POPAYÁN, Colombia—Rebel forces launched a series of strikes over the last few days, paralyzing large swaths of this Andean nation.
The National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s last active Marxist insurgency, began its “paro armado,” a “strike” enforced with guns and violence, at 6:00 a.m. last Friday. Dissident factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who have rejected that group’s 2016 peace deal with the government, also participated in the offensive.
The Colombian military claims there have been at least 117 “terrorist acts” since Friday, crippling roads and infrastructure, and leading one national news outlet to declare a “partial state collapse.”
The paro was supposed to have ended after 72 hours, but at least some guerrilla cells ignored the deadline imposed by ELN leadership. Perhaps the most devastating incident occurred late Monday night, when a car bomb went off near a military checkpoint in the southwestern Cauca region, killing seven civilians and wounding 13. Not until Wednesday could the country begin to feel that some level of calm had returned.
Although attacks have occurred across Colombia, the guerrilla stronghold of Cauca Department south of Cali is one of the regions hardest hit. Three civic society leaders also were gunned down here in a zone controlled by the ex-FARC’s Dagoberto Ramos Front.
“The scourge of war is upon us again,” says Mabel Narváez, 30, a teacher who lives in Cauca’s capital of Popayán. She says residents are “terrorized by the battle between Left and Right. Both sides want to gain power, but nobody thinks about the people caught in the middle.”
Narváez works for a school district outside the city, and she’s been unable to make it to her classes since the rebels cut the highway running north. She also fears for her students.
“It’s worse for people living in rural areas,” she says. There, both guerrillas and the notoriously corrupt Colombian military can act with impunity. “It’s indigenous people and campesino [small farmer] communities who suffer most.”
Elsewhere in Colombia a combination of IEDs, mortar attacks, and sniper fire have left at least one soldier dead and another six soldiers and police wounded. At the height of the violence, attacks on oil pipelines forced officials to suspend production, and bombings and partisan roadblocks shut down public transport and shipping in many parts of the country. Bogotá was cut off from Medellín after the ELN blew up the highways that connect the nation’s two largest cities.
In all it has been a powerful show of force by the ELN, which boasts around 5,000 fighters organized into largely autonomous cells. Founded in 1964 by Colombian rebels who had studied in Cuba, the ELN's early leaders were made up of Catholic priests and university professors. Famously decentralized—which is a key part of its strategy and one reason it is so hard to combat—the group has eschewed a traditional chain of command. Its leadership consists of shadowy, off-the-grid figures who go by aliases like Comandante Uriel and Pablito.
The ELN appears to have been growing stronger of late, swelling its ranks with former FARC members, Venezuelans fleeing that country’s chaos, and forced recruitment in rural regions.
“The ELN has upped its military attacks, its attacks on infrastructure, and it is less careful about not affecting civilians,” says Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “For people living in ELN areas this has been a total nightmare.”
For its part, ELN released a video explaining that the armed strike is intended as a blow against “bad governance.”
Professionally shot and edited, the video shows underground fighters drilling and stalking through the jungle. Meanwhile, a female voice-over explains that the offensive is aimed at the “oligarchic governments”—including that of the “gringos”—as well as “businessmen who are taking advantage of the ignorance of the people.”
The narrator also cites “starvation wages” and the way “college graduates and intellectuals must sell themselves to the ruling class or perish.”
Those expressed sentiments and the timing of the offensive are an attempt to capitalize on widespread discontent among the Colombian populace.
Last November hundreds of thousands of students, union workers, indigenous peoples and other diverse groups took to the nation’s streets in a series of protests against the far-right policies of President Iván Duque. Duque refused to back down, however, and the nonviolent marches turned deadly when he sent in military and police units to break them up.
According to Robert Bunker, a security expert with the U.S. Army War College, disenchantment with Colombia’s firmly entrenched ruling class is fueling both guerrilla violence and mass demonstrations. (Colombia remains the second most unequal country in the Americas after Honduras, according to the World Bank.)
“The elites and their families have the legitimate markets locked up and the societal wealth concentrated in their hands,” Bunker says. “The children of the rural and urban underclasses have no chance of breaking into this economy in any meaningful way.”
Bunker says that imbalance also forces many Colombians to participate in the illicit economy, such as producing narcotics or joining organized crime or insurgent groups.
“The ‘bad governance’ the ELN speaks of is the political and economic system [that] maximizes the wealth being distributed to the societal winners and minimizes public good provided to everyone else.”
So far, Duque has refused to re-open a dialogue with the guerrillas, despite the ELN claiming the police academy attack was conducted by a rogue commander—possibly with the goal of disrupting the nascent peace process.
“The Duque government has read the country wrong and followed policies that roll back the advancements made [to] engage the ELN,” says WOLA director Sanchez-Garzoli.
Duque’s predecessor, President Juan Manuel Santos, brokered a historic peace deal with the FARC in 2016, ending 50 years of armed conflict. That treaty also encouraged the ELN to come in out of the jungle to parley. However Duque has since walked back the terms Santos agreed to with the FARC, further damaging Bogota’s credibility, says Sánchez-Garzoli.
For the ELN, “there is no trust that the government will follow through on an accord,” she says. She also says the recent alliance between ELN cells and FARC dissidents “makes for an explosive situation” and “incredible insecurity” for civilians in guerrilla-held territory.
Duque’s right-wing policies are an obstacle to talking down the world’s oldest leftist insurgency, and might well lead to widespread unrest again, as they did last fall.
“The rollback in economic, tax, labor and other policies is very unpopular in Colombia,” she says. Unless those concerns are addressed, “mass mobilizations will soon start again throughout the country.”
Bunker is also skeptical about a ceasefire being achieved any time in the “foreseeable future” and believes the conflict could continue “growing in intensity.”
“To enact real change and bring about peace the economic pie would have to be redistributed. The elites are not going to voluntarily do this,” he says.
Back in Cauca, teacher Narváez says it feels as though the FARC peace process never happened at all.
“It’s like we’ve gone back in time. Back to the time of perpetual war,” she says. “I guess all we can do is pray to God and ask Him that some day it ends.”