Colombians had hoped that decades of civil conflict were behind them, but a massive explosion that left 21 people dead is renewing fears of a return to terrorist violence.
The government on Friday announced that it had arrested a suspect affiliated with one of the country’s last remaining leftist rebel groups on charges stemming from the car bombing at a police academy in the capital, Bogota. In addition to the 21 dead, 68 people were injured in the blast, which occurred Thursday morning.
The government signed a peace agreement in 2016 with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, but it still faces a challenge from two smaller groups, including the one blamed for the police academy attack: the National Liberation Army, better known by its Spanish initials, ELN.
President Ivan Duque called for Colombians to unite in repudiating terrorism and to help the armed forces bring those responsible for the bombing to justice. The president also announced police and army reinforcements in regions where the ELN’s presence is strongest.
In a news conference at the presidential palace, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero said investigators have tied both the driver and the bomb-laden vehicle to the ELN, which has been at war with the government since the 1960s. Authorities said the driver died in the blast at the Francisco de Paula Santander Police Academy. It was the deadliest attack in 15 years in the country.
Chief Prosecutor Nestor Martinez identified the driver as Jose Aldemar Rojas, 56, a reputed ELN member who is known by the alias Mocho Kiko. He reportedly lost his arm manipulating explosives during a long clandestine career with an ELN cell near the border with Venezuela.
The Defense Ministry identified Rojas as a member of the ELN's Domingo Lain Saenz front, which operates in the eastern province of Arauca, extorting from businesses, kidnapping oil field workers and perpetrating bomb attacks on the oil pipeline network.
Authorities also announced the arrest in Bogota of another man, Ricardo Carvajal Salgar, and said he had admitted to involvement in the bombing. They declined to give details on what role he allegedly played.
“All the evidence collected in the first 22 hours after the attack point clearly to the ELN as the author of this criminal act,” said Botero, describing the bombing as a cowardly attack on unarmed cadets aged 18 to 22. An Ecuadorean cadet, Erika Chico, was among the dead and several Panamanians were injured.
“This deplorable act is a flagrant violation of human rights," Botero said.
Colombians wondered whether the attack presaged a resurgence of the violence that plagued the country for decades.
"I hope not, but everything indicates a return to terror," said William Gil, owner of a Bogota-based apparel manufacturing firm. "The truth is we are children of war. I'm 52 years old and I've experienced violence all my life."
The blast blew bodies apart, and only seven of the dead have been positively identified so far, officials said.
Investigators estimated that the bomb contained 180 pounds of the powerful explosive pentolite placed aboard a pickup. It exploded amid a crowd of police cadets gathering for an honors assembly at the academy in south Bogota. The force of the blast disintegrated the truck and blew out windows blocks away.
Rojas drove the 1993 Nissan through the academy’s main entrance and raced past guards after police dogs indicated the presence of explosives in his truck, National Police commander Oscar Atehortua told reporters. The bomb exploded 100 yards from the gate.
“We can verify legally that the material actor of this terrorist act is a member of the ELN,” Martinez, the chief prosecutor, said at the news conference. He noted that previous owners of the vehicle also had links to the rebel group. The truck was last purchased and serviced in Arauca.
Peace negotiations with the ELN, which began two years ago under Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, are likely to be formally called off because of the attack. The talks stalled under Santos, and Duque had refused to meet with rebel negotiators until the group released kidnapped hostages and renounced its criminal activities, including drug trafficking and extortion, steps the ELN has declined to take.
Since Duque took office in August, the ELN guerrillas have been responsible for nine kidnappings and 63 bomb attacks on Colombia’s second largest oil pipeline, from Caño Limon to Coveñas, presidential peace commissioner Miguel Angel Ceballos told reporters.
“There is no space for dialogue with a group that continues with criminal activities. We won’t give way and we won’t negotiate,” Ceballos said, adding that Duque has “reactivated” arrest warrants for 14 ELN leaders that had been suspended during peace dialogues.
Since its founding in 1964 by Colombians studying in Cuba, the ELN has vowed to overthrow the government by armed struggle and install a communist government. Until recent years, its warfare has been financed mainly by extortion from businesses and by collecting ransom for kidnap victims.
Since the FARC disarmed and forswore illicit businesses, the ELN has tried to fill the vacuum by taking over its rival’s drug production and trafficking operations.
The group has been blamed for 5,700 kidnappings since 1996 and 328 pipeline bombings since 2012, said security consultant Orlando Hernandez of Medellin-based Agora Consulting. Among recent kidnap victims are a three-man crew of a helicopter taken this month as they ferried cash in rural North Santander province. The rebels destroyed the chopper.
ELN membership has waxed and waned over the years, falling from about 9,000 in the early 1990s to 1,500 in 2015, said Hernandez. Over the last two years, the ELN has added to its ranks up to 1,000 former FARC rebels who refused to lay down their arms, bringing the current total to 2,500, he said.
Special correspondent Kraul is based in Bogota. The Associated Press contributed to this report.