BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A car bomb exploded in front of a Bogotá police academy Thursday morning, killing at least 21 people, wounding 68 and spreading fear about a revival of Colombia’s violent past.
Images from the academy in the southern part of the Colombian capital showed the remains of a large explosion that had blackened the streets, left buildings pockmarked with shrapnel and even blew the leaves off nearby trees and the tiles off rooftops.
Dazed police officers wandered the site of the academy, the Santander General School, looking for survivors. There were fears that the casualty figures, reported by the Defense Ministry, could rise.
“My solidarity is with our police officers faced with this terrorist act,” the mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, said on his Twitter account.
The car bombing rattled nerves in Bogotá, not only for the number of dead, but also for its significance: Such attacks were long the norm in the capital as drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas waged aggressive terror campaigns in the city with car bombs.
But it has been years since there was an attack of this kind in Bogotá. No group immediately claimed responsibility, but on Friday, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero said that the National Liberation Army, a Marxist rebel group known as the ELN, was responsible.
Iván Duque, Colombia’s president, who had been away from the capital, called the bombing a “miserable terrorist act” and said that he was returning to direct the investigation. “All Colombians reject terrorism and are united to confront it,” he said on Twitter.
The car had been laden with about 175 pounds of pentolite, a powerful explosive, which went off minutes after a promotion ceremony for police officers, according to the office of the Colombian attorney general. The suspect in the attack, a man identified by the police as José Aldemar Rojas Rodríguez, died at the scene, officials said.
“This kind of thing has an impact,” said Jenifer Beltrán, a 36-year-old mother of two who was home when she heard the explosion. “It makes you think that once again the country is headed toward that memory of those years when there were so many car bombs and attacks everywhere.”
By midday Thursday, relatives of students of the Santander General School had gathered by the building to search for their loved ones.
Among them was Leonor Pardo, a saleswoman whose 21-year-old son had been studying at the academy and had just been found unharmed.
“We heard an explosion — it was horrible because the first thing I thought of was my son,” said Ms. Pardo, who was near the police academy at the time. “I fainted.”
Even before Mr. Botero spoken on Friday, local news reports speculated that the bombing may have been the work of Colombia’s remaining guerrilla fighters, many of whom remain at large despite the signing of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest group, in 2016.
“We don’t know if it was the guerrillas or who it was,” said Ms. Pardo. “But the guerrillas have certainly been gaining strength.”
Last January, guerrilla fighters of the National Liberation Army killed five police officers and wounded more than 40 by bombing a police station in the port city of Barranquilla.
The group also kidnapped four soldiers, three police officers and two military contractors last year in a bid to pressure the government to enter into peace talks. The hostages were released, but the government refused to negotiate.
The attack was a blow to Mr. Duque, whose approval ratings as president have fallen in recent months, particularly on issues of security.
“I think this comes at a critical juncture for Duque’s early government,” said Arlene B. Tickner, a political scientist at Bogotá’s Del Rosario University who writes a column in El Espectador, a Colombia newspaper. “He’s not high in the polls, he’s subject to ridicule in some circles and under tremendous pressure on security,” she said.
Under pressure of his own right-wing Democratic Center party, Mr. Duque recently replaced the heads of the national police and armed forces with hard-liners and promoted other top military officials who had been linked to extrajudicial killings, according to Human Rights Watch.
“The decision to appoint officers linked by credible evidence to serious abuses conveys the toxic message to the troops that respect for human rights is not necessary for career success,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division.
Among the witnesses on Thursday was Berta Poussaint, 62, who sells military uniforms near the school. Rather than using this as a call for a crackdown, authorities should try to negotiate with guerrilla groups, she said.
“The president needs to push for peace,” said Ms. Poussaint.
Orignially published in NYT.