Eliecer Erlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio Garcia,” is the newly appointed top commander in Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group, having taken over in June 2021 after the retirement of Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino.”
In 2018, he went to Havana, Cuba, first to take part in peace talks with the Colombian government and then in exile due to the risk of being arrested should he return to Colombia. However, there is credible information that he may be currently based in Apure, Venezuela.
Erlinto joined the ELN around 1975 and rose through the ranks quickly. By 1980, he was part of the guerrilla group’s Central Command (COCE). After longtime ELN leader Manuel Perez, alias “El Cura,” died, Erlinto became the military commander of the ELN. He is considered one of the group’s hardliners and is responsible for trying to upgrade the ELN‘s military capabilities.
Antonio Garcia Factbox
DOB: January 10, 1956
Criminal Activities: Drug trafficking, illegal mining, arms trafficking, kidnapping, homicide, extortion
Area of Operation: Colombia, Venezuela (currently living in Cuba)
Despite his reputation, Erlinto has been tapped to be the ELN‘s official spokesman during several different peace negotiations between the group and the government. In February 1999, Erlinto and Victor G. Ricardo, then Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, met in Caracas to discuss the final arrangements for the National Convention that was to be held that year in Colombia. The ELN requested the demilitarization of three municipalities for a “Meeting Zone” for a constitutional convention, but negotiations failed. In 2000, Erlinto met in Geneva with the government’s new peace commissioner, Camilo Gomez, but once again peace talks were suspended when Erlinto accused the government of supporting paramilitary groups.
In early 2015, Erlinto announced alongside ELN supreme commander Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” that the guerrilla group would be willing to consider giving up the armed struggle in order to facilitate a peace process with the government.
In 2018, he went to Cuba first to engage in talks with the Colombian government and then had to stay there after the negotiations collapsed. However, he may be currently based in Apure, Venezuela.
Erlinto has been promoted to the ELN’s top position as the ELN is on the ascendancy in both Colombia and Venezuela’s criminal landscapes.
Besides its traditional criminal economies such as kidnapping and extortion, the group now draws significant revenue from drug trafficking and illegal mining.
What is uncertain is to what extent Erlinto will be able to influence the group’s active criminal fronts from his exile in Havana and having been missing from the field for the last three years.
Erlinto was born in the city of Mocoa, in Colombia’s northwest department of Putumayo. The ELN’s strongholds are considered to be oil-rich areas of Colombia, such as the Eastern Plains and parts of the Andean mountain range. The ELN is also active on the other side of Colombia’s border in Venezuela and Ecuador as well.
Allies and Enemies
Stuck in Cuba, Garcia has been cut off from any personal alliances he may have had in Colombi. But the ELN’s prominence in the criminal landscape of both Colombia and Venezuela has shifted dramatically since the FARC demobilized in 2016. The group has grown to arguably become the most significant criminal threat.
As such, it has won crucial victories over criminal adversaries, including the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) in Norte de Santander, Colombia and the Rastrojos at the Colombia-Venezuela border. More recently, the group has struggled to contain an alliance between the Rastrojos and the Urabeños, also known as Clan del Golfo (Gulf Clan), also at the Colombian border.
Garcia’s proclamations in early 2015 showed he was an early supporter of peace talks with the Colombian government.
After the FARC demobilized in 2016, following a peace agreement, the ELN began peace talks with the Colombian government in 2017, with these being moved to Cuba in 2018. However, these were suspended in January 2019 by the Colombian government, after the ELN set off a car bomb at a police training academy in Bogotá, killing 21 people.
A prominent member of the ELN’s negotiating team, Garcia was believed to be stuck in Cuba due to the risk of being arrested should he return to Colombia. However, there is credible information that he may be currently based in Apure, Venezuela.
While it is uncertain how much power he has over ELN day-to-day operations, as these have expanded rapidly in Colombia and Venezuela, Garcia became the ranking leader of the ELN in June 2020 after the retirement of Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino.”