In the past five years, a confluence of events in Colombia and Venezuela have empowered the National Liberation Army (ELN) to become a far more dangerous and intractable threat to both countries, and the region. The reinforcing effects of the partial demobilization the rival Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), 1 a dramatic expansion in coca production in Columbia, 2 a permissive environment for the ELN in neighboring Venezuela, 3 plus opportunities arising out of that nation’s criminal economy and refugee crisis, have together allowed the organization to become larger, better funded, and more difficult to dislodge. In the process, the organization has begun to displace a range of key adversaries in both Colombia and Venezuela, increase its territorial control, play an expanded role in transnational criminal activities from drugs and gasoline smuggling to mining to extortion, impacting not only the security of Colombia, but the future of Venezuela, as well as facilitating ever greater flows of narcotics and refugees that impact Brazil, the Caribbean, Central America and beyond.
By Diálogo – Digital Military Magazine – R. Evan Ellis
Aug 2, 2021
ELN activities in Colombia and Venezuela countries are complimentary, although its actual activities differ from its public posture in both. In Colombia, the group seeks the overthrow of the government through revolutionary action, 4 although its armed actions are limited relative to its fundraising through illicit activities. In Venezuela, the group does not openly seek the government’s downfall, and collaborates with that nation’s political leadership and local military commanders, 5 as the ELN it uses the country as a strategic safe zone and concentrates on the generation of revenue through illicit activities. Nonetheless, in the course of seeking revenue and expanding its operations, the ELN engages in violence with rivals and dominates territory in Venezuela in a form arguably more extensive than in Colombia.
This work examines the evolution of the ELN in recent years as a transnational criminal-terrorist organization straddling both Colombia and Venezuela, and its implications for the region.
The contemporary ELN has evolved significantly from the organization’s origin in the Department of Santander in 1964, following Colombia’s traumatic period of La Violencia. When the group launched its public military challenge against the Colombian government in 1965 by overrunning the town of Simacota, 7 it was a relatively close-knit, ideologically oriented organization, inspired in part by Marxism and social justice, shaped by iconic figures like leftist priest Camilo Torres, whose liberation theology and social activism animated its membership and its broader support base. 8 While the group’s roots in Marxism and social justice may still be recognizable today in the rites of its senior leaders and the indoctrination given to some new recruits, it has evolved into a decentralized criminal-terrorist organization, increasingly large and well-funded, nurtured by the chaos and criminality in Venezuela, and with Coronavirus, in the region. From its early period, aided by its founding doctrine as a partially clandestine insurgent organization, the ELN was relatively disciplined and secretive, with a core of fighters supported by a broader grouping of students, unions, and political supporters. In 1973, the fledgling organization was almost destroyed by the Colombian government’s military offensive against it in Operation Anori,9 which forced the group out of Antioquia to Arauca adjoining Colombia (and elsewhere in the country), sowing the seeds for its subsequent spread across the Colombia-Venezuela border region, and into Venezuela, creating today’s problem.
During this period, a critical development following the group’s entry into this area, known as the Eastern Plains, was its entry into extortion of oil companies operating there, particularly in the 1990s,10 providing a lucrative source of income. The group’s decentralized structure allowed it to adopt a revenue model tailored to the criminal opportunities in each of the states in which it operated, including charging “war taxes” on the production of cocaine and marijuana.11
The group’s location and character were also molded by its struggles and alliances with rivals operating in the area. In the 1990s, the group was threatened by attacks from paramilitary groups and the Colombian military, particularly in the Colombian department of Bolivar, forcing it into temporary, pragmatic collaborations with fellow leftist guerilla group the FARC, from sharing food to a nonaggression pact in Arauca. Although the group has both collaborated with the FARC and clashed over issues such as control over drug routes, recruiting, or who has the right to extort oil companies and other entities operating in the border region,12 During the most recent period following the peace accords, the relationship has moved toward more collaboration versus competition.13
The ELNs Move to the Border and Into Venezuela
While the seeds of the ELN’s presence in the Venezuela-Colombia border is the previously mentioned Operation Anori, and while the ELN has operated in Venezuela for at least 30 years,14 the extensive presence it has there, and in Venezuela today, traces its origin to four mutually reinforcing phenomenon that came later. First, the ELN came to find its presence in Colombia’s lucrative Eastern Plains – the entry of oil companies in the area in the 1980s and 1990s created opportunities to expand illicit income through their extortion, among other activities. The German company Mannesmann, whose operations in the region included the construction and operation of the Caño-Limon-Covenas pipeline, played a particularly important role for the organization in this regard. Following the kidnapping of company executives, Mannesmann allegedly entered into an agreement with the ELN in which it paid the group a regular sum of money to not attack the pipeline or kidnap its executives.15 As a compliment, the ELN’s combination of newfound resources to bribe, the power to intimidate, and the skill to integrate into a community through political-ideological work, allowed it to coopt leaders of many of the municipalities in which it operated.16 Reflecting the lucrative criminal opportunities in the area, as the ELN strengthened its position in Arauca, it came into competition with the FARC for control over territory and the associated income from extortion and cross-border contraband activities. The ELN’s “Domingo Lain” warfront, for example, engaged in a bitter, protracted struggle with the 10th front of the FARC for domination of the the eastern province of the Arauca Department, until finally coming to an agreement in 1996 to share control of it. With this arrangement, and with continuing opportunities for income from extortion and other activities,17 by 1999 the group’s strength reached a height of approximately 5,000, with a good portion of them in the border region.
