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Colombia: police training centre bomb attack

An attack on peace?

17 February 2019

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

On January 17th, a car bomb exploded within the police training centre known as the General Santander School.  The toll was 21 dead, all of them members of the police institution or international police forces that were studying there.  The reactions were immediate, angry and not very rational, and that was just the reactions of the supposed left wing intellectuals and NGOs.  So, I decided to let some time go by to see if there were some calmer voices, there were, but the calm voices are few in number.

Shortly afterwards, the Urban Front of the ELN issued a strange communiqué claiming responsibility. The communiqué used strange language, as it spoke of guerrilla officers and not commanders, and it justified the attack as an act of war in line with the rules of war and International Humanitarian Law (IHL).  Many years ago the ELN said it would abide by IHL, a political mistake, the guerrillas should have a code of war, an ethical code, but it doesn't have to be the same one that was drawn up by their enemies, as the tribunal and the dock of IHL are the state signatories.  Moreover, the experts in the area are all, in the best of cases rightist liberals whose interpretations of IHL will never favour the acts of non state actors.  We should be clear, however, whether the attack falls within the rules of IHL is of lesser importance to the families of the dead and injured, but it wasn't the ELN who kick-started the debate, but rather the former ELN guerrilla, Carlos Arturo Velandia, alias Felipe Torres, who stated in his interview with the journalist Yamid Amat that the attack was a war crime.

Others spoke on the issue of IHL.  Victor de Currea-Lugo is right when he states that the conflict is not a legal issue but rather a political one, in the sense that the political consequences of an act are more important than the laws it breaks or obeys.  But the Law is also political if it were a question of whether the attack violates IHL or not, we could leave it to the ELN and the state, but the comments from the self-proclaimed left intellectuals such as Victor de Currea-Lugo, Carlos Medina Gallego and Lieutenant Alejo Vargas (Honoris Causa) the NGOs such as the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) and renowned international academics such as Kai Ambos, don't really deal with that issue, but rather try to change our concept of the conflict and present it as a public order problem in the best style of Uribe and former presidents and military officers: the armed conflict does not exist.

Thus, we are bound to deal with their viewpoints.  As is now usual, one of the worst comments came from De Currea-Lugo who published an article entitled The ELN tears up the peace.  The phrase is well known amongst the Colombian people as the slogan of the Uribistas regarding the peace agreement with the FARC.  Here this character wants to blame the ELN for ending the negotiations between them and the state.  Without a doubt, it was a huge blunder and gave a golden opportunity to Duque to walk away from the negotiating table.  But with or without the attack this process was going nowhere and we can date it back to 1996 when the ELN made public its proposal for a National Convention.  The idea of a process of negotiations that gave a voice and vote to the people, through their organisations and not simply another corrupt Constituent Assembly process never took hold amongst the Colombian elite.  They have waged a war for 60 years precisely in order to deny that right.  When the state began its failed process with the FARC in 1998, withdrawing from a vast area of land, it, at the same time, refused to withdraw from an area in Southern Bolivar and Yondó in order to be able to hold the National Convention that the ELN proposed.  No one was going to have the right to decide and discuss.  At that time the FARC also demonstrated that they did not want a process where the people participated and said that it would not respect a cease fire in the proposed zone.  In the marches organised by the paramilitaries under the guise of the NGO No Al Despeje (No Withdrawal), members of the Communist Party also took part.  Reducing participation to the handing over of proposals in Havana in this process with the FARC, was not fortuitous, it was their policy and that of the state also.  It is also obvious that the state sees the process with the ELN as one of concentrating their troops in agreed upon zones, handing over their weapons and demobilising.  Our intellectuals have little to say on the point.

It is true that the attack had negative political impacts.  It wouldn't be the first time that the actions of an armed organisation damaged their image or led to a generalised rejection of them, but to go from that to blaming the ELN for all the ills of Colombian society and to deny the existence of an armed conflict is a cynical act where the intellectuals, journalists and NGOs wish to prove to the state that they are a reasonable opposition, willing to negotiate, be reasonable and if needed to betray the people in the name of the stability of the state itself and of course their own salaries.

