Marxist Terrorists Blamed for Worst Bogota Bloodbath in 16 Years

(Bloomberg) -- Colombia’s government blamed the National Liberation Army, or ELN, for a car bomb attack on a police academy that killed 21 in the deadliest terror attack in Bogota in more than a decade.

Urban militias from the Marxist rebel group spent more than 10 months planning the attack, which also injured 68 and damaged nearly 600 buildings, according to authorities. An ELN member who had lost a hand working with explosives drove a 1993 Nissan SUV loaded with 80 kilos of pentolite explosive detonated at the General Santander academy in the south of the city on the morning of Jan. 17.

Marxist Terrorists Blamed for Worst Bogota Bloodbath in 16 Years

Colombia’s homicide rate rose last year, breaking a long downward trend, as illegal groups fought for control of territory and cocaine production. The nation’s biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, handed in its weapons following a 2016 peace deal, but the smaller ELN and other drug-trafficking groups swiftly moved to occupy the areas it had abandoned.

Negotiations between the government and the ELN stalled after President Ivan Duque took office in August, insisting that the group stop carrying out terrorist attacks, hand over hostages, and stop kidnappings as a condition for talks. Duque believes there is now no space for dialogue with the rebels, Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos said, speaking alongside the Defense Minister.

Markets barely reacted, with bonds little changed and the peso strengthening 0.3 percent against the dollar.

Explosive Devices

The Jan. 17 attack was the worst since a 2003 blast at an upmarket social club that left more than 30 dead. Terrorism reached a peak during a bombing campaign by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in the 1980s and early 1990s. Thirty-five explosive devices have been set off in Bogota in the last five years, according to data compiled by the Resource Center for Conflict Analysis, or CERAC, but the last car bombing was in 2006.

A bomb targeting a former Justice Minister killed three people near Bogota’s financial district in May 2012. An explosion at an upscale shopping mall in Bogota in 2017 also killed three.

Marxist Terrorists Blamed for Worst Bogota Bloodbath in 16 Years

Production of coca, the raw material for making cocaine, has more than tripled over the last five years, fueling violence across large swathes of the country.

The peace deal with the FARC ended a conflict that had lasted more than five decades. As talks between the government and ELN stalled last year, the group stepped up its operations, carrying out dozens of attacks on oil pipelines in rural areas. The group’s last urban attack came a year ago in Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast, where it detonated an explosive device in a police station, according to CERAC.

“They’re trying to encroach on the vacuum of power that the FARC left and grow their significance through narco-trafficking, links to the Sinaloa cartel,” in Mexico, said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis in Bogota. “In the past, they’ve targeted police and government installations. I’d expect that to continue and intensify.”

The ELN has been fighting the state since the 1960s, and says it wants a Cuban-style revolution in Colombia. It has a presence on both sides of the Venezuelan border, and also operates in the Pacific region. The group is estimated to have more than 2,000 members, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The attack could help bolster the Trump administration’s case to label Venezuela a sponsor of terror, an idea that it has been considering.

“To the extent that a group that is taking safe haven in that country is now carrying out lethal attacks, it certainly strengthens their case,” Isacson said.

Venezuela on Thursday joined other foreign governments in condemning the attack, calling it a “terrorist act.”

In labeling the country a sponsor of terror, the U.S. has to show the ELN is operating there with the "tacit or declared” permission of the Venezuelan government, Isacson said.

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