Second, in the second ELN Congress in 1992, the group adopted a border policy that embraced contacts and operations on both sides of the border for benefits ranging from political support to income to sanctuary.18 Even under pro Western “Punto Fijo” governments in Venezuela prior to the election of Hugo Chavez, the ELN entered into Venezuelan territory19 to protect itself against operations by the Colombian government, and to enrich itself through its involvement in the smuggling of gasoline and other contraband items.20 In the The Reinforcing Activities of the process, the ELN built up influence in the vicinity of El Nula, in the Venezuelan state of Apure, among other places.21
Third, the reorganization of the Colombian military which began at the end of the administration of Andres Pastrana, and the stepped up military campaign against both the FARC and the ELN under President Alvaro Uribe beginning in 2002, put military pressure on the ELN which increasingly forced them to seek refuge on the Venezuelan side of the border.
Fourth, the December 1998 election of populist leader Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998 and, and his increasing turn toward the left following his temporary ouster from power in 2002, led his Venezuelan government to adopt a more permissive posture toward the ELN as they increasingly sought refuge in that country, 22 complimented by a less cooperative attitude by Chavez toward the strongly pro-US Uribe administration in Colombia. 23 Chavez not only reportedly gave instructions to the local military commanders not to challenge the ELN, but allowed members of the organization to become involved in ideological activities in conjunction with the regime’s “Bolivarian Circles” and other entities. 24 By 2010, there were an estimated 1,500 ELN operating permanently or temporarily on the Venezuelan side of the border. 25
As the political and economic situation in Venezuela deteriorated over the next decade, the ELN significantly expanded its position within Venezuela, including not only using the country as a rear-guard area, but becoming increasingly involved in extorting and controlling the illegal mining of gold, coltan and diamonds, and other illicit businesses within the country. Such activities in Venezuela particularly began to take off from 2013. 26 forward under Hugo Chavez’ successor Nicholas Maduro. 27
ELN Leadership and Organization
The ELN is a relatively decentralized organization, officially divided into seven Colombia-oriented “fronts” (or eight if its front for Urban operations is considered). Establishing the number of ELN fighters is a complicated matter, since the distinction between ELN fighters and the broader circle of “supporters” of the organization is ambiguous; a subset of its supporters can be called upon to use weapons in certain circumstances. Indeed, the ELN leadership itself has suggested that it does not always know the precise size of its organization at any given time. 28 It is possible, however, to distinguish those who are “integrated” into the organization (whether or not carrying weapons) from those student, union leaders and other persons who may sympathize or occasionally help the ELN, but who are not formally part.
