“Violeta” could have taken our lives, now she’s a peace facilitator for ELN

Violeta Arango during the ELN round of peace talks in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo: Alto Commisionado de Paz

It didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting from my wife to convince me to see Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. Deciding that a Saturday matinee would be a good time to catch the Hollywood blockbuster, and taking advantage of warm weather, our outing to the high-end Andino Mall included some window browsing before the 4:00 pm screening.

As it was a Father’s Day weekend, the shopping center was bustling with families, especially women and children looking for that special gift for Dad. With enough time for a bathroom stop, buy our tickets, and line up for popcorn, we found seats at the elevated back of the theatre and sat down to enjoy this historical/sci-fi feature.

June 17, 2017, will be a day that can’t be erased from my memory, and one that almost took our lives, when around 5:50 pm – towards the end of the film – a loud yet muffled bang was heard above a deafening soundtrack. The bang was then followed by a strong jolt to our seats.

In the darkness of the theatre, we turned to each other, knowing that the sound was not part of the film and came from underneath us. The film continued for several more minutes, when all of a sudden, the lights were turned on, and a representative from Cine Colombia asked everyone to leave the theatre quickly and in an orderly way. “There has been an emergency, and we need to evacuate the premises,” he said.

As we were at the back of the theatre, and room filled to capacity, it took at least 10 minutes to enter the Emergency stairwell. With each nervous step, and focused on trying to reach the street without being trapped in a stampede, or possible fire, we managed to get outside to a Carrera 11 filled with fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances.

Not knowing what had happened inside, but sensing something terrible, we found a corner outside the mall to gather our thoughts and composure. The street was teeming with journalists and first responders. It didn’t take long to find out that an explosive device had detonated inside the mall, and according to one at-the-scene journalist, there were many injured.

The attack on Andino claimed the lives of three women as it was confirmed that a bomb had been planted inside the women’s washroom on the second floor of the mall, one floor below the movie theatres and a children’s playground. The deceased were identified as Lady Paola Jaime Ovalle, 31; Ana María Gutiérrez, 41; and Julie Huynh, a 23-year-old French national who had only been in Colombia for six months, working as a volunteer teacher for vulnerable children in Bogotá’s south.

The bombing took place during the same year that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla were to sign the Final Accord with the Colombian Government of President Juan Manuel Santos, so intelligence focused on the National Liberation Army (ELN), especially a militia cell with close ties to the Maoist guerrilla called the Revolutionary People’s Movement (MRP).

The ELN’s Central Command (COSE) swiftly rejected claims of involvement in the attack, despite evidence that five months earlier the organization had orchestrated a bombing near Bogota’s bullring that killed one police officer and injured 20 others. The Andino attack proved that the Colombian capital remained vulnerable to the ELN’s terror campaigns.

After a manhunt that extended from Bogotá to Cundinamarca and the department of Tolima, 10 days after the attack, Colombia’s then Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martínez formally charged nine suspects – all members of the MRP – for their alleged participation in the Andino bombing, and other attacks by MRP between 2015 and 2017. There was one woman, however, who remained a fugitive, and like the henchmen of ELN, denied responsibility for blowing up three women and destroying three families.

Despite evidence implicating 24-year-old Violeta Arango Ramírez as a mastermind behind the bombing, the suspect claimed she was innocent, and subject of politically-motivated persecution. Five years after the Andino bombing, the Universidad Nacional sociologist was captured during the military’s Operation Medusa against ELN strongholds on the Colombian coast.

Violeta Arango was captured during a military operation against ELN. Photo: Ejercito Nacional.

Known by her aliases – “Violeta” or “Tatiana” – the sociologist was formally charged by the Fiscalía on June 5, 2022, for conspiracy to commit criminal acts, terrorism, aggravated homicide, attempted homicide, and rebellion. She denied the charges and to this day maintains her innocence.

The prosecution’s case against “Violeta” was based on the fact that the accused had visited a commercial establishment in the Country Sur neighborhood of Bogotá, where she accessed a computer and downloaded the blueprints of the Andino Shopping Mall from the internet before printing them. These documents, according to authorities, were then purportedly used to strategically place the explosives within the women’s restroom. Arango was sent to the Jamundí prison in Valle del Cauca on June 9, 2022, and was to face a possible 50-year sentence.

When President Gustavo Petro took office on August 7 of that same year, among his first appointments was to name Violeta Arango as a “peace facilitator” with ELN and ordered the Attorney General’s Office to lift the arrest warrant. The alleged terrorist was paroled from Jamundí on November 18 after having served less than six months in prison.

The release of Violeta and her role as a peace facilitator legitimized her status of victimizer over the rights of the Andino victims. In fact, her appointment by President Petro inherently recognizes a criminal profile. If not, then why appoint? The same reasoning applies to a slate of new peace “managers”, including paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso who completed a 15-year sentence in the U.S for drug trafficking, and FARC dissident Rolan Torres (alias “Álvaro Boyaco”) responsible for a series of murders involving civilians and members of the National Police.

A recent photo of Violeta Arango accompanying the ELN’s peace delegation in Caracas, and Senators Iván Cepeda and María José Pizarro (daughter of former M-19 commander Carlos Pizarro Leongómez), shows the extent to which the guerrilla remains idealized within the mainstream of the country’s political left, yet still condemned by a majority of Colombians.

Colombian Senator María José Pizarro with Violeta Arango during the ELN peace talks in Caracas. Photo: María José Pizarro.

While my wife and I were indirect victims of the Andino bombing, “Violeta” could have taken our lives, given that around the same time the explosive device was circulating, we were near the bathrooms.

As one of many protagonists of Petro’s “total peace” – now rebranded “National Reconciliation” – Violeta’s role transcends impunity over justice, or mockery over personal remorse. It’s a reflection of a society that instrumentalizes the conflict for ideological trophies, especially on the extreme left.

If ELN shows a genuine commitment to upholding a bilateral ceasefire by ending attacks against the country’s security forces and energy infrastructure, as well as its practice of kidnapping and extorsion, Violeta’s participation as a peace broker could be justified. Even though her current standing with ELN won’t whitewash memory, President Petro’s objective of a “National Reconciliation” with drug traffickers, members of the First Line, and FARC dissidents isn’t the catalyst that can secure Colombia’s peace with accountability.