The Usual Suspects

As is to be expected Victor de Currea-Lugo went all out against the ELN, having sipped coffee with the commanders of said organisation for the umpteenth time.  According to the aforementioned person "The ELN bears a huge responsibility in breathing new life into the extreme right."(1)  It is truly surprising to learn that the ELN breathed new life into the right wing, as it is that right wing that won the presidency seven months before the attack, that right wing which managed to defeat the accord signed by the FARC in a plebiscite and none of these events can be attributed to the ELN.  It is worth pointing out that when he talks of an extreme right, he is really talking of a lumpenised right wing, a narcotised right wing, given that in Colombia there has never been a right wing that wasn't extreme, the tens of thousands of deaths, disappeared, tortured, prisoners and exiles bear faithful testimony that here the extreme right has always been in power, sometimes very traditional, sometimes neo-fascist, but never moderate.

For his part, his crony, Carlos Medina Gallego made very worrying declarations, although he did acknowledge that the ELN had asked for a bilateral ceasefire and you can't expect the blows to come from just one of the parties.  According to this peacenik, the ELN is a pampered organisation.

The thing is that the ELN has had a pampered war, it is a war in which the state has pampered it and it is an organisation that has been pampered by the press, by society, by the community, by many people...

It is an organisation that was never confronted as it was thought to be one that had more developed political principles, that it represented social sectors, that it controlled territory and its leaders such as Manual Pérez were accepted.  I mean that as far as I am concerned it is an organisation that has not felt the trials of war like the FARC did.  To put it in irresponsible terms:  the ELN could do with a bit more war.

The thing is, that extra war that they need, in the context of these new dynamics, comes with a high cost in lives, not just those of their combatants but also of the lives of members of the Armed Forces and civilians.(2)

The cynicism of a man who for many years has earned his bread writing about the ELN, interviewing their commanders in the mountains and the prisons is beyond belief.  Their prisoners, their dead, the battles etc. are proof of a guerrilla organisation that was confronted and Medina Gallego knows it better than most.  Moreover, unlike the FARC, it is a political-military organisation and the war has to be measured not just in terms of the deaths in their ranks (that are not few in number) but also in the impact of the dirty war in their areas of influence.  Carmen de Chucurí and San Vicente de Chucurí are two municipalities that witnessed the birth of the ELN and were dominated for a long time by that organisation.  How many deaths did it take to expel them from there, Mr Medina Gallego?  The city of Barrancabermeja, a centre of fierce social struggles but also for a time one with an open presence of the insurgencies, particularly the ELN, suffered the dirty war like no other.  In its war the state through the National Navy Network 07 murdered hundreds of people.  Finally, in 2000, the paramilitaries managed to expel the ELN from the city in the midst of a bloodbath that saw both ELN militants and social activists fall, many of whom were the social base of the ELN.  But to this academic, they were pampered.  There are many regions where similar things happened, many neighbourhoods of Medellín, the town of Segovia etc. and there is not enough space to go into detail on the issue.  Medina Gallego, against all the evidence believes the ELN could do with a little more war i.e. he justifies the intensification of the war.

If Medina Gallego and De Currea-Lugo believe even half of what they say they should be more coherent.  The state is currently offering 4,000 million pesos (1.3 million dollars) for the top ELN commanders.  What are you waiting on?  If they are so vile and have learnt nothing and the could do with a heavier hand, well turn them in!  Don't worry, you have lived off the war against the ELN like nobody else (a war you believe they were pampered in), now you can live off this war again by collaborating with the state you serve so well.  Don't worry, you can continue to be ELN experts, as the ELN has a long tradition of indulging academics, journalists and NGOs like you.  The commander you hand over, will surely give you an interview from jail.

Tatiana Acevedo for her part, blames the ELN for the murders of social activists.  According to the journalist:

Perhaps the harhest consequence in the wake of the attack on the School is the free rein it has given to the Armed Forces.  The rebirth of the subversive threat will create a worse situation and greater risk for the social organisations, whilst at the same time the political narrative of the enemy within, gains a new bout of life which those yearning for the landlord paramilitaries will feed upon.(3)
She seems to be worried about a resurgence in violence against social organisations.  However, that violence never ceased.  One of the complaints of the social organisations and even the aforementioned peaceniks is precisely the wave of murders of social leaders in the country.  However, her discourse is an old one against which the social organisations and human rights groups fought for many years and it is the discourse that the paramilitaries are reactive i.e. they arise in response to guerrilla violence.  We won that debate a long time ago, but one of the consequences of the peace process with the FARC is precisely that many human rights organisations, peaceniks and others, have changed their position on the issue for reasons of political convenience and economy (their international financers no longer accept that discourse).  Once again the ELN is to blame for everything.