The ELN is officially led by a “National Congress” which meets every five years. 29 It is headed in its day to day operations by an executive committee, the Central Command (COCE), and under it, a “National Directorate” (DINAL) of 20 commanders from ELN regional military organizations. 30 The ELN military structure, centered on Colombia, includes six “war fronts,” subdivided into 22 “rural fronts” plus a national “urban front” which coordinates the “revolutionary struggle” in the cities. 31
The current head of the ELN, “first among equals” on the COCE, prior to resigning in June 2021 as this article went to press, was Nicholas Rodriguez Bautista (“Gabino”). Its second in command is reportedly Eliécer Erlington Chamorro Acosta (“Antonio Garcia”), who officially has the portfolio for international operations and military strategy. Third in command is Israel Ramírez Pineda (“Pablo Beltran”), who headed the delegation in Cuba for peace talks, and has ties to Maduro and the Venezuela government through that process. 32 The next key COCE leader is Rafael Sierra Granados (“Ramiro Vargas”), whose title of “Financier” suggests a tie to the group’s illegal income in Venezuela and elsewhere. The newest member of the COCE, is Gustavo Anibal Giraldo (“Pablito”), commander of the Eastern war front with significant (but not exclusive) activities in Venezuela. Pablito reportedly gained his importance through his operations on the ColombiaVenezuela border, as well as illicit operations in the later which allowed him to generate significant money for the organization through drug operations 33 and illegal mining, and recruit and build a powerful military organization. 34
Impact of the 2016 FARC Peace Accord
The demobilization of the FARC per the group’s October 2016 peace accord with the Colombian government bolstered the expansion of the ELN in both Colombia and Venezuela in several ways. These included creating opportunities to both establish itself in new territory and recruit fighters, while also gaining new sources of criminal income from the territory it occupied.
On one hand, as the FARC demobilized, it allowed the ELN to move into areas that the former had previously dominated, including acquiring key routes for smuggling drugs and people along the Colombia-Venezuela border.35 On the Colombian side of the border, the ELN extended its presence along the border south from Arauca toward Vichada. 36
Although the Colombian government deployed some 80,000 military and police personnel under Plan Victoria to the areas from which the FARC was withdrawing to fill the power vacuum, it wasn’t enough. 37 Some analysts believe that the demobilizing FARC may have facilitated the entry of the ELN into this territory in some cases, preferring it to be dominated by a fellow leftist organization rather than a rival right wing or other criminal militia.38 Given the traditionally cautious posture of the ELN in moving into new territory, its agile movement into areas that the FARC was withdrawing from under the terms of the accords suggested an active collaboration, perhaps including the outright movement of FARC fighters into the ranks of the ELN. Prominent examples include the ELN’s rapid establishment of a strong presence in Vichada, where it had not previously operated, as well as into Nariño and Cauca. 39
The 2016 peace accords created multiple opportunities for demobilizing FARC and FARC militia members to join the ELN. During the period leading up to the agreement and during its implementation, some FARC members temporarily or permanently changed allegiances to the ELN, rather than participating in the demobilization process established by the accord. Others participated in the demobilization, then later became disillusioned, or couldn’t find adequate opportunities in civil society, or became disillusioned for other reasons, and joined the ELN.
With the expansion of coca production in Colombia following the accords, the ELN, among other groups, benefitted from an expansion of income which allowed the organization not only to sustain those transitioning to the organization from the FARC, but also to recruit economically vulnerable Venezuelans and others. At the time of the 2016 Peace Accords, the ELN had an estimated 1,500 combatants, not counting supporters and affiliated groups,40 and was operating in 96 municipalities. 41 By the end of 2020, the organization was estimated to have 5,400 “integral” members42 (including approximately 2,500 armed combatants,43 plus those operating in direct support), and many more when indirect affiliates and support networks are included.44 Colombian intelligence estimates that the ELN is currently operating in 156 municipalities in the country.45
As of late 2020, ELN bi-national areas of focus include Catatumbo (in Norte de Santander), Arauca, Casanare and Vichada (on the border with Venezuela), Choco and Antioquia (on the border with Panama), and the Southwest of the country, including Nariño (on the border with Ecuador) and Cauca. 46 The area along the coast of Colombia has been particularly involved with the export of drugs, including the use of narco submarines to send shipments, although activities of the organization there have also been heavily targeted by Colombian security forces. 47
Although for a time, the Colombian government’s peace accord with the FARC, negotiated under center-left President Juan Manuel Santos seemed to open up an opportunity to negotiate a similar accord with the ELN, with the initiation of peace talks in Havana in 2015, the organization’s increasing power, criminal activities, a more conservative government in Colombia, Colombia and the region have combined to lead the ELN to a more aggressive posture. The cease-fire that the group agreed to in September 2017, and which lasted from October 2017 through January 2018, was abandoned by the ELN with a series of bombings. 49 The inauguration of conservative President Ivan Duque in August 2018 hardened the Colombian government’s posture toward the ELN in peace negotiations. The January 2019 ELN attack against the national police academy in Bogota, which killed 21 persons, led the Duque government to completely abandon peace talks, 50 setting the state for a more combative posture by the ELN in Colombia and elsewhere.
