In the afternoon of June 15, 2021, a car bomb detonated inside the premises of the Colombian army’s 30th Brigade headquarters, located on the Southeastern outskirts of Cúcuta, a Northern city close to the country’s border with Venezuela. The blast, which injured dozens – including two US soldiers – is hotly debated. While the government assert that ELN operatives were behind the attack, others allege that it was a false flag operation carried out by the government itself. This article will go beyond the black and white narratives and present all the available evidence, formulating a theory on how the attack most likely took place.
Cúcuta is the provincial capital of Santander de Norte, a historic insurgent hotbed. Since FARC’s 2016 peace treaty with the Colombian government, splinter factions and groups such as ELN have picked up the torch of the half-century old insurgency. In the years since the peace treaty, ELN have carried out some of the more notable attacks in the country, including the devastatingly bizarre January 2019 SVBIED attack against the General Santander police academy in Colombia’s capital Bogota, which killed 22 and injured scores more. While there have been other parked VBIED attacks since then, none have been as brazen as the June 15 attack in Cúcuta.
The 30th Brigade headquarters at Cúcuta serve as a coordination centre, where military operations against the ELN and other insurgent groups are planned from. The detonation of a VBIED inside this importance base is highly symbolic and speaks volumes about the level of security in place. So, what exactly happened?
Although initial accounts differed a lot in terms of details, even appearing contradictory, we now have a clearer picture of how the attack itself played out in the afternoon of June 15, 2021. The 30th Brigade headquarters, which houses more than 2000 soldiers, are situated in a large compound parallel to one of the main roads (highlighted in white) leading in and out of Cúcuta, with a main entrance on the road (circled in green).
The main entrance is visible on Google street view, and is usually manned by multiple soldiers that check vehicles and individuals passing in and out of the base.
A day after the attack, CCTV footage showing the VBIED entering the base emerged. In the footage, the white 2017 Toyota Fortuner SUV with the plates “JGX-180” approaches the entrance to the base just after noon, at 12:32 PM. A lone soldier manning the entrance point can be seen walking up to the driver and exchanging a few words, before walking around the back of the vehicle and opening the trunk, briefly examining the contents for about ten seconds before closing it again. The soldier then granted the driver access, and the vehicle entered the base.
The emergence of this footage shocked many, as it illustrated a startling lack of proper security procedures. Having a lone soldier man the gate was out of the ordinary (protocols call for at least three), and the soldiers guarding the entrance normally employ bomb-sniffing dogs as part of their routine controls of vehicles wishing to obtain access to the military base. However, the guard claimed that the dogs were not used at the time because they were tired, and it was later established that the lowered security was a result of a change of guards that regularly occurred between lunchtime and 2:00 PM while the majority of the guards at the gates ate lunch. While the guard in the video claimed that he didn’t remember the nature of the conversation he had with the driver, it’s believed that the driver impersonated a public official. The white Toyota Fortuner that was used as a VBIED was the same make, model, and colour as vehicles used by a district attorney as well as another employee that visited the complex on a daily basis. By itself, this is an indication of long-term surveillance, inside sources, and planning on the part of the perpetrators.
After entering the base, the vehicle drove straight for approximately 150 meters before turning left and parking to the side of the road after another 50 meters. Having parked the vehicle, the driver stayed inside the base for more than an hour. And while it’s unclear exactly what the driver did inside the base after parking the vehicle, he was not discovered by anyone present at the site. At approximately 1:50 PM, surveillance footage captured as the driver – a man wearing a striped shirt, dark pants, cap, face mask, and carrying a plastic bag – simply strolled out of the base through the same entrance he had entered without issue 75 minutes earlier.
An hour later, at 3:01 PM, an explosion tore through the parked vehicle, shattering nearby windows and strewing leafs onto the street.
Although the vehicle was destroyed as a result of the blast, the damage was comparatively light compared to your average VBIED, and instead looked more like the result of a smaller IED detonation. With smoke billowing up and the vehicle’s horn blaring ceaselessly, base personnel flocked to the scene in order to find out what had happened.
The 30th Brigade headquarters in Cucuta is important not only to Colombia, but also to the United States. As part of a broader effort to stem illicit narcotics manufacturing – which both finances insurgent groups in Colombia and eventually finds it way to America – the US has a keen interest in assisting the Colombian army in its military operations. At the time of the attack, 11 US military personnel were actually present at the base as advisors.
