Colombia’s Petro recalls peace negotiators after ELN kills nine soldiers

Handout: Ejercito Nacional de Colombia.

Nine soldiers have been killed, and nine others injured after the National Liberation Army (ELN) attacked an army platoon in the northeast of Colombia. The attack during the early hours of Thursday in the mountainous region of Catatumbo, department of Norte de Santander, is the most recent criminal act by ELN against the country’s security forces and comes after recent declarations by the ELN’s Antonio García that the guerrilla will continue to attack members of the Colombian Army and National Police despite peace talks taking place with the government.

The ELN and Colombian Government have completed two rounds of talks since January this year, in both Caracas and Mexico City, without a ceasefire agreement. A third round of talks were scheduled to begin, May 2, in Havana, Cuba.

Colombia’s Armed Forces issued a statement on Tuesday condemning “the vile murder of our military in Catatumbo, including 7 soldiers and 2 non-commissioned officers, in a criminal action by the ELN. We spare no effort to save the lives of the wounded. We accompany their families in these difficult times.” The message was accompanied by a black ribbon next to the Armed Forces shield.  Wednesday’s attack occurred just hours before President Petro and Defense Minister Iván Velásquez will travel to Mesetas, Meta, to visit some 200 demobilized FARC combatants who have been residing in a temporary relocation camp since 2016 as part of the Final Accord signed with the former guerrilla.

The guerrilla’s former top commander, alias “Timochenko”, will accompany the official delegation, after he denounced the presence of ELN in one of FARC’s former strongholds. Rodrigo Londoño also made a rare affirmation to the media last week, when he claimed that he felt “safer under President Duque than the current administration (of President Petro).”

The visit to the ETCR Mariana Páez camp was announced after “Timochenko” warned President Petro during a meeting that the families inside the camp have threatened to leave the area as a result of fighting between FARC dissident groups, under the command of aliases “Iván Marquéz” and “Iván Mordisco.” The two groups formed after the 2016 peace agreement with ex-FARC have been fighting for territorial control of the western corridor of Meta department, and former combatants claim, that “Mordisco” has allowed ELN to enter the region.

The death of the nine soldiers, and recent attacks by ELN against oil pipeline Caño Limon – Coveñas, have thrown into doubt the future of Petro’s “total peace” agenda, a pillar of his domestic policy, to the extent that the president has recalled the government’s ELN peace negotiators to Bogotá. President Petro repudiated the attack on Twitter stating that the soldiers were “assassinated by those who today are far from peace and the people.”

Shield of Colombia’s Armed Forces after death of nine soldiers in Catatumbo.