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

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

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

On Monday, Colombian Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez told reporters that locals were “collecting corpses and taking them to the cemetery” in the wake of the violence. He added that while families have been displaced, no local civilians appear to have been killed.

The fighting involved insurgent dissidents who refused a 2016 peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, and a criminal gang calling itself “Comandos de la Frontera” or “Border Commandos”.

The latter consists of fighters who used to be with the FARC and remnants of a right-wing paramilitary group that was active in cocaine trade to Ecuador and Brazil. The two groups have been fighting for control of smuggling routes in the Putumayo border area for at least three years.

Peter 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, the Petro government said so to suspend aerial bombardments against armed groups in an effort to minimize civilian casualties and children forcibly recruited into the organizations.

Velasquez, the secretary of defense at the time, said the move was a sign of the government’s willingness to enter into possible talks with armed groups.

Petro government negotiators set to resume peace talks with National Liberation Army (ELN) largest remaining armed grouplater on Monday.

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

An estimated 2,400 FARC dissidents rejected the 2016 peace agreement. According to security sources, they formed armed groups involved in drug trafficking and illegal mining.

Since the 2016 peace agreement, Colombia has a wave of violence while the dissidents of the FARC and other rebel groups vie for control of territory, especially in areas beyond the control of the state.



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