A diplomatic crisis is brewing as Colombia seeks the capture of a guerrilla negotiating team in Cuba following the bloodiest terror attack in 16 years.
The government of Colombian President Ivan Duque has asked Cuba to extradite the delegation from the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a Marxist rebel group which last week murdered 20 people with a car bomb at a police academy in Bogota.
The dispute threatens to draw in the governments of Brazil, Norway and Chile, which underwrote the peace process along with Cuba, and also has the potential to spread further if U.S. President Donald Trump backs Colombia.
When Duque took office in August, he insisted that the ELN stop carrying out terrorist attacks, hand over hostages, and stop kidnappings as a condition for continuing the negotiations started by the previous government. As peace talks stalled, the guerrillas stepped up their campaign, carrying out dozens of attacks on oil pipelines.
The massacre of young police cadets on Jan. 17 caused widespread revulsion among the Colombian public, and a desire to see the ELN face justice. Duque’s low approval ratings are “a big incentive for him to make a lot of noise on this,” said Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, which studies human rights in Latin America. “It’d probably be pretty popular if he did.”
Under the rules agreed for the talks to proceed, the guerrillas would be given 15 days to return to Colombia if talks broke down, where they wouldn’t be subject to arrest or attacks by the security forces for a further 72 hours. Duque’s administration is arguing that it isn’t bound by the agreement, which was reached in 2016 by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.
The government of Norway issued a statement saying it stood by these rules, while Chile said it supported Colombia in its efforts to bring terrorists to justice. Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Ministry didn’t reply to an email seeking comment, sent outside normal office hours.
Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodriguez said his country wouldn’t allow its territory to be used to organize terrorism, and that that it had complied strictly with its role as guarantor and host for the talks.
Duque will find it hard to back down from his current position, while Cuba has no obvious place to send the ten ELN negotiators, who are now in limbo, said Sandra Borda a political scientist at Bogota’s Andes University. While the group has a presence in Venezuela, that country is already isolated internationally and is unlikely to welcome this hot potato, Borda said.
‘Clear Center of Gravity’
Colombia’s demands may put its relations with some of the guarantor nations at risk, and could also damage its reputation as a reliable country that abides by agreements, said Ruben Sanchez, a political scientist and international relations professor at Rosario University in Bogota.
Two years after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, laid down its weapons, Colombia is still a long way from peace, as other armed groups compete for control of territory and cocaine production. The smaller ELN, dissident FARC members and the private armies of drug traffickers swiftly moved to fill the vacuum, setting off a new wave of violence.
Duque got off to a rough start after talking office in August, with his popularity slumping as allies deserted him and congress blocked his main reforms. The current crisis may allow his government to find a “clear center of gravity,” by taking a tough line on security issues, Borda said.