Catatumbo carnage: Colombian guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) suspected of the death of 9 officers

Colombia's total peace plan faces setbacks as ELN negotiations falter, Clan del Golfo ceasefire breaks, and ex-FARC violence persists.
  1. The attack on an army base in Catatumbo, leaving nine officers dead, threatens Colombia’s total peace plan and raises doubts about ongoing negotiations with the ELN guerrilla group.
  2. President Petro’s ambitious “total peace” plan has faced multiple setbacks, including a breakdown in ceasefire negotiations with the Clan del Golfo and increased violence from ex-FARC factions.
  3. Experts argue that the government needs to recognize the limitations of the total peace plan and make adjustments to its agenda, procedures, and negotiation partners to achieve peace in Colombia.

Early Wednesday morning, an explosive attack on an army base in Catatumbo, a coca-growing area on the border with Venezuela, left 9 officers dead.

The area has historically been controlled by the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s oldest guerrilla group.

Most likely, experts told BBC Mundo that the insurgent group, currently negotiating a demobilization with the government, carried out the attack.

Although he did not attribute the attack to the ELN, Petro called for consultations with his negotiating team and condemned the attack. The army chief and the peace commissioner did attribute it to the ELN, while Alvaro Uribe, former president and key opposition figure, regretted “that Colombia had abandoned security.”

The episode in Catatumbo adds to other incidents that in recent weeks have generated skepticism about Petro’s ambitious “total peace” plan, which seeks to simultaneously negotiate sentence reductions with guerrillas and drug traffickers in exchange for their demobilization and judicial contribution.

“It is already clear that the scope of total peace is going to be limited, and the government must recognize this,” says Jorge Mantilla, an expert on organized crime. “The grandiloquence of total peace will have to be limited, which implies adjustments to the agenda, procedures, and, above all, the actors, with whom they will or will not negotiate.

Juanita Vélez, a researcher at the Conflict Responses think tank adds: “Petro is getting tangled up in total peace. This is going to be slower than expected, and I see it as very difficult to consolidate in the time he has left in government (3 and a half years)”.

In the 7 months he has been in power, Petro has not managed to contain the increase in violence registered during the Ivan Duque government. Although homicides and murders of social leaders have decreased slightly, the numbers of kidnappings, extortions, and massacres have increased, according to the police.

These are the three main fronts on which Petro’s plan suffered blows that complicated its objective.

Attack on the most advanced process

The attack in Catatumbo was the strongest blow to the total peace project because, of the different negotiation tables established by Petro, the one with the ELN was the most solid and advanced.

The government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) negotiated for 6 years with this guerrilla, and Duque, in 2019, suspended the dialogues after a bombing of a police school.

Petro took over the process from Santos, and in only two months, according to the officials in charge of the talks, the interrupted course was resumed.

Moreover, the coincidence between the reformist agenda of Petro, a former M19 guerrilla, and the slogans of the ELN, a Guevarist movement influenced by liberation theology, generated the idea that this would be a relatively simple peace process.

However, the ELN is a federal guerrilla, fragmented and with growing power in the coca-growing areas of the country. Each of its fronts has a certain autonomy, even confronting each other. Its political agenda is ambitious, and its negotiators opportunistic.

In December, Petro announced that he would cease confrontations with the ELN, and then, when it became untenable militarily and militarily, he backed down. Many interpreted this as a miscalculation or a problem of method.

“The attack in Catatumbo is a way to strengthen their position at the table and to say that the process is not as simple as they had thought,” says Kenny Sanguino, a crime expert lawyer from the Free University of Cúcuta, the city closest to Catatumbo.

But, on the part of the government, Sanguino finds “problems of strategy, because in practice no operations are being carried out against these groups, while they continue to exercise authority in the regions.

Failure of the ceasefire with the Clan del Golfo

Currently, the largest armed group in the country is not the ELN but a residue of the paramilitaries dedicated to drug trafficking and extortion called Clan del Golfo.

The group does not have political aims like the guerrillas. Petro cannot offer them reforms in exchange for demobilization in search of social justice, for example. That is why he has offered them reduced sentences if they contribute to dismantling organized crime.

This implies judicial procedures, such as lifting arrest warrants, which generate strong clashes between the government and the Attorney General’s Office.

This group, like the ELN, has tried to strengthen its negotiating position through attacks and pressure on the civilian population.

Petro changed the policy of forced eradication of coca crops, which boosted production and strengthened the Clan’s reasons for not wanting to get out of the lucrative drug trafficking business.

Two weeks ago, the Colombian president announced the interruption of the ceasefire he had proposed to the Gulf Clan after the group attacked small-scale miners and transporters in two key artisanal mining production areas.

“We will not allow them to continue sowing anxiety and terror in the communities,” he said.

It was the first of the negotiating tables to break down. The first, but no longer the only, blow to “total peace.”

Ex-FARC threatened by fragmented and strengthened dissidents

The peace agreement signed between Juan Manuel Santos and the then largest guerrilla group in the country, the FARC, went into crisis during Duque’s term: hundreds of ex-combatants were killed, an important part of the signatories returned to arms, and those who refused to sign from the beginning were strengthened.

That trend has not changed with Petro in power.

Last week, former FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño assured that the “implementation of the peace agreement is in grave danger” due to threats and displacements suffered by signatories in supposedly protected areas.

Those responsible for these attacks were, according to Londoño, armed groups that called themselves FARC dissidents, also known as the Central General Staff, and sought political status to enter the negotiation processes proposed by Petro.

The FARC dissidents are, in effect, a web of groups with diverse interests made up of new recruits rather than politically-minded ex-guerrillas. Petro has tried to bring them to justice as members of the guerrillas, but the authorities insist they are criminals who should be subject to the law.

Juanita Vélez assures: “Concerning the dissidents, we are still in the mess of knowing if the Second Marquetalia (a group that signed but returned to arms) has political status. And the Central General Staff (dissidents since the beginning of the peace process with Santos) is receiving very little pressure from the army, making them not eager to sit down to negotiate”.

And Mantilla concludes: “In 7 months, the government did not manage to maintain a broad political capital to support total peace, nor did it manage to consolidate a technical capacity around the idea of total peace, and it did not design a security strategy that makes people feel peace in the territories”.

Petro came to power under the banner of total peace in a country that has been, if not 200 years, at least 60 years in the interrupted war. The condition of leftist and former guerrillas seemed an advantage for the president.

It is clear that not even that unprecedented and historic condition makes peace an easy goal to achieve.