impossible: Western countries remain adamant that he must go, and the United States’ is increasing pressure on the regime. Reports about a US-backed coup have led to speculations that Maduro relies on the ELN’s assistance if he needs to fight back. Despite all these uncertainties, one thing is sure: Maduro and the ELN need each other. If the first remains in power, the latter will likely take much longer to capitulate to the Colombian government’s request for peace.


This article was originally published on iAffairs’ partner site: Policy Talks Podcast

Émilie is a researcher with Policy Talks Podcast. She holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of British Columbia. She currently works as a Contract and Management Services Officer at Global Affairs Canada. Her past experiences include working with the Micronutrient Project and UNICEF in Rwanda, working in emergency management with the BC provincial health authorities, and working as an English teacher in Ecuador. Emilie’s interests lie in peace and security, human rights, and humanitarian aid in complex emergencies. She hopes to pursue a Master in international security and journalism in the near future.

Featured image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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