The last active guerrilla in Colombia has made itself felt again. The wave of violence unleashed by the ELN in its confrontation with the FARC dissidents shook the beginning of the week – and the new year – with 27 murders in the department of Arauca, on the border with Venezuela. And the week ended on Friday with the umpteenth attack by the insurgency against the public force, an attack with explosives against a police truck in the city of Cali that left 13 soldiers wounded.
“Their interest in influencing this year’s electoral process with the support of socialist and communist dictatorships is clear,” President Iván Duque declared this Saturday after the ELN attack, rejected by all political forces. The country has legislative elections in March and presidential elections in May. “Colombia will not bow down nor will it ever bow to terrorism,” added the president about a guerrilla group that, with its actions, has made any type of negotiation difficult during his tenure.
The power vacuum left by the FARC after the demobilization of 13,000 of its members has been filled not only by dissidents and other paramilitary groups that have various populations in Colombia in check, but has also led to the self-styled National Liberation Army establish themselves as the main illegal group in the country. But, in addition, as the InSight Crime think tank affirms, it is a criminal organization that is disputed in both Colombia and Venezuela “all the main criminal economies”, especially illegal gold mining and drug trafficking.
With Catholic roots and founded in 1964, inspired by the Cuban revolution, the ELN guerrilla now has an international dimension, several analysts warn. “The ELN has gone on to become a sort of binational army. Their objective is no longer so much the seizure of power in Colombia, but rather the defense of the Bolivarian revolution ”in Venezuela, says Jorge Mantilla, director of Conflict Dynamics at the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP).
Although not all agree, they acknowledge its presence on the other side of the long and porous border with Venezuela. “This presence is similar to the one they have in other regions, controlling businesses such as illegal mining in the Orinoco river belt, basically to capture rents, and not of an ideological nature,” says Martha Márquez, director of the Center for Popular Research and Education. (Cinep).
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No report dares to give certainty about the current number of ELN fighters or the percentage of them who are on the Venezuelan side. However, General Luis Fernando Navarro, commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, has calculated that the guerrilla had 2,350 combatants in 2021, of which 1,200 move to the Venezuelan states of Táchira, Apure, Zulia and Amazonas. Navarro told Reuters that on the border there are also about 700 of the more than 2,000 combatants from dissident groups of the former FARC who did not join the peace process.
The location of 27 bodies in different parts of Arauca has once again set its sights on this guerrilla. Although at first there was talk of armed confrontations between the ELN and the 10th front of the dissidents, the attorney general of Colombia, Francisco Barbosa, assured that all the victims were shot at close range, “in the form of hitmen.” I mean, it wasn’t about fighting. The victims, he added, were forced to leave their homes, some taken to Venezuela, assassinated and later transferred to Colombian territory. The Defense Ministry has indicated that eight of the deceased had judicial records for different crimes, and two of them were leaders of the dissidents.
The presence of the ELN in an area crossed by two major oil pipelines has been historic. “The ELN does not exist without Arauca. It has been there even before oil was strategic. And in the 1990s, when royalties were decentralized, they realized that this is one of the richest regions in the country and developed a strategy of co-opting local democracy, ”Juan David Gutiérrez, associate professor at the University, explains to MRT. del Rosario and an expert in the relationship between armed conflict and oil.
These alliances with local mayors and governors have also marked the balances and tensions with other armed groups. “In the confrontations between the ELN and the FARC between 2004 and 2010, the ELN ends up prevailing because of its relations with politics,” agrees Mantilla. The current governor of Arauca was sent to jail for alleged links with that guerrilla.
For years, the ELN was characterized by destroying oil pipelines and kidnapping oil company workers. One of its worst attacks was the blowing up of a pipeline that killed 70 people in Antioquia, as well as massive and shocking kidnappings such as that of a plane with 46 passengers or the kidnapping of 170 people from La María church, near Cali.
Gutiérrez does not believe that the current confrontations are related to oil revenues and other analysts have spoken of discrepancies over drug trafficking routes and the management of social control during the pandemic. “There is also an international dimension to this conflict, with the interaction of geopolitical actors such as Venezuela and, in another era, the United States,” he indicates. The analyst recalls that Arauca was highly militarized during Plan Colombia and that several oil companies lobbied the United States so that the military resources of that plan, which originally was against coca crops, were also used to protect the pipelines.
The response of the Government of Iván Duque to the current crisis has also been to send two battalions with 625 men. During his tenure, the military forces have struck against some of the leaders of the ELN’s Western War Front in Chocó. Among them alias Uriel, one of its most media figures.
But these blows have not provided protection for the communities that suffer displacement. According to the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), in the last five months the armed confrontations with the participation of that guerrilla have increased steadily. For this reason, through the church and other organizations, in areas such as Chocó, Cauca or Nariño, they ask for peace approaches.
The possibilities are far off. Since that group attacked a cadet school in Bogotá and left 22 dead, in January 2019, President Duque closed the doors to the negotiated route. The president has also demanded that Cuba expel several of the representatives of the ELN Central Command (COCE) who remain in Havana, since former President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) began to approach them.
The federated nature, the differentiated regional presence and the autonomy of its fronts make negotiation difficult, analysts confirm. “In the document Why is it so difficult to negotiate with the ELN? We propose that this could even lead to the division of this guerrilla in case there was no consensus on all fronts, and we pointed out that within the COCE there is a strong warmongering line headed by alias Pablito ”, explains Márquez, director of CINEP, about the document produced by the priest Fernán González. For her and other analysts, it is necessary to insist on peace agreements that understand the logic of regionalization of the ELN.
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