This month a guerrilla car bomb killed 21 people at a police academy in Bogotá, Colombia. It evoked horror – and also confusion, because a lot of people assume Colombia recently ended its long civil war. Colombia did sign a peace deal with one guerrilla group, the FARC. But the other – the ELN, or National Liberation Army – is still active, and it's claimed responsibility for the January 17 bombing.
John Otis reports for NPR from Colombia and has covered the ELN guerrillas for decades and is the author of the book "Law of the Jungle" about the country's civil war. He spoke from Bogotá with WLRN's Tim Padgett about this lesser known rebel army – and what the Colombian government now plans to do about it.
Excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: This was the worst bomb attack in Bogotá in almost two decades. The ELN wanted to negotiate its own peace agreement with the Colombian government – so were you surprised it committed an atrocity like this?
OTIS: It seems like a really stupid thing to do, because this police academy they attacked, and all these people who were killed, a lot of them were teenagers. Some of them were from poor barrios. So you know it's not like they were attacking the oligarchies and the elite and the powerbrokers. They killed a bunch of kids.
Their point of view is that the military forces in Colombia continue to attack them and they're killing their people. And they say this was a legitimate military target because the police here in Colombia are pretty deeply involved in operations involving the guerrillas. But the public perception of this is just outright cowardly terrorism.
The ELN is the smaller of Colombia's Marxist guerrilla groups. How did it start?
They were formed in 1965 and they've always had very close ties to Cuba. But at the beginning they were a bit more religiously oriented, with the Roman Catholic faith, and a number of their prominent leaders were actually priests.
They had a lot of ties to liberation theology, right? The theology that focuses on the poor.
Yes, exactly. I mean, like all these guerrilla groups of the time, they were trying to overthrow the corrupt oligarchic regime in power. But then they slowly started to get involved in things like drug trafficking and kidnapping...
And you and I know colleagues who've been abducted by them.
Yes, that's right. And attacking Colombian infrastructure and extorting companies. So that's how they've been able to make their money and why they've lasted all these years even though the Cold War is over.
And what sort of strength does it have?
Today a lot of analysts think that it's around 2,000 fighters. But unlike the FARC, the larger of the Colombian guerrilla groups that has now disarmed, the ELN – most of their fighters kind of go around in civilian clothes, and that makes it a lot harder for counterinsurgency forces to attack these guys.
In the early days of the ELN they had a lot more intellectuals and college students and so forth among their ranks. It appears that a lot of their people now are taken from the ranks of the poor. For example, the bomber in this police bombing – he died in the explosion – he was a guy who had a third grade education.
You reported recently that the ELN has been recruiting refugees escaping Venezuela's economic crisis.
I was just in the northern Colombian province of Arauca, which is on the Venezuelan border. These are homeless, disoriented poor people; they need money and they're sort of easy prey for everything from drug trafficking groups to prostitution rings to guerrillas.
In terms of things like organization, how does the ELN differ from the FARC, the Colombian guerrillas most people have heard of?
One of the biggest differences is that the FARC has always been more vertical and hierarchical, and the ELN has been more horizontal, allowing its different fronts to carry out some of their own decisions. And we've seen that in the wake of this car bombing. The ELN came out saying, 'We were responsible.' But at the same time one of the chief leaders of the ELN came out and said he and a lot of the central command didn't know anything about this bombing.
That was one of the leaders who were actually in Cuba trying to set up peace talks with the Colombian government – which now wants to extradite them from Cuba. Do those talks have any future now? Or can we perhaps now expect a new military offensive against the ELN?
We're still recovering from this bombing, so in these moments it's hard to make a strong argument to sit down with these guys. And even before the bombing the government of President Iván Duque was taking a hard line on the ELN. But then, renewing military attacks is a problem because so many of their fighters can just skip across the border into Venezuela. You almost have to use police intelligence more than guns and bombs if you want to go after them.
As a result, a lot of people here are saying, 'Look, we haven't seen a big bombing like this from the FARC because the FARC no longer exists as a guerrilla group. And the overall level of violence in Colombia has since gone down.' So there's still a pretty good argument to be made that sooner or later you're going to have to hash things out with the ELN, because these guys have been around for 53 years and there's no sign of them leaving the scene anytime soon.