Abstract: The Colombian National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN) conducted an apparent suicide car bombing in the capital city of Bogotá, an unprecedented tactic for the group. The attack also marked the end of the contentious peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN. The ELN’s decentralized structure enables hardline factions to carry out attacks that undermine peace talks, often against the will of its leadership. These factions have been enabled by growing illicit trafficking operations and expansion within Venezuelan territory.
On January 17, 2019, the Colombian National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN) conducted a car bomb attack on the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogotá, effectively bringing the peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN to a halt. The attack sparked condemnation throughout Colombia and from the international community. Thousands of Colombians marched in the streets to protest the attack on the following day.1 Colombian President Iván Duque reinstated the arrest warrants for the 10 members of the ELN’s negotiation delegation in Havana, Cuba.2
Peace talksa between the Colombian government and the ELN in past years were tumultuous. Often regarded as the last left-wing guerrilla force in Colombia after the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC), the ELN proved to be a more difficult negotiating partner. Unlike the FARC, whose leadership was capable of reining in the majority of its cadres into supporting the peace process, ELN leaders pushing for negotiations often could not control their more militant factions.3
Bombing in Bogotá
On January 17, 2019, the ELN conducted a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attack on the General Santander National Police Academy. The attack was the deadliest Bogotá had experienced in years, killing 21 police cadets and injuring 68 more. Colombian authorities tied the attack to the Domingo Laín Front, a belligerent ELN division based in Arauca Department.4 b The bomber, José Aldemar Rojas Rodríguez, drove a 1993 Nissan Patrol carrying 80 kilograms of pentolitec to the academy.5 Rojas died while carrying out the attack, but it is not known if it was an intentional suicide VBIED (SVBIED) attack.6 Colombian investigators found that the bomb was triggered by a car alarm, which could have been triggered by Rojas or someone else within a 500-meter range.7
The ELN claimed responsibility for the academy attack on January 21. According to the ELN, the attack was in retaliation of a Colombian military bombing on one of its bases during a unilateral ceasefire in late December 2018.8 However, Colombia’s Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez claims that planning had started at least 10 months before the academy attack.9 Rojas bought the vehicle in Arauca under his own name in May 2018.10 Colombian authorities determined that the vehicle was brought to the neighborhood of Usme in Bogotá in order to load the pentolite and the IED onto it.11
On the day of the attack, Rojas drove the vehicle approximately 10 kilometers north to the academy.12 CCTV footage released by Spanish newspaper El País reveals that two individuals riding on a motorcycle followed Rojas throughout most of the trip.13 Initial reports claimed that the VBIED had alerted a bomb-sniffing dog at the entrance of the academy, but this was debunked by the Colombian Ministry of Defense.14 Rojas sped through the northern entrance of the academy campus after two unrelated motorcycles entered, which alerted security officers on the campus.15 According to Colombian media reports, Rojas drove around the campus for 42 seconds while passing groups of cadets and officers.16 He then drove to the eastern gate of the campus, where he was stopped by an armed security officer.17 Rojas reversed and drove back into the campus before the VBIED detonated.18
According to open source SVBIED researcher Hugo Kaaman, the graduation ceremony taking place at the academy that day was the most probable target of the attack.19 The detonation occurred in an open area close to the location of the ceremony.20 The fact that Rojas drove past several groups of cadets and police before the VBIED was detonated suggests that Rojas was seeking out a specific target.21 Kaaman believes that Rojas drove to the eastern gate of the academy in an attempt to abort the mission after not locating the intended target.22 Additionally, it seems unlikely that the VBIED was detonated remotely due to Rojas’ movements throughout the campus. Therefore, Rojas most likely detonated the bomb by the nearest group of cadets out of desperation from being discovered.
The ELN’s First Suicide Bombing?
While VBIED attacks are commonly conducted by Colombian guerrilla and criminal groups, the academy attack appears to be the first suicide bombing of its scale in the country. Previous IED attacks by the ELN did not involve the death of the bomber. The University of Chicago’s Suicide Attack Database does not list any suicide attacks in Colombia before the end of its dataset in June 2016.23 Indeed, the deliberate use of SVBIED tactics would be an unprecedented development for the ELN that would have significant implications for Colombian security forces.