The new aggressive posture of the ELN in Colombia was highlighted 14-17 February 2020, when the organization declared an “armed strike” across Colombia, with a series of 27 operations and “show of force attacks,51 as the Covid-19 pandemic was in its early stages, although in October 2020, it was again calling for a cease-fire with the government.52 Currently, the ELN is believed to be playing an active role in current social unrest in Colombia, with the intention of leveraging and expanding the protests to support its strategic goals of delegitimizing and destabilizing the Colombian government. Examples include a believed ELN role in the protests of 21 September 2020,53 as well as the indigenous protests in Cali in October 2020 (a “minga”)54 and the group’s associated march on Bogota in which the resumption of peace talks with the ELN was one of the indigenous demands.55
In Colombia’s neighbor Ecuador, criminal operations by the ELN in that country, including the killing of three journalists in April 2018,56 and the Ecuadoran government’s subsequent appointment of a new Minister of Defense Oswaldo Jarrin (in part to bring the ELN threat on Ecuadoran territory under control) ultimately led the Moreno government to withdraw Ecuador’s role as guarantor of the ELN-Colombia peace talks in Havana.57
Since the dynamics unleashed by the 2016 Peace Accords, and before, the ELN has not only been growing, but it has also been fighting with rival criminal groups in the areas where it operates, both in the border region with Venezuela and elsewhere in Colombia, leveraging not only its expanded numbers and wealth, but also its relative discipline and ability to infiltrate an area.58 In a series of violent clashes in March 2020, the ELN has been trying to gain ground in the border region against three of Colombia’s most powerful criminal rivals, the Urabeños 59 the Rastrojos, 60 and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL, a.k.a. Pelusos). 61
The ELN’s advance and competition with other groups goes far beyond the border region. In Colombia’s Southwestern state of Nariño, 20 persons were reportedly killed in a week of fighting between the Urabeños, the ELN, and dissident factions from the FARC.62 Similarly, in Tambo, in the Department of Cauca, 53 people have been killed in the first nine months of 2020, triple the number for all of 2019, in fighting between the ELN fronts Carlos Patiño and José María The Reinforcing Activities of the ELN . . . JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAS SECOND EDITION 2021 201 Becerra, FARC dissidents, and other criminal groups. The Colombian town of Argelia similarly saw violent clashes between elements of the ELN and FARC dissidents over control of drug routes in March 2020. 63 Both areas are strategically located for access to the Pacific from the Cauca valley. 64
The Post-2016 ELN Expansion and Consolidation in Venezuela
As noted previously, with the demobilization of the FARC following the 2016 peace accords with the Colombian government, the ELN took advantage of the withdraw of its leftist counterpart, to expand its position in Colombia, particularly on the border with Venezuela. At the same time, however, the ELN also expanded on the Venezuelan side. Along the border region during this period, the ELN expanded and consolidated its position in the Colombian states of Táchira and Apure, south toward Amazonas,65 as well as moving into Zulia and Bolivar. In the process, it increased its control over drug smuggling routes from Colombia into Venezuela 66 by increasingly controlling the informal crossings known as trochas. 67 The ELN for example, reportedly established an informal border crossing (trocha) under its control connecting Colombia with Manapiare, in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, an important mining region.68 As part of its expansion within Venezuela, the ELN also moved to control the river systems connecting the border to the interior of the country, including the Autana, Cuao, Sipapo and Guayapo rivers. 69 Beyond drugs and minerals, the ELN has also been involved in stealing and extorting cattle from ranchers on the Colombian side of the border and smuggling them into Venezuela, 70 particularly in the Department of Arauca, although illegal mining is generally considered more lucrative. 71
Read More: Diálogo – Digital Military Magazine – The reinforcing activities of the ELN in Colombia and Venezuela