Bogota, Colombia – Colombia’s largest remaining armed group has warned of “reprisals” after a government bombing killed one of its top commanders this week, prompting experts to predict a rise in attacks.
National Liberation Army (ELN) commander Angel Padilla Romero, better known by the alias Fabian, died in a Cali hospital after being injured in a military bombing on Colombia’s west coast, the government announced on Tuesday.
The leftist group said in a statement on Thursday that they were “authorised” to “disproportionately use force and explosives” in response to the attack, which took place on the ELN’s Western Front in a dense jungle municipality in Choco province.
Bogota dubbed the killing one of the “most important operations against the ELN in recent years” and on Thursday right-wing President Ivan Duque said the country would not be intimidated by threats from armed groups.
“As the supreme commander of the armed forces … I want to tell you that we will never give in to any threat from armed groups. We are fighting them and we will continue to fight them with all our determination,” Duque said at an event in the coastal city of Cartagena.
The ELN statement did not mention any specific targets.
However, the group – estimated to have some 2,300 active fighters – has a record of mounting attacks in rural areas where it operates, mostly on government infrastructure, as well as one-off mass casualty bombings in the capital, Bogota. Civilians have been injured in past attacks, but most are aimed at security forces.
The ELN is the last active armed group operating in Colombia after a 2016 peace deal ended five decades of war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Marxist armed group and the government.
Dissident groups, however, are on the rise. Violence, killings and disappearances in the Andean nation have also spiked, according to a March report by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
An estimated 1,900 Colombian rebel fighters are currently operating from neighbouring Venezuela, the Reuters news agency also reported this week. Many FARC commanders and fighters did not agree with the peace agreement, and they formed dissident groups that continue to recruit and fight against the Colombian government.
Capacity to retaliate
“Colombia is facing a system of different groups, cells and networks of different sizes and power capacities, which all have the possibility to challenge national security,” Oscar Palma, a professor at Bogota’s Rosario University and expert in national security issues told Al Jazeera.
“Obviously they’re a threat to the population, but they are a prominent threat in terms of national security itself.”
Palma said the ELN has the capacity to retaliate, as it has small urban networks in cities. The group had a period of growth about two years ago, he explained, and grew financially and in terms of the amount of territory it can cover.
“We have seen this kind of violence before … small bomb attacks to military or police installations in main cities,” he said.
Kyle Johnson, founder and researcher at The Conflict Responses Foundation in Bogota, said the ELN Front in Choco likely does not have the capacity to do much in response to Fabian’s killing.
But Johnson told Al Jazeera the slain ELN commander was close to “Pablito”, whose real name is Gustavo Anibal Giraldo, another commander who was responsible for a deadly car bombing in the capital in 2019 that killed 22 people.
The group’s Choco front “has close ELN leader friends who do have the capacity to carry out larger attacks”, Johnson said.
Sergio Guzman, a political analyst and director of Colombia Risk Analysis, said the ELN and other groups provide a lifeline for the government in moments when it is least popular.
Colombia is holding parliamentary elections next year and with the at-times violent anti-government protests that took place nationwide this year looming over the Duque administration, analysts say the government may be looking to distract voters’ attention.
“These groups are widely disliked by the general population, so having an attack against high-value targets will certainly provoke uproar against the ELN,” Guzman told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t think they much care about their public image as an insurgency, but it definitely does have the opposite effect and gives the government support from hardliners, but also from people who reject violence, which is in large part the majority of Colombians.”
Guzman said the ELN has demonstrated capacity and intent to hit government targets and to target civilians in some cases. “We should not be taking these threats lightly, and I don’t think the government is,” he said.
Ariel Avila, a political analyst and deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares), also told Al Jazeera that dissident groups and the ELN have increased their presence in recent years in Colombia.
“The government has taken the decision to target some of the leaders to gain applause, but this isn’t going to change the reality in these rural areas,” said Avila, explaining that many are plagued by violence and largely abandoned by the state.
Meanwhile, Johnson added that there has been generational handover within the ELN, which is moving away from “old-school” commanders to younger ones “who don’t have the same political training” than the previous generation’s commanders.
Now, after Fabian’s death, a new commander is expected to be named in Choco. “We’ll have to wait and see what their approach to the conflict is,” Johnson said, “how younger commanders play a role and how it plays out.”