Bogotá Bombing Sours ELN Peace Dialogue

A bomb exploded in Bogotá’s la Macarena neighborhood on February 19, killing one and wounding over 30 people. The attack occurred in proximity to the Santamaría Bullring on the day the final bullfight of the season was set to take place. According to Semana, 26 of the injured people were police officers, and another officer, 23-year old Albeiro Garibello, died of head wounds. After the officer’s death, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted a call for “a prompt investigation and the full weight of the law on perpetrators of the attack.” 

When the ring reopened in January after a four-year absence of bullfighting from Bogotá, animal rights demonstrators turned violent, forcing the city to deploy 1,200 riot police to protect spectators.

According to El Tiempo, Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa held a press conference after the explosion and rejected the possibility that animal rights activists coordinated the attack. In the speech, he announced that the ring would remain open despite the bombing, stating, “We do not want these terrorists to succeed.”

Some Colombians directed suspicion at the National Liberation Army (ELN), currently Colombia’s largest active left-wing militant organization since the government secured peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016. Negotiations with the ELN fell through in October of 2016 due to the ELN’s refusal to release Odín Sánchez, an ex-congressman they held captive.

However, the ELN released Sánchez on February 2 in exchange for the government’s release of two imprisoned guerrillas, and negotiations between the Santos administration and ELN resumed in Quito, Ecuador on February 7. Despite the progress that was made, many citizens believe that the negotiations will last just as long as the FARC discussion did (four years) and that Santos will fail to achieve peace before leaving office in 2018. Additionally, if the investigation reveals that the ELN was behind the attack in la Macarena, peace talks could end unproductively once again. The Deputy Police Chief of Bogotá announced that the police arrested two potential suspects but that the investigation of the bombing is ongoing. Peñalosa implored people with information about the attack to come forward, stating, “We are sure the whole citizenship is united against the terrorists.”

On February 27, members of the ELN claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement released on Twitter, seemingly confirming the suspicions of many Colombians. AFP News Agency confirmed this announcement and tweeted, "#Breaking ELN rebels claim responsibility for deadly Bogota bombing."

Juan Camilo Restrepo, chief negotiator on behalf of the Colombian government at the peace dialogues, tweeted, "The ceasefire will be reached when the ELN understands that it is reached by de-escalating, not escalating the conflict."

For now, the future remains unclear as tensions continue to rise between the highly factionalized ELN that simultaneously perpetuates attacks and engages in meaningful dialogue. The continued attacks raise questions for the Colombian people regarding the potential for success in the negotiations and the inevitability of spoiler acts of terrorism.