BOGOTA, Colombia — At least nine people were killed and dozens more injured in a car bombing at a police academy in Colombia’s capital on Thursday, recalling the high-profile attacks associated with bloodiest chapters of the country’s drug-fueled guerrilla conflict.
The scene outside the General Santander police academy in southern Bogota was chaotic in the immediate aftermath of the midmorning attack, the biggest against a police or military facility in the capital in over a decade, with ambulances and helicopters rushing to the normally tightly controlled facility.
Witnesses said they heard a loud blast that destroyed windows in adjacent apartment buildings several blocks away. Pictures on social media showed a charred vehicle surrounded by debris on the academy’s leafy campus.
The police said at least nine people were killed, while Bogota’s health department said another 54 were injured. Among the dead were a Panamanian and an Ecuadorian national.
Rafael Trujillo said he was delivering a care package to his son Gerson, who entered the school just two days ago, when he was stopped in his tracks by the blast a block away from the school’s heavily fortified main gate.
“I’m sad and very worried because I don’t have any information about my son,” said Trujillo, standing outside the facility, where police officers had set up a taped perimeter.
Authorities were at a loss to explain how the vehicle, apparently a pick-up truck, slipped through a gate permanently protected by explosive-sniffing dogs, heavily-armed guards and security cameras.
President Ivan Duque said he and his top military commanders were rushing back to the capital from a visit to a western state to oversee police investigation into what he called a “miserable” attack.
Health authorities in Bogota appealed for residents to donate blood at one of four reception points in the capital to help treat those injured, the majority of who were rushed to a police hospital.
“All of us Colombians reject terrorism and are united in confronting it,” Duque said in a tweet. “We won’t bend in the face of violence.”
Vamos al lugar de los hechos. He dado órdenes a la Fuerza Pública para determinar los autores de este ataque y llevarlos a la justicia. Todos los Colombianos rechazamos el terrorismo y estamos unidos para enfrentarlo. COLOMBIA se entristece pero no se doblega ante la violencia.
— Iván Duque (@IvanDuque) January 17, 2019
For decades, residents of Bogota lived in fear of being caught in a bombing by leftist rebels or Pablo Escobar’s Medellin drug cartel. But as Colombia’s conflict has wound down, security has improved and residents have lowered their guard.
While authorities had yet to suggest who was behind the attack, attention was focused on leftist rebels from the National Liberation Army, which has been stepping up attacks on police targets in Colombia amid a standoff with the conservative Duque over how to re-start stalled peace talks.
The group known as the ELN was long considered a lesser military threat than the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, whose 7,000 guerrilla fighters disarmed as part of a 2016 peace accord.
But in the wake of the peace deal the Cuban-inspired insurgency has been gaining strength, especially along the eastern border with Venezuela, where it has carried out a number of kidnappings and bombings of oil pipelines. That has hardened Duque’s resolve in refusing to resume peace talks that have been stalled since he took office last August, despite a rebel offer of a cease-fire.
Other possible assailants include the country’s Usuga drug cartel, which has suffered a number of setbacks at the hands of the police, and dissident members of the FARC.
Thursday’s bombing was the deadliest in the capital since an explosion at the upmarket Andino shopping mall in June 2017 killed three people, including a French woman, and injured another 11. Police later arrested several suspected members of a far-left urban guerrilla group called the People Revolutionary’s Movement for the bombing.
But it has been more than a decade since a police or military installation in the capital has suffered a major bombing. A blast at military university in 2006 left almost two dozen people injured.
Ariel Avila, an analyst who tracks violence, said that in the last four years, there have been 28 attacks in the capital with explosives. While the majority has been carried out with low-grade homemade materials and grenades that have damaged property but left no casualties, he said police intelligence and checkpoints surrounding the city need to be reinforced to prevent more attacks.
“We need to fortify the city again,” he told Blu Radio.