Fighting between armed groups leaves 18 dead in Colombia

Deadly fighting in southwest Colombia comes ahead of peace talks between National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and Gustavo Petro’s government.

At least 18 people died on Saturday as factions battled for control of drug trafficking routes in southwest Colombia. The incident marks the deadliest fight between illegal armed groups since left-wing Colombian President Gustavo Petro took office in August.

The government ombudsman’s office said the violence occurred on November 19 in Puerto Guzman, about 60km (37 miles) from the country’s southern border with Ecuador.

On Monday, Colombia’s Defence Minister Ivan Velasquez told reporters that locals “collected corpses and moved them to the cemetery” in the wake of the violence. He added that, while families have been displaced, no civilian locals appear to have been killed.

The fighting involved rebel dissidents who rejected a 2016 peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, and a criminal band that calls itself “Comandos de la Frontera” or “Border Commandos”.

The latter is composed of fighters who used to be with the FARC and remnants of a right-wing paramilitary group active in trafficking cocaine to Ecuador and Brazil. The two groups have fought for control of smuggling routes in the Putumayo border area for at least three years.

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Petro has promised to bring “total peace” to Colombia after nearly six decades of armed conflict that left at least 450,000 dead between 1985 and 2018 alone.

In August, Petro’s administration said it would suspend aerial bombings against armed groups in an effort to minimise casualties among civilians and children who were forcibly recruited into the organisations.

Velasquez, the defence minister, said at that time that the move signalled the government’s willingness to engage in possible talks with armed groups.

Negotiators from Petro’s government will resume peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest remaining armed group, later on Monday.

Petro has said his peace plans include FARC leaders who abandoned their group’s 2016 agreement with the Colombian government, which allowed more than 13,000 rebels to reintegrate into civilian life. He also plans to offer reduced sentences for criminal gangs who surrender.

An estimated 2,400 FARC dissidents rejected the 2016 peace accord. Security sources say they formed armed groups involved in drug trafficking and illegal mining.

Since the 2016 peace deal, Colombia has seen a surge in violence as the FARC dissidents and other rebel groups battle for control of territory, especially in areas outside the state’s control.