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Colombia says bomber was leftist guerrilla with illegal drug connections; Ecuadorian students say they will remain at Bogotá police academy

The chief suspect in a car bombing that left 21 people dead Thursday near Bogotá was a member of the ELN leftist guerrilla group, the Colombian government said Friday.

Ecuador Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner greets Colombian President Iván Duque Friday in Bogota.

Colombian defense minister Guillermo Botero said that an investigation has “positively confirmed” that José Aldemar Rojas Rodríguez was a member of the guerrilla army that has been fighting the Colombian government for decades. According to police, Rodriguez, who was killed in the blast, was the man who drove the explosives-laden SUV to the front door of the General Santander Police Academy and set off the explosion.

A spokesman for Botero said the bombing was not simply a political action. “We must be clear that the ELN is no longer a so-called liberation army. Today, it is primarily an organization that produces and transports illegal drugs with partnerships with the Mexican cartels,” he said. “This tragedy is part of Colombia’s battle against the drug trade.”

Thursday’s attack on the police academy was the first bombing in Bogotá in years, a gruesome reminder of an era when such attacks were the norm, as drug lords and rebel groups waged aggressive terror campaigns, killing hundreds of civilians and security forces. Many in Colombia had believed that a 2016 peace agreement with FARC, the other guerrilla group that had been operating in Colombia, marked the end to years of bloody conflict.

The government had been in negotiations with ELN leaders in Cuba and Ecuador, hoping to sign another agreement, but Colombian President Iván Duque said Friday that that those talks were over. In addition, he reimposed arrest warrants for ELN leaders that had been suspended during talks.

Ecuador Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner traveled to Bogota Friday to bring home the body of Quito police academy cadet Erika Chico Vallejo, who died in the explosion, and to show Ecuador’s support for Colombia. A second Ecuadorian attending the academy, Cuenca native Carolina Sanango, suffered facial and hearing injuries in the bombing but is expected to make a full recovery. “We have traveled to Bogota to demonstrate our solidarity with our Colombian brothers and sisters and to repatriate the remains of our beleved Erika,” Sonnenholzner said during a press conference with Duque.

Sonnenholzner returned to Ecuador Friday night, accompanied by several Ecuadorian students who were studying at the academy. “All the students say they intend to continue their studies at General Santander but some of them wanted to return home to recover from the trauma they suffered Thursday,” he said.

The Santander police academy is considered one of best in Latin America and is especially popular with Ecuadorians and Panamanians interested in pursuing law enforcement careers.