A deadly ambush against Colombian soldiers blamed on the ELN shows the rebel group's internal divisions over ongoing peace negotiations, and is a reminder of its growing use of neighboring Venezuela as a safe haven.
Colombia’s military accused the ELN’s Juan Fernando Porras Martínez Front of detonating a roadside explosive device that killed five soldiers and injured 10 more on February 28 in the Catatumbo subregion of the Norte de Santander border department.
The incident, which happened in a rural part of the department near the border town Cúcuta, may have been in retaliation for a recent security operation that forced the ELN front’s leader, Leonel Salazar Roa, alias “Gonzalo Satélite,” to cross over and seek refuge in Venezuela from where he ordered the attack, according to Blu Radio.
Although the ELN has not taken responsibility for the ambush, the deadly incident comes in the context of increased attacks by the guerrilla army, following the end on January 9 of the ceasefire with the Colombian government. The ELN killed five police officers in a single attack last month, when it set off a bomb in a Barranquilla police station.
The day before the latest attack, ELN Commander in Chief Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista had announced a unilateral ceasefire for the upcoming legislative elections, promising that the group “will cease offensive military operations between March 9 and March 13” as “a show of respect for Colombians who will cast a vote.” This is the first time in more than five decades that the guerrilla group has not threatened violence during the electoral process, according to El Espectador.
The ELN has also repeatedly expressed its readiness to sign a new bilateral ceasefire and return to the negotiation table in Quito, Ecuador, following President Juan Manuel Santos’ January 29 decision to suspend peace talks.
Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera denounced the rebel army in the wake of the attack, pointing out the contradiction between its stance on peace talks and the killing of the five soldiers, according to El Colombiano.
“They continue to be incoherent with regard to peace, the left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing,” the minister said.
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The mixed signals emanating from the guerrilla group show the internal schism between elements in favor of negotiating peace with the Colombian government, and belligerent factions wishing to continue the armed struggle. As InSight Crime recently noted, these latter elements now seem to have the upper hand in the midst of the breakdown of peace talks in Quito. Gonzalo Satélite is one of the strongest voices in the ELN against the peace talks, and his front has been among the most active since the breakdown of the ceasefire.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ELN Peace
The location of the recent bombing is also of significance due to its proximity to neighboring Venezuela, where the ELN’s presence appears to be a growing thorn in the side of the Colombian government, and an expanding source of illicit revenue for the rebel group. Like other ELN leaders, Gonzalo Satélite is reported to have used Venezuela as a hideout.
Recent reports such as the ELN’s distribution of government food rations suggest the rebel army has reinforced its longstanding presence in Venezuela -- some claim with the backing of the administration of President Nicolás Maduro. Such a consolidation of Venezuela as a safe haven for guerrilla fighters can only embolden wayward factions such as the Juan Fernando Porras Martínez Front, while paving the way for intensified actions in the area.