As people rushed to the scene of the initial blast, a Colombian man approached a US soldier, asking him if he was okay. Directly after the US soldier replied: “I’m fucking good”, the real VBIED detonation took place, generating a powerful shockwave and a large fireball that engulfed the area immediately surrounding the wrecked SUV.
The second (and more powerful) blast took place three minutes after the initial explosion, at 3:04 PM, and onlookers as well as first responders ignorant to the coming explosion constituted the majority of the overall casualties. The material damage of the second blast was also more extensive. When the dust settled, Colombian soldiers combed through every building up and down the affected road, making sure no one inside was hurt.
While initial reporting alleged that the parked VBIED was based on a white Toyota pick-up truck, we now know that this was not the case. Photographs showing the aftermath of the first detonation did show a white pick-up truck parked hood to hood with the burning SUV, but a number of factors (including the lack of blast damage, it being parked against traffic, and it changing position between different photographs) all indicate that it was likely driven there by base personnel after the initial blast.
Footage showing the aftermath of the second detonation reinforces the idea that the white pick-up truck left, as the resulting debris field shows no sign of the vehicle. When a VBIED detonates, it’s typically only the shell vehicle itself that disintegrates, leaving metal fragments, disfigured debris, and the occasional charred rear axle behind. If the white pick-up truck would have been parked next to the VBIED when it detonated, it is very unlikely that it too would simply disappear. Overturned, wrecked, and pushed away – Maybe. But not annihilated.
The largest piece of the vehicle that remained after the second explosion further reinforced the claim that it was the 2017 Toyota Fortuner that exploded, as the rim design visible on the charred remains could be matched to the surveillance footage of the SUV entering the base.
When the bombing first took place, some theorised that it was a double VBIED attack. The thinking was that it was an intentional ploy to lure first responders in order to maximise casualties, but that is likely not the case. Constructing a VBIED is quite a precarious process, and a single faulty wire can prevent it from detonating as intended. The main charge, which often consists of multiple IEDs wired together to a detonation mechanism, has to be properly connected in order for the entire thing to go off simultaneously. It is possible that the manufacturers of this parked VBIED did some shoddy wiring, which could have resulted in only a small amount of the main charge detonating initially. The following (main) detonation could thus be an uncontrolled secondary explosion.
Investigators later claimed that the main charge of the VBIED was made up of approximately 30 kilograms (67lb) of “pentrite”, also known as PETN, an explosive with a high detonation velocity and brisance. The PETN used in this attack was in the form of detonation cord, and was allegedly hidden throughout the floor and inside the seats (upholstery) of the SUV. Furthermore, the PETN detonation cord was connected to an “electric initiation system” that allowed for a timed detonation. The driver likely initiated the device while leaving the vehicle. 30 kilograms of explosives may sound like a small main charge for a VBIED, but just 6 kilograms of PETN is enough to obliterate a car.
The resulting crater of the second detonation, which measured 0.45 metres deep, 2.30 metres wide, and 2.45 metres long, was photographed after investigative teams had collected all the pieces of the VBIED left at the site.
Because of the US involvement in Colombia, and due to the fact that two US soldiers were injured in the VBIED attack, the FBI quickly dispatched a dozen investigators to Cúcuta tasked with supplementing local investigators. Four days after the attack, the ELN released a video in which they strictly denied responsibility for the Cúcuta attack, saying:
“We allow ourselves to inform you that no structure of the National Liberation Army has to do with the attack that occurred on Tuesday, June 15, on the 30th brigade in Cúcuta. This communiqué is dated June 17, 2021.”
However, the government has not ruled out the ELN as potential culprits, further hinting at the possibility of other insurgent groups such as Segunda Marquetalia being behind the attack, either by themselves or in cooperation with the ELN. Disregarding the government’s own version of what happened, what can we establish so far? And how can alleged discrepancies be explained? Let’s summarise the facts.
