MEDELLIN, Colombia - A car bomb targeting military personnel exploded yesterday at a Colombian base on the Venezuela border, injuring 36 people.
Colombia’s defense minister Diego Molano called it “a terrorist act” and said that two civilians were among the injured at the base in the border city of Cucuta. The minister attributed the attack to Colombia’s last standing Marxist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The ELN has not commented or claimed responsibility for the attack.
The U.S. Embassy in Bogota said that U.S. soldiers stationed at the base were carrying out training with a Colombian unit at the time of the explosion but were not harmed.
U.S. military personnel deployed to Colombia are cooperating with Colombian security forces on counter-narcotics tactics in the border region.
The attack comes as Colombia’s President Iván Duque is struggling to end a month of street protests, in which dozens have died in clashes with police. Harsh criticism toward the government’s violent police response to the demonstrations have complicated efforts to reach a detente with the national strike committee.
Among a broad list of grievances, the protest movement is unhappy with Colombia’s implementation of the 2016 peace accord with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels.
Opposition figures have condemned Duque’s government for dragging its feet in meeting the terms of the 2016 peace accord, criminalizing anti-government protesters and attempting to raise taxes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed many of Colombia’s fragile poor into deeper economic misery. The protesters have also highlighted Colombia’s deep inequality and corruption.
At the same time, Duque’s government is attempting to patch together a peace negotiation with the ELN, a smaller leftist rebel group. A peace deal with the ELN, Colombia’s Marxist insurgent hold-out, would be a major advance in Washington's long-standing policy to help the Colombian military fight drug trafficking and dismantle the FARC and the ELN, which are deeply involved in trafficking cocaine.
“The Venezuela-Colombia border is a major concern for the U.S. government given the prominence of criminal economies along it,” Paul J. Angelo, an expert on U.S.-Latin America relations at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE World News.
“I think the Biden administration remains committed to helping Colombia reduce drug production and put an end to violence, but it will also be keen to see that the FARC peace accord is taken seriously,” he said. “President Biden believes that Colombia’s best chance at peace and prosperity, especially in its countryside, lies in full implementation of the terms of peace.”
Colombia’s eastern border - where the ELN controls swaths of coca-rich territory - is of prime importance for U.S. anti-narcotics policy.
Drug-trafficking groups source cocaine from the lawless jungles that cover the border, sometimes operating from the Venezuela side, where Venezuela’s strongman leader Nicolás Maduro’s security forces often collude with Colombian armed groups to export cocaine.
“If the ELN is behind this attack, then the prospect of resuming peace talks with the Duque administration would narrow considerably,” added Angelo. “Pressuring the Colombian government through armed action has done little to advance peace dialogues in the past.”
In January 2019, the ELN set off a suicide car bomb that killed 21 members of a police academy in Bogotá.