Colombia’s security forces on Sunday pretended everything was under control while ELN guerrillas carried out one of their most successful military offensives in years.
Dozens of military officials appeared on national television and social media to tell the public they were guaranteeing security in an attempt to maintain public confidence undermined by the ELN’s onslaught.
Meanwhile, terrified locals and reporters from rural areas desperately tried to tell their urban compatriots that the authorities were not telling the truth and that the security forces were no match for the guerrillas in their strongholds.
No one is talking about the armed strike in Colombia. The media have said little. In Curumani the tension is terrible. People are locked in. There is a lot of fear here in the village. Armed men ordered all commercial establishments to be closed and informed all the people to lock themselves in and that nobody was allowed outside. About 20 minutes ago there were two loud explosions, they threw two grenades at the police station. Everyone please be very careful. May God protect us in times like this.
ELN wins battle in war they can never win
The ELN did not just successfully cause the partial collapse of the state in areas historically under their control, the guerrillas were even able to carry out successful attacks on crucial infrastructure.
A bomb attack in the border city of Cucuta hours before the end of the shutdown left at least one soldier injured.
Traffic between Cali and the Ecuadorean border was dramatically reduced as bus drivers and truckers refused to take the Pan-American highway that crosses ELN-controlled territory in the southwestern Cauca province.
State-run oil company Ecopetrol was forced to close the Caño-Limon Coveñas pipeline after multiple bomb attacks.
One soldier was killed in the northeastern Catatumbo region and the director of the regional television station of the southwestern Cauca province was forced to flee.
Public services were suspended in several ELN-controlled regions and hundreds of thousands of Colombians spent 72 hours in terror as security forces were unable to counter the guerrilla attacks and in some cases were forced to seek shelter in their police stations or army barracks, according to local media.
The battle over public opinion
The ELN’s 72-hour “armed strike” that ended at 6AM on Monday was a military showdown between the guerrillas and the security forces as much as it was a PR showdown.
While the guerrillas were trying to carry out as many attacks as possible to show Colombia the ELN’s military prowess, state forces were trying to downplay exactly that.
The result was a major dissonance in public perception; while locals in guerrilla territory where even the police and the military obeyed guerrilla orders to stay inside decried that “we are left at the mercy of the guerrillas,” urbanites were left with the impression the guerrilla onslaught was no big deal.
In Arauca, the province where a recent Human Rights Watch report recently concluded that “the guerrillas are the police.”
Eighth Division commander General Luis Emilio Cardozo published a 10-second video of him walking past open shops “in order to verify the security measures ensuring the tranquility of the people of Arauca” and pretend everything was normal.
#AEstaHora el señor mayor general Luis Emilio Cardozo Santamaría, comandante de @Ejercito_Div8, recorre las calles del municipio de Arauca con el fin de verificar los dispositivos de seguridad para garantizar la tranquilidad de los araucanos. #ProtegiendoElTerritorio pic.twitter.com/0u8FfC9iJS
— SMCE Carlos Arturo Gómez Rincón (@SMC_EJERCITO) February 15, 2020
Local journalists published videos demonstrating that the guerrillas’ terror campaign had turned both the provincial capital and other towns in the department into ghost towns with virtually no presence of the police or the military.
Así se encuentran las vías de la capital de Arauca en el segundo día de paro armado. Casi el 100% del comercio cerró sus puertas.
Geplaatst door El Círculo Noticias op Zaterdag 15 februari 2020
Así está el municipio de Saravena en el Tercer día de paro armado.
Geplaatst door N Noticias Saravena op Zondag 16 februari 2020
“The ELN’s armed strike in the national territory shows the ineffectiveness of some public officials in charge of the state institutions assigned to them, a total disgrace,” a local from the town of Cravo Norte said on Twitter after showing how also his town had turned into a ghost town with no sign of police or the military.
Despite the frontal guerrilla attack on the state, President Ivan Duque went on a “spiritual retreat” with his ministers to the presidential holiday home just outside of the capital.
Even Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo abandoned his post, leaving his social media team to claim that the guerrillas’ killing of the soldier “hurts us a lot.”
“The greatest expression of solidarity and condolence to his family is to continue dedicate ourselves to pursuing and fighting criminals so that we can live and work in peace,” the minister’s social media manager said.