Piedad Córdoba and Kai Ambos

These two people are not often mentioned in the same sentence, but their statements regarding the attack are very similar on one crucial point: the role played by the Police in the Colombian conflict.  On her twitter feed, Piedad Córdoba(4) said the following:

I think we should go out and march for the 20 police lads who were murdered, for the 566 social leaders who have also been murdered since 2016 (Indepaz) and against all types of violence.  A country marching for peace.
The relatives and friends of the dead police officers are entitled to mourn them, as are those who feel some affinity with the institution, those who support the state etc.  Amongst them there will also be people who are genuinely concerned about the situation facing social leaders.  The rejection of murder may cross certain barriers.  But no one has the right to compare the dead police officers to the social leaders.  First of all, the social leaders are not combatants, they are not armed they do not participate in the conflict.  Secondly, the police force is an institution of the state that has taken part in thousands of crimes against the civilian population.  So out of respect for the civilian population, victims of the police itself, they cannot be compared nor mourned at the same time.  This does not mean that Piedad Córdoba has no right to mourn the police. She has that right but not at the same time and moment as she aims to remember those who fell in the systematic campaign against social leaders.  The problem with Piedad is the same as the problem with the legal academic Kai Ambos.  Kai Ambos is a professor of law and depending on the theme, it is almost obligatory to cite him in Colombia.  His commentaries are read and discussed in the country and he has a certain influence.  His statements to the Semana magazine are of great concern.

Kai Ambos deals with the issue of IHL and the rules of war making questionable statements on them and evaluates the role of the police in the Colombian conflict.

If we assume that there is a non-international armed conflict between the ELN and the Colombian state - a questionable position -, given the low intensity of the conflict - the members of the police force cannot be treated as military targets. In fact, even if we consider the possibility that in a non-international conflict there are combatants (de facto) - another controversial position- the police officers would not normally qualify as such, just the Armed Forces.(5)
First, he denies the existence of an armed conflict given the low intensity of it, when this has never been a determining factor when it comes to qualifying a conflict or not.  Then he states that the police are not part of the conflict.  One would like to insult Kai Ambos and call him a fool, an idiot and worse, but the reality is there is nothing stupid about him, but he is a cynic, like Medina Gallego.  The police in Colombia are an integral part of the conflict, they have specialised forces, they go into combat and in rural areas it is the police who maintain public order and sometimes fight the insurgents though not always in the same manner as the army.  How many people have the police killed in the conflict?  It would seem that Kai Ambos is unaware of the role the police play in the conflict.  But it is not the case, the man is conscious of what he is saying and his position is that the police in countries in conflict are neutral, that the state is neutral.  If this were so, we would have to revise the role of the police in conflicts such as Ireland where the British government took a decision to place the police in the frontline or South Africa where Apartheid would have fallen from the start if it were not for the police.  I would ask Kai Ambos to walk unaccompanied around the mountains of Colombia to see how he does with this oh so civic force.

It would have been interesting, maybe even necessary to deal with the issue of the armed actions of the ELN, the real stumbling blocks in the dialogues with them, but what we saw following the attack was not that, but rather an attempt to oblige the ELN to accept the same accord the FARC accepted and discount any possibility of even discussing the question of participation of the people not just in the process with the ELN but in the formulation of the state's policies.  The people have asked time and again to be given a voice on mining or hydroelectric projects etc. and time and again the state has said no.  But to the academics and journalists it is easier to blame the ELN for everything, deny the existence of a conflict and even ask for a heavier hand so as they learn that you can't demand the participation of the people.  Recently the Constitutional Court found that the municipal plebiscites cannot halt mining projects in the country, but our ELN experts and peaceniks have little to say about it, Colombia's problem is a guerrilla force that does not want to surrender like the FARC did (something the MOVICE expressly called for) and not an oligarchy that does not want to give an inch in its control over the destiny of the country.  Very well ladies and gentlemen , you have had numerous opportunities to influence the direction of the debate on the future of the country from your press columns etc, and you always opt to defend the state.  If you want to defend the state that much, do what Alejo Vargas did, go and give courses in the Armed Forces Higher School of War and receive your Medal of Merit and you too can be lieutenants honoris causa.


1 El País (22/01/2019) El ELN hizo trizas la paz www.elpaí

2 Verdad Abierta (22/07/2019) "El Eln, con la guerra a las espaldas": Carlos Medina Gallego

3 El Espectador (28/02/2019) Liberación Nacional

4 Piedad Córdoba is a former senator for the Liberal Party, who has supported that party through the economic aperture, the dirty war and became known for her role in the peace process with the FARC.

5 Semana (22/01/2019) "La posición del ELN es legalmente insostenible": Kai Ambos

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