Although certain details have been used in order to frame the attack as a false flag operation, these are perfectly explainable when looking at the attack as a whole. For example; take the surveillance footage of the VBIED entering the base. The low number of guards present at the time of the vehicle’s entry was seen by some as intentional on the part of the government in order to facilitate the vehicle’s entry. However, preparations for an attack of this type would include target surveillance, which would lead to the identification of weak points such as the changing of the guards between lunchtime and 2:00PM. The same goes for the choice of shell vehicle, as multiple people working at the base had identical vehicles.
The fact that the soldier didn’t notice anything when opening the trunk of the 2017 Toyota Fortuner is also explained by the fact that the PETN detonation cord was allegedly concealed throughout the floor and inside the seats of the vehicle, making it extremely difficult to detect with the naked eye alone. After the driver had gained access to the base, it actually makes sense that he wasn’t discovered. the Brigade 30 headquarters is not small, and civilians work in the complex alongside military personnel. An individual without fatigues would hence not immediately ring alarm bells.
Regarding the two separate detonations, it’s worth going over once more. While the conspiratorial crowd assert that the first detonation, which allowed for the activation of evacuation protocols, was by government design in order to lower the risk of fatalities, there is another explanation that is more likely. Reiterating what was said before, VBIED main charges require immaculate wiring in order for a simultaneous detonation to take place. It’s quite possible – especially because of the way the PETN detonation cord was concealed in the vehicle – that faulty wiring resulted in only a small part of the main charge detonating in the first blast. Investigators actually recovered unexploded detonation cord in the affected blast area, another sign of poor design on the part of the VBIED manufacturers. If it was indeed an ELN operation and the VBIED didn’t work as intended, denying involvement actually makes sense.
The PETN explosives used in the attack, while employed by many armed forces , is not exclusive to the military. Due to its properties it’s often used in mining and other commercial blasting operations. While this is a sign for some that the military and the government itself must have been behind the attack, the perpetrators could just as well have bought it from a corrupt soldier or stolen/bought it from a private company. At least two soldiers at the 30th Brigade headquarters at Cúcuta have testified that they were approached by individuals in the past seeking to pay for access to the base and attempting to purchase illicit arms. Furthermore, while PETN is typically used as a booster alongside other explosive compounds, it’s use is actually not that rare among terrorists.
Another claim, which was put forward by journalist Gonzalo Guillén and widely shared in Colombian social media, alleged that Juan Carlos García-Herreros, a former political candidate for the governorship of Norte De Santander, was the previous owner of the vehicle used in the attack, and that he sold it to the perpetrators three days prior to the attack. This was determined to be false, and the real owner – who was located by Colombian police in Cúcuta – said that he sold the 2017 Toyota Fortuner SUV 11 days before the attack after receiving the equivalent of $31,200 in two instalments between May 29 and June 4. García-Herreros was actually a minority partner in the Toyota dealership that initially sold the vehicle in 2017, but that link is very weak.
It’s easy to frame an attack like this as “too good to be true”, and the human brain lends itself to simple and easily categorised explanations that fit our pre-conceived notions of what we believe took place. Occam’s razor is a useful tool in this situation. What is more likely to have taken place, given the details presented in this article; An intricate false flag operation by the Colombian government, or an insurgent attack that only succeeded due to atrocious security protocols? You can be the judge.
Still, police are investigating whether some individuals working inside the base cooperated with the perpetrators. In the aftermath of the attack, many people (including the base commander, a number of other personnel, as well as all the soldiers manning the guard at the time of the attack) have been relieved of their positions.
In conclusion, it’s likely a Colombian insurgent group was responsible for the attack, with help from individuals working inside the base. Due to the nature of the attack itself (shoddy wiring leading to two detonations and no fatalities), ELN’s denial shouldn’t be taken at face value. If the group considers the attack a failure, it would make sense for them to distance themselves from it. Regardless, ELN isn’t the only non-state actor in Colombia with the means to conduct an attack like this.
If anything, the January 2019 Bogota SVBIED attack should have resulted in major overhauls regarding security protocols at all military bases in Colombia. From the looks of it, that security overhaul hasn’t taken place. In the end, the Cúcuta VBIED attack highlighted the importance of implementing and maintaining adequate safety measures, especially at strategically and symbolically important bases such as the 30th Brigade headquarters.
UPDATE: Originally published on June 16, 2021, this article was overhauled on July 8, 2021 and a trove of new information was added
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