There are reasons to doubt that the Bogotá attack was intentionally planned as a suicide attack. It seems unlikely that someone of the rank of Rojas would be selected for a suicide mission. At 56 years of age, Rojas had been a member of the Domingo Laín Front since 1994.24 He became an explosives expert who allegedly taught explosive techniques to ELN cadres in Venezuela.25 Rojas eventually rose in the ranks of the ELN organization and served in the security detail of ELN commander Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (aka Gabino).26 Rojas briefly commanded the Camilo Cienfuegos Commission under the Eastern War Front in 2015 before being promoted as an intelligence chief.27 Someone of Rojas’ experience and expertise would have undoubtedly better served the guerrilla group alive.
While suicide terrorism is typically associated with jihadi movements, suicide bombing tactics have been used by secular nationalist groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as a means of fighting the perceived foreign occupation of their homelands.28 However, this does not apply to the ELN as it neither represents a distinct ethno-national group in Colombia nor holds secessionist aspirations. Furthermore, the ELN does not have a tradition of martyrdom or cult of personality that the PKK, LTTE, and other suicide terrorist groups practice.29 Additionally, with a month having now elapsed since the attack, the ELN’s main website, “ELN Voces,” contains no posts honoring Rojas as a martyr, so it does not appear that the ELN is adopting a suicide-martyrdom culture.d
Nonetheless, the possibility of the attack being a planned suicide mission cannot be entirely dismissed. The General Santander Police Academy was a high-value target for the ELN. The ELN claimed that the academy was a legitimate military target with no non-combatants,30 and the scheduled graduation ceremony ensured the presence of a large number of security personnel. In addition, heightened security at the academy would make it difficult for the bomber to enter or escape without raising suspicion. Suicide bombing tactics can all but guarantee the success of an attack and maximize the number of casualties. Suicide terrorism scholar Robert Pape claims that suicide attacks typically inflict much higher casualties, with the average suicide attack killing 10 people and the average non-suicide attack killing one.31
The ELN’s Structure and Methods of Operating
The ELN has a decentralized command structure consisting of the Central Command (“Comando Central” in Spanish, or COCE) at its head, six regional “War Fronts,” and multiple subdivisions and units underneath.32 With operations in over 112 municipalities across Colombia,33 local ELN fronts can practice a significant degree of local autonomy.34 While its decentralized structure has helped the ELN remain resilient against attacks from Colombian security forces, it has also made it difficult for the group to reach a consensus in the peace negotiations. This was on display with the academy attack, as ELN commander Pablo Beltrán claimed that the ELN’s leadership in Havana did not have prior knowledge of the attack.35 If true, it indicates that the attack was carried out unilaterally by the Domingo Laín Front.
The Domingo Laín Front, the largest and wealthiest militia in the ELN, is headed by COCE leader Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía (aka Pablito). Pablito is often regarded as the most belligerent commander in the ELN.36 Although he does not outright reject peace talks with the Colombian government, Pablito is the most critical of the negotiations among the ELN leadership.37 Under Pablito’s command, the Domingo Laín Front has carried out multiple attacks on Colombian security forces that have undermined the peace talks. In 2015, the Domingo Laín Front launched an attack on Colombian security forces in Boyaca that left 11 soldiers and one police officer dead.38 The Domingo Laín Front is also believed to have been responsible for a bombing attack in Bogotá’s financial district in 2015.39 In 2016, the Domingo Laín Front launched another attack on a military base in Fortul less than four months after the Colombian government and the ELN publicly announced peace talks.40
The Domingo Laín Front, under the Eastern War Front, is based in Arauca, Colombia. Arauca is a largely rural department adjacent to the eastern border with Venezuela that is rich with natural resources, including oil. The Doming Laín Front often targets multinational oil companies operating in Arauca with infrastructure attacks, extortion, and kidnappings.41 According to the Domingo Laín Front, the presence of foreign oil companies in Arauca is exploitative and destructive to the local environment and economy.42 The group promotes a narrative of nationalistic resistance against multinational oil companies in order to gain local support for its activities.43 Extorting oil production is also a key source of income that has helped the Domingo Laín Front establish itself as the dominant non-state armed group in the region.44 Since 2016, the Domingo Laín Front has expanded its territory along the border in Arauca and the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure, including areas previously controlled by the FARC.45
