This weekend, about a month after the expiration of a bilateral ceasefire with the government, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group incited a belligerent campaign of attacks in Colombia that targeted infrastructure and left at least one dead, according to public officials and media reports.
Photo: The most severe physical damage done by the ELN infrastructure downed a bridge in Pelaya, Colombia. (Credit: Ejército Nacional de Colombia)
More than 10 separate attacks were carried out this weekend against roadways and transport vehicles, with one attempted strike reportedly killing Jhon Jairo Delgado Bastidas, a 29-year-old solider in the Colombian Army assigned to securing a transport route in the department of Antioquia.
Several law enforcement officials and members of the military have also suffered injuries related to the attacks, according to officials.
The ELN announced plans to unleash a three-day assault not long after President Juan Manuel Santos’ publicly stated that he was putting peace talk negotiations on hold with the leftist armed faction, the largest remaining in the country. The presidential decree followed multiple deadly attacks by the ELN on coastal police stations in January.
“Today the National Army is in mourning. One of its heroes was cowardly murdered by ELN terrorists.” – Colombian Army
This weekend’s ramp up of violence included multiple attacks on a highway that connects the interior capital of Bogotá to the Caribbean coast, with bombs doing severe damage to a bridge in the town of Pelaya and breaking up other sections of the roadway along the route.
Multiple vehicles, including a bus in Antioquia and at least two trucks, were also set ablaze, reported Medellín-based publication Colombia Reports. According to Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo, two people believed to be members of ELN were killed in eastern Colombia when a bomb detonated that law officials think was intended to blow up a bridge.
The military spent the days leading up to the expected campaign of violence and the weekend reinforcing the security of key infrastructure, carrying out vehicle inspections, and monitoring potential threats from the air and ground. Through social media feeds, divisions of the armed forces have shared images and videos of soldiers safeguarding bridges, roadways, railways, and other locations.
Various other public agencies, including INVIAS and the transportation division of the National Police, have been working to quickly repair damage done to the roads and guarantee safe passage on the affected routes.
“Today the National Army is in mourning,” said the Colombian Army about its fallen solider in a statement. ”One of its heroes was cowardly murdered by ELN terrorists who tried to attack the road infrastructure … The brave action of the uniformed soldier, and the troops that were there, prevented a large-scale terrorist act.”
Private Sector Calls for End to Attacks
Members of the private sector today called on the ELN to cease its attacks and have asked the government to mitigate the damage done to their business.
The Association for the Integral Development of Intermunicipal Land Transport (ADITT), in a statement, said that fewer people were traveling this weekend and formally expressed its concern that the ELN would affect business even before the first blast went off.
“We have seen a decline in passenger flow due to the fear of possible serious incidents that may arise,” said group head José Yesid Rodríguez in a statement.
Despite the disruption, Rodríguez added his support for law enforcement and military personnel helping to safeguard infrastructure.
“We cannot be intimidated,” he said, calling on the ELN to “immediately suspend these criminal acts, which not only have left the northeast isolated from the interior of the country but are a clear violation of international law.”
Lasting Damage to Peace Talks
While more attacks are still feared Monday that could bring even worse damage, the longer-term fallout of the weekend campaign of violence may come in the form of permanent damage to peace talks.
“They say they want peace, but they contradict that fact.” – President Santos
The ELN, following the lead of the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group that agreed to disband in late 2016 in exchange for limited amnesty and other concessions, had begun formal negotiations with the government in February 2017.
About six months later, in September, days before a visit to the country by Pope Francis, substantial progress was seen in the first official bilateral ceasefire between the two sides. This cessation of hostilities began in October and ran for three months into early 2018.
But just after it expired, the ELN allegedly waged attacked on an oil pipeline and bombed a police station in the coastal city of Barranquilla, killing multiple officers. Other coordinated attacks on law enforcement followed near the Caribbean region, and Santos responded by calling back the state’s peace negotiators from the table in Ecuador then putting the talks on hold.
While the president, who will be exiting office when his second term is up later this year, has long maintained that he is seeking a negotiated peace, like the one reached with FARC, to put an end to the conflict with the ELN, he is now publicly doubting the viability of ongoing talks.
“They say they want peace, but they contradict that fact,” stated Santos on Twitter. He added that if the ELN cannot meet a minimum threshold of civil behavior, “it will be very difficult to resume the dialogues.”