Colombia blames ELN guerrillas for car bomb attack, suspends peace talks indefinitely

Colombian President Iván Duque late Friday effectively suspended peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group and ordered the arrest of its high command as he blamed the National Liberation Army for a deadly car bombing that killed 21, injured 68 and rattled this South American nation.

In a national address, Duque asked Cuba to hand over 10 members of the ELN who have been on the island waiting for negotiations to resume, saying the group showed no signs of pursuing peace.

“Enough of the deaths, enough of the kidnappings,” Duque said. “Colombia has had enough.”

Earlier in the day the government said it had proof that a longtime ELN member had driven the truck bomb into the Escuela General Santander national police academy in southern Bogotá on Thursday.

Defense Minister Guillermo Botero said the suspect, José Aldemar Rojas Rodríguez, 56, died in the blast and had been an ELN member since 1994. Botero described the man as an explosives expert who previously had been part of the security detail of ELN Commander Nicolás “Gabino” Rodriguez Bautista, who is with the delegation in Cuba.

Known by the aliases “El Mocho” and “Kiko,” Rojas had lost his right hand in an accident, but authorities said they recovered his other hand at the site of the blast, allowing them to identify him through fingerprints and the car registration.

The attack — the deadliest car bombing in the capital in more than a decade — came as the government offered to resume peace talks with the ELN if it released more than a dozen hostages and took other steps. On Friday, Duque suggested that offer was still on the table.

“If the ELN really want peace, we need concrete actions, like the freedom of all those who are kidnapped and the end of all criminal acts,” he said.

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Police also said that early Friday they had detained Ricardo Andrés Carvajal Salgar, who they described as a co-conspirator of the attack, after intercepting his phone calls. But they asked for the public’s help in identifying other suspects.

The ELN have not taken credit for the bombing, and several social media accounts run by the group, where they usually release communiqués, had been suspended on Friday.

The government says the attack began about 9:30 a.m. Thursday when Rojas drove a 1993 Nissan Patrol carrying more than 150 pounds of pentolite explosives through a checkpoint at the police academy. When he was questioned inside the compound, he threw the vehicle into reverse and it detonated near barracks used by female cadets, authorities said.

By Friday the death toll had risen to 21 people — making it the deadliest car bomb attack in Bogotá since 2003.

Botero said he didn’t know if Rojas knowingly committed suicide, suggesting the bomb could have been activated by remote control. If Rojas had been a suicide bomber, as some initially suspected, it would be an unprecedented tactic in Colombia’s half-century civil conflict.

The brazen daytime bombing shines a spotlight on the ELN, which has been stepping up attacks and expanding its presence since the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace deal in 2016 and became a political party.

Along with consolidating its control along Colombia’s borders, the group is thought to be making inroads into Venezuela, and some of the ELN’s commanders are thought to be based in the neighboring country.

Botero said that the driver, Rojas, had at one time provided explosives training inside Venezuela, but he said there were no indications that the neighboring country knew about or had any relation to Thursday’s attack. Venezuela and Colombia have been at odds for years, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has often accused the leadership in Bogotá of trying to topple his socialist administration.

Rojas had tried to enlist with the FARC on at least three occasions but had been rebuffed by the larger group, Botero said. The FARC political party has condemned the attack.

The police academy is well known throughout the region and trains international cadets. Among the dead was an Ecuadorean woman, and two Panamanian officials were injured.

Former President Juan Manuel Santos had tried to bring the ELN to the negotiating table, in hopes of building on his successful talks with the FARC. But those efforts were upended by the ELN’s decentralized command structure. As one faction pursued a negotiated solution, other members stepped up attacks and kidnappings.

The negotiations had been on hold since Duque took office on Aug. 7, but there were hopes they might be revived. Thursday’s blast strengthened the hawks in Duque’s party and limit his ability to ever seek a negotiated solution, said Sandra Borda, a political science professor at Andes University.

“The government’s ability to maneuver has been shut down,” she said. “I think now we will see the ELN become the government’s primary military target.”

The blast was a grim reminder of the country’s troubled past. In the 1990s and 2000s deadly bombing were carried out regularly by the FARC and Pablo Escobar’s Medellin drug cartel. In 2003, the bombing of El Nogal country club, attributed to Escobar’s men, killed at least three dozen people.

While there have been dozens of minor explosions in recent years, the last major bombings in the capital took place in 2017. In February, an explosive device near the city’s bull ring killed two people, and in June a blast at the upscale Andino shopping center killed three, including a French national. That attack was attributed to the People’s Revolutionary Movement (MRP), which is thought to have ties to the ELN.

Founded in 1964, the ELN initially combined Marxist-Leninist ideology with liberation theology. Some of its initial recruits came from the Catholic Church, including Camilo Torres, a charismatic priest who died in 1966 during his first battle.

But in recent years authorities say the ELN has become just one more criminal organization, fueled by drug and ransom money. The group is thought to have about 1,500 armed members.

Duque acknowledged that breaking off talks might lead to more violence.

“We realize that these decisions will have implications and bring challenges to all of Colombia,” he said. “But we Colombians have never had it easy and we’ve overcome all obstacles. This one will not be an exception.”