A recent escalation in militant activity highlights Colombia’s deteriorating security situation, bringing into question the potential for maintaining an existing peace agreement, and negotiating new ceasefires with active armed groups, writes Erin Drake.
In late 2021, the five-year anniversary of a major peace agreement with Colombia’s former leftist insurgent group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), passed with mixed reviews over its success. The 2016 agreement ended a civil war characterised by mass fatalities and regular attacks on towns and cities throughout the country. But in the vacuum left by FARC, dissident factions and other groups like the left-wing Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) dug in and proliferated. Taking advantage of poorly secured swathes of rural territory and porous borders with Venezuela, they have since expanded trafficking networks, illegal mining, coca production, and extortion and kidnapping activities. Clashes between rival groups – and with security forces – sporadically surge as militants fight over territory. Such violence is difficult to address, particularly as the government has decreased incentives for militants to disarm while lacking the requisite capabilities and resources to eradicate these groups.
Throughout 2021, violence escalated in eastern and north-western Colombia as FARC and ELN fought for territory. Clashes surged in late-December, and at least 83 people have been killed in 2022. Within a period of two days in early-January 2022, 23 people were killed in fighting in Arauca’s Arauquita, Fortul, Saravena, and Tame municipalities near the Venezuelan border.
Militants most commonly target security patrols in remote areas, although the recent escalation has also seen increased attacks on urban security facilities. In January 2022, FARC militants attacked a police station in Dagua, Valle del Cauca, and engaged in a shoot-out with officers, although no casualties were reported. Later in January, ten officers were injured in a bombing near a special police division in Cali, and on 9 February, at least two people were killed and four were injured in a vehicle bombing targeting a military garrison in Granada, Meta Department. Other attacks on security personnel have included two simultaneous bombings targeting the Camilo Daza International Airport in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, in mid-December 2021; a vehicle bombing that killed one person and injured five in Saravena, Arauca; and a grenade thrown from a motorcycle in Cali’s El Prado neighbourhood that killed two officers and a bystander. While major cities like Bogotá are better secured than outlying areas, contributing to far fewer attacks, militants have previously demonstrated capabilities and intent to attack such locations, including the ELN’s 2019 car bombing targeting a police academy in Bogotá that killed 21 people. From 23-28 February, the ELN staged a countrywide armed strike to disrupt economic activity, which included several bombings targeting security forces and road infrastructure.
Terrorist attacks in Colombia since December 2021
23-28 February: ELN stage armed highway blockades in several departments, including Norte de Santander, Cesar, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Arauca and Chocó.
PROMISES AND ‘PEACE WITH LEGALITY’
Despite international calls for another peace agreement with remaining armed groups, distrust of the government has likely fuelled militants’ reluctance to disarm or negotiate. Incentives by successive administrations have included infrastructural development in rural areas – including the former frontline of the conflict in the Catatumbo region – as well as conditional amnesty and government-assisted reintegration. However, the government’s commitment to such plans has been limited as many former fighters still reside in poverty in reintegration camps under dismal conditions. Promises of continued negotiations with remaining militants have been replaced by violent counter-narcotics crackdowns under President Iván Duque’s policy of ‘Peace with Legality’, which has included airstrikes on rebel camps and a large deployment of special forces to affected areas in mid-2021. This tactic, and unfulfilled promises of the 2016 deal, seems to have strengthened rebels’ commitment to organised crime and terrorist acts.
A GAME OF WHACK-A-MOLE
Neither Colombian nor Venezuelan security forces have managed to significantly reduce the operations of militant groups who regularly cross the border to evade capture. These highly mobile groups have spent years quickly moving from place to place to avoid authorities, while security forces are often delayed by requirements for authorisation and coordination between the two countries. Occasionally, militant cells or leaders are killed or captured, but this generally prompts the rise of another leader or faction, and an intensification of retaliatory attacks.
ELEVATED THREAT AROUND THE 2022 ELECTIONS
In late-February, the ELN escalated its attacks during a six-day armed campaign to disrupt economic activity. This involved at least 18 incidents, including planting an explosive device on a bridge in Pailitas, Cesar Department; setting fire to a truck along the Pan-American Highway between Popayán and Cali; detonating explosives along the San Gil-Socorro road in Santander Department; a coordinated attack on a police station in Fortul, Arauca; and a bombing targeting the Cúcuta-Ocaña highway.
VIOLENCE AMID UNCERTAINTY
President Iván Duque’s preference for a military response and counter-narcotics crackdowns over effective governance and social upliftment will drive the threat posed by militancy in the coming 3-6 months, as negotiations – from the perspective of armed groups – remain a zero-sum game. While FARC and ELN retain an anti-government agenda, the terrorism threat in Colombia is also inextricably linked to organised crime dynamics, as factions engage in illicit activities to sustain themselves. This means that violence will remain a long-term feature in areas deemed strategic for coca production and smuggling, like Arauca and the Catatumbo region.
"Negotiations – from the perspective of armed groups – remain a zero-sum game."
With upcoming presidential elections scheduled for May 2022, there is also uncertainty over the next administration’s strategy towards these groups. Some candidates have indicated a willingness to negotiate with the ELN and maintain the existing agreement with FARC. Others seek to renegotiate the terms of the agreement and have threatened to impose stricter terms on any deal with the ELN. Such a move has the potential to derail the fragile deal and deter any further negotiations over the next few years. It could even encourage some former FARC fighters to resume hostilities. Precedent seen in FARC’s case suggests that even if the next government manages to bring militant groups to the table, they largely lack the requisite resources to support demobilised fighters socially and economically, particularly amid economic recovery efforts following the Covid-19 pandemic.
These factors, unfortunately, paint a grim forecast for Colombia’s security environment, both in the coming year and in the longer-term.