The terrorist attack in Bogotá and its multiple collateral effects: a brief analysis
On Thursday, January 17, 2019, Colombia was shaken by the explosion of a car bomb inside the National Police Academy in Bogotá, killing 21 people –most of them young cadets- and injuring at least another 68. The general sensation in the streets was of frustration and fear, an uncomfortable déja-vu feeling of past decades, when bombing and terrorist attacks by the drug cartels, the guerrilla groups, and also by right-winged sectors, were frequent.
During the next four days, several theories about the attackers were exposed and discussed in the media and in everyday conversations, as the consequences of the attack -even though directed to an official institution- seemed to benefit right-winged sectors of Colombian politics. That is, the consequences of this terrible act could be seen as a smoke screen for corruption scandals that involve the Attorney General and one of the most powerful economical groups, as well as for the increasing social mobilisation in Colombia, which during the last months has expressed itself in a growing non-conformism and several national protests regarding diverse demands (public education, corruption, police brutality, tax reform). It was not unnoticed that the day the bombing occurred –in the morning-, simultaneous national protests and marches were to be held in the afternoon (for public education, against the Attorney General, and against the Police Anti-Riot Squad). All of them were cancelled out of respect for the victims.
Finally, on Monday, January 21, the ELN guerrilla claimed the attack in a statement where they argued that it was a legitimate attack against a military facility, and in retaliation for the government’s lack of will towards a bilateral ceasefire and the reestablishment of the negotiations, which were held with the previous government in Cuba and had been frozen with the current government.
Once the ELN statement was known, the Colombian government decided to end the negotiations, and demand from Cuba the detention and delivery to the Colombian justice of the ELN commanders who were part of the negotiations board, to be judged as the main responsible for the attack. Though this measure can be comprehended by the gravity of such a painful incident, it has been a decision that has triggered discussions regarding its legality, and its possible consequences for Colombia´s reputation in the context of international laws and future peace negotiations (and in any kind of negotiations, by the way).
Unfortunately, the ELN decision to commit this kind of actions (military for them, terrorist for most) has a very negative impact on the social mobilisation of Colombian citizens and organisations, and will unavoidably generate the shrinking of civic space, through the implementation of measures towards national security, with a “tough on crime” and “war against terrorism” scope. Consequently, a government that was being criticised by many sectors as inexperienced and disoriented, now has a clear course.
“In addition to leaving 21 people dead, the ELN closed the doors to negotiation, threw away the support of those who believe in peace, remoulded the Attorney General, gave legitimacy to the current government and returned us to the logic of the War on Terror”, states Victor de Currea Lugo, a Colombian social researcher and journalist who has dedicated much of his work to the ELN negotiations.
Additionally, this new scenario might reinforce the complicated situation for human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia, who have become even a more vulnerable target for illegal armed groups (guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug-trafficking groups), since the peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla was signed and initiated its implementation. In Colombia, human rights defenders and social leaders have often been dangerously stigmatised as guerrilla supporters and/or members. According to the data of the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace INDEPAZ, from January 1, 2016, to January 10, 2019 (a three-year period), 566 social leaders have been killed in Colombia.
Another consequence of enormous importance that the bombing has generated is the increasing critical international relation between Colombia and Venezuela. The Colombian Government (and mainly the right-winged administrations, like the current one) has permanently accused Venezuela of being passive –and even hospitable- with ELN troops and commanders on their side of the border.
The current outlook is very worrisome for Colombia, and especially sensitive for civic society and its spaces for participation, mobilisation and dialogue with duty-bearers.
“I think there are firelogs on,” says León Valencia, director of our Colombian partner organisation Pares (Peace and Reconciliation Foundation). “A log on is the ELN, another fire is the FARC dissident groups, another log on is the powerful criminal organisations controlling drug trafficking, and another one is on the dispute for Venezuela. So the government has to decide if it pours water on those logs lit, or throws gasoline to poke them more. In this case the ELN has thrown gasoline, and that is going to poke more, and the Government has committed the error of neither negotiating nor fighting the guerrilla. That is how we ended in this tragedy… Many fires were fading, but there were still some logs lit, and now a fire can start again.”
For Colombia, 2019 starts as a year with a challenging situation, where peace building and the evolving of civic space towards the contribution to build a just and sustainable world, are at stake.
Sweden has been actively supporting and accompanying the peace negotiations in Colombia during the last decade, with a firm belief on dialogue as the route towards peace. Thus, we as Forum Syd strongly hope that the efforts to continue peace building through dialogue are maintained and embraced by all parties involved, including civil society.