The Domingo Laín Front is not the only ELN division to attack the Colombian government to the detriment of the peace talks. The Western War Front, an ELN division based in Chocó on the Pacific Coast, is also known for carrying out attacks and kidnappings that have undermined negotiations. The kidnapping of former congressman Odín Sánchez is a notable example. The Western War Front’s initial refusal to release Sánchez caused delays in the peace talks in October 2016.46 Peace talks did not resume until Sánchez was finally released in February 2017.47 According to General Mauricio Moreno, the head of operations against the faction, the Western War Front is “completely detached” from the peace talks.48 The Western War Front’s involvement in local drug trafficking makes it resistant to negotiations, as greater revenues embolden it to take a more belligerent stance.49 Similarly, the Southwestern War Front, an ELN division based in the Department of Nariño, a major cocaine production hub, is also reportedly opposed to the peace talks.50
In addition, the ELN has a dedicated unit for conducting attacks in major cities called the Urban War Front. The Urban War Front’s most notable attack was on a police station in Barranquilla on January 27, 2018, that killed five police officers and left 40 injured.51 Founded in 2014, the Urban War Front operates in Bogotá, Medellín, Cucúta, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, and Popayán.52 The Urban War Front, like other War Fronts, has its own command and subdivisions in each of the aforementioned cities.53 While the larger and older ELN Fronts based in rural areas already have operational cells in several major Colombian cities, the creation of the Urban War Front demonstrates that the ELN is making urban attacks a greater priority.54 It is not clear if the Urban War Front’s Bogotá cell, the Jorge Eliecer Gaitan Front, was involved in the academy attack. However, the cell is responsible for up to 17 attacks in the nation’s capital since 2014.55
The ELN in Venezuela
While the Venezuelan and Colombian governments cooperated against the ELN before Hugo Chávez came into power in Venezuela in 1999,56 the ELN now operates in 12 Venezuelan states with virtual impunity under the Maduro government, including states that border Guyana and Brazil.57 Operating in Venezuelan territory allows ELN fighters to escape the jurisdiction of Colombian security forces and exploit opportunities for illicit financing and recruitment. Corrupt Venezuelan government and military officials have created ties with the ELN over the years and support its cross-border illicit trafficking operations.58 Venezuelan government officials are allegedly supporting the ELN in taking over illegal mining operations from local criminal groups.59 According to Américo De Grazia, a Venezuelan National Assembly representative for the State of Bolívar, the Maduro government regards the ELN as a more organized and dependable partner in the illicit enterprise than the local criminal groups.60
Additionally, Arauca’s border with Apure serves as an important entry point for the ELN into Venezuela.61 The Domingo Laín Front’s Border Commission controls cross-border drug trafficking and illicit smuggling into Venezuela.62 Colombian intelligence officials believe that Pablito commands the Eastern War Front from Apure.63 Over the past three years, the Eastern War Front expanded from Apure into the Orinoco mining arch region in the states of Bolívar and Amazonas to exploit illegal mining.64 In addition, alleged negotiations between the ELN and FARC dissident groups to coordinate their activities have reportedly taken place in Apure.65
As the political and economic crisis in Venezuela worsens, the Maduro government may come to rely more on the ELN and other Colombian guerrilla groups for support against the Colombian government. The government has created paramilitary groups called “border security colectivos” that allegedly recruited former FARC members into their ranks.66 The border security colectivos reportedly work alongside the ELN and other groups in the border states of Apure, Táchira, and Zulia.67 The colectivos were allegedly deployed at the Colombian border in Táchira to support the Venezuelan police and military’s efforts to block humanitarian aid requested by opposition leader and declared interim president Juan Guaido.68
Future Prospects for the Peace Process
In essence, the academy attack in Bogotá brought the already deteriorating peace talks to an end. Colombian President Duque broke with the negotiation protocols agreement, reinstated arrest warrants for ELN leaders, and called for the ELN negotiators in Havana to be extradited back to Colombia.69 In response, the Cuban government called on the Colombian government to continue respecting the negotiation protocols.70 Cuba has refused to hand over the ELN negotiators until their safety is guaranteed, as the protocols require.71 While the Cuban government condemned the attack in Bogotá, it still seeks to preserve the peace talks and continue serving as a mediator between the Colombian government and the guerrillas.
