With less than a month in office, Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro is facing the first test of his security policy as the country’s criminal groups watch his reaction to the murders of seven police officers.

A group of eight police officers were attacked with explosives and rifle fire on September 2 as they traveled along a rural road in Neiva, a municipality in the southern department of Huila. Seven officers were killed, according to a press release from Colombia’s Ministry of Defense. The identity of the assailants remains unknown.

SEE ALSO: Colombia Profile

This was the deadliest attack on Colombia’s security forces since Gustavo Petro took office on August 7.

“These facts represent a clear sabotage of Total Peace,” Petro wrote on Twitter, referring to his Total Peace (Paz Total) proposal, a mainstay of his policy plans, in which he has offered to begin peace talks with almost two dozen armed groups in Colombia. As part of this goodwill effort, he has suspended arrest warrants for some wanted criminals and vowed to suspend extraditions to the United States for any who willingly reach a deal with the government.

A number of dissident groups formerly belonging to the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), also known as the ex-FARC Mafia, are present in Huila. Speaking to the press at the site of the attack, Petro warned that the main suspects were the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, an important former FARC front which has been expanding its territory in recent months.

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The attack that cost the lives of seven police officers in Huila was the first direct challenge to Petro’s peace plans. It comes at a time of particular vulnerability for the still-nascent peace process under the new president.

While peace talks appear set to restart with Colombia’s largest criminal threat, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), it is far from certain how other groups will react.

One other major criminal group is divided over the issue of peace. The Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), have seen dissent within their ranks with several factions rejecting the overall leadership’s willingness to talk.

SEE ALSO: Five Security Challenges for Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s Next President

The ex-FARC Mafia present their own set of challenges. With most of their traditional leadership decimated over the last year, this loosely connected network is made up of more than 30 different groups. These armed gangs, which all dissented from the FARC peace process in 2016, carry a distrust of the government. The killings in Huila, as well as a previous attack on a Petro security team in Norte de Santander, shows that much of the ex-FARC Mafia may have no interest in negotiating.  

How Petro reacts to these challenges, whether with force or restraint, could decide the future of Total Peace.

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