The ELN peace talks were already struggling under Duque’s right-wing government. Duque was a vocal critic of the FARC peace deal; during his election campaign, he promised to implement stricter measures on former FARC members and take a tougher stance when negotiating with the ELN.72 In addition, Duque is the protégé of former President Álvaro Uribe, who was known for his heavy-handed approach toward the guerrillas.73 Duque has demanded that the ELN release all of its hostages and cease its illegal activities before continuing the peace talks.74 Furthermore, Duque claims that his government is not obliged to follow negotiation protocols agreed upon by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.75
The regression of the FARC peace deal has also made ELN militants skeptical of peace negotiations. An increasing number of former FARC members are becoming disillusioned with the peace deal due to lack of protection from attacks by various right-wing paramilitary groups and criminal organizations.76 At least 75 former FARC members have been killed since the group demobilized in 2016.77 Many former FARC members feel that the government has not kept its promises of providing healthcare, education, or water.78 Up to 2,800 former FARC fighters, or approximately 40 percent of the FARC’s total force before the peace deal, are taking up arms again and forming dissident groups.79
Additionally, the Colombian government is failing to fill the void that the FARC left in many rural areas, resulting in a race between guerrilla and criminal groups to take over their old territories and drug trafficking operations.80 The ELN in particular has gained significant ground since the FARC demobilized, with its presence expanding in more than 16 municipalities since 2016.81 However, right-wing paramilitary and cartel groups have also expanded into territories left behind by the FARC.82
Furthermore, the total number of human rights activists and civil society leaders killed throughout Colombia since the FARC peace agreement is alarmingly high. Since the FARC peace deal went into effect in November 2016, more than 439 social leaders have been assassinated.83 According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), the killing of social leaders is a targeted, systematic effort meant to stop community organizing.84 The CCJ claims that the killings are not being committed by any single group, but represent a “paramilitary phenomenon” involving a wide range of armed actors with ties to the government and criminal organizations.85 The ELN often cites the rampant killing of social activists as justification for its militant activities,86 and these unchecked murders make it less likely for ELN fighters to agree to demobilization.
The academy attack highlights the difficulties of bringing the 54-year conflict in Colombia to a definitive end. Militant ELN factions are increasingly emboldened by illicit financing, the takeover of the FARC’s former areas of operation, and expansion in Venezuela. Growing skepticism of peace talks with the Colombian government also dissuades ELN guerrillas from engaging in talks to demobilize. The ongoing crisis in Venezuela will continue giving guerrilla groups such as the ELN and FARC dissidents a place for refuge and opportunities for financing and recruitment.
The Venezuelan government may possibly provide greater support to Colombian guerrillas as tensions rise with the United States and Colombia. Furthermore, the popular outrage against the academy attack has given President Iván Duque a stronger mandate to take a harder approach against the ELN and reject attempts at peace negotiations. CTC
Ross Dayton is an analyst at Control Risks and specializes in global security and threat analysis, with regional focuses on Latin America and the Middle East. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Control Risks and its affiliates. Follow @rdayt_
[a] Secret talks between the Colombian government and the ELN began in 2014 to set an agenda for peace negotiations. Peace talks were publicly announced in March 2016, but the negotiations that followed were slow and contentious due to vague goals, demands for the ELN to release its hostages, and ELN attacks on Colombian security forces. Peace talks were suspended after right-wing President Iván Duque was inaugurated in 2018. “The Missing Peace: Colombia’s New Government and Last Guerrillas,” International Crisis Group, July 12, 2018; “Iván Duque dice que solo explorará paz con ELN si libera a ‘todos’ sus rehenes,” Comercio, September 8, 2018.
[b] Colombia is made up of 32 departments and a capital district. Arauca Department is located in the northeast of the country on the border with Venezuela.
[c] Pentolite is a highly explosive material consisting of PETN and TNT. It is used for both military and non-military purposes. The amount of pentolite in the VBIED would have been enough to destroy a four- to five-story building. “Con carga explosiva del atentado se podía derribar edificio de 5 pisos,” Tiempo, January 18, 2019.
[d] Many of the ELN’s social media accounts were suspended after the academy attack. However, the ELN Voces website remains operational and active. “¿Cómo define Twitter cuándo bloquea una cuenta?” Tiempo, January 18, 2019.
 “Colombians flood streets to protest terror after car bomb,” Associated Press, January 20, 2019.
 “Lo que se sabe de José Aldemar Rojas, autor material del ataque en la Escuela de Cadetes,” Espectador, January 18, 2019.
 “Lo que se sabe de José Aldemar Rojas.”
 Fiorella and Waters.
 “Lo que se sabe de José Aldemar Rojas.”
 Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 3, 15.
 Ibid., pp. 16, 87, 114; Garcia.
 “Pablito, miembro del Coce con vínculo directo con terrorista de Bogotá,” Tiempo, January 18, 2019.
 “El frente del ELN que estaría detrás de los atentados en Bogotá,” Semana, June 7, 2015.
 “Amazonas, el estado venesolano donde manda el Eln,” Tiempo, November 13, 2019.
 “ELN in Venezuela.”
 Fernando Tineo, “Nueva guerrilla azota la frontera occidental venezolana,” Venepress, November 27, 2018.
 “The Missing Peace.”
 Gillooly and Zvobgo.
 “The Missing Peace.”