The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) is one of the two main guerrilla armies with left-wing political ideologies operating in Colombia and Venezuela, and one of the most important threats in Latin America.
Originally, the ELN was a nationalist movement influenced by the Cuban Revolution and was focused on kidnapping, extortion and attacks on economic infrastructure. While it eschewed drug trafficking for decades, it is now linked to the narcotics trade and has become deeply involved with large drug trafficking organizations.
Estimates of the ELN's membership range from 3,000 to 5,000. It is now operational in at least 180 municipalities in Colombia and has militia networks in the country's major cities.
It is currently the most powerful criminal group in Colombia and Venezuela, controlling vast areas of coca crops, cocaine production and distribution routes, as well as a heavy involvement in illegal gold mining. Believed to be heavily supported by the Venezuelan regime in exchange for a cut of criminal profits, the ELN has become a fully binational criminal group, operating in both countries freely and controlling much of the criminal economies along the border.
The ELN was formed in the 1960s, just as Colombia was emerging from a bloody, sectarian struggle known as "La Violencia," and numerous religious and student movements -- some of which drew inspiration from the Cuban revolution -- were gaining strength in the country. These two movements would form the core of the guerrilla group from its onset in July 1964, when the small, armed insurgency began training in San Vicente de Chucuri, in the department of Santander. Six months later, on January 7, 1965, the rebels overran Simacota, a small village in Santander, officially announcing their presence.
From the beginning, the ELN was a highly ideological outfit, combining its Marxist-Leninist outlook with liberation theology, the religious movement inspired by the Catholic Church's announced shifts in its Vatican II Conference. Some of the group's first recruits came from the church, including Camilo Torres, a popular and outspoken Colombian priest who died in his first battle in 1966. Other priests came from Spain, including Manuel Pérez, alias "El Cura," who was nearly executed during an internal purge by the group's mercurial leader, Fabio Vásquez Castaño, in the 1970s. By that time, the group was reeling, and it was nearly annihilated completely during a 1973 military offensive, known as "Operation Anorí," which left an estimated 135 of its then 200 members dead.
Vásquez Castaño was vanquished from the group and Pérez and a former peasant farmer-turned-soldier named Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias "Gabino," took control. Under new leadership, the ELN slowly recuperated, in part because of its increased use of methods it had once condemned, principally kidnapping. During the 1980s, the rebels became specialists in kidnapping and drew much of their revenue from the ransoms. The group also got lucky when several large oil discoveries brought multinational companies into their area of operations. The resulting revenue from both the theft of oil and extortion gave the ELN renewed energy and allowed the group to expand its actions throughout the country.
By the mid-1990s, the ELN reached its apex, commanding an army of close to 5,000 soldiers and at least three times that in student, union, and political supporters. It regularly bombed the country's largest oil pipelines, including those that supplied oil from BP's and Occidental Petroleum's fields in the Eastern Plains region, even while it siphoned from the royalties this oil provided the region. It drew revenue from war taxes levied on coca and marijuana growers, particularly in the southern part of the Bolívar department, where the ELN's leadership had established its home base. And, despite Pérez's death in 1998 of hepatitis B, its military actions also became bolder.
Once such example is the group's kidnapping of 180 people from a church in Cali, a city in western Colombia, in May 1999. This remainremains the largest mass kidnapping in the country's history. In April of the same year, the group hijacked an Avianca plane with 40 passengers and crew, forced them to land in a remote area, and held them hostage for months.
However, internal fighting and the lack of a coherent national strategy left the group vulnerable to attacks by right-wing paramilitary groups and the Colombian armed forces. Beginning in the late-1990s, the group suffered a series of setbacks at the hands of the paramilitaries in its Bolívar stronghold. Desperate, the group teamed up with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) to beat back the attacks but ultimately lost control of the lucrative area. It was the beginning of a decline for the ELN, which steadily lost ground in other parts of the country to both the paramilitary forces and the military.
The military setbacks pushed the group to negotiate a settlement with the administration of Álvaro Uribe Vélez between August and December 2002 in Cuba, and later between June 2004 and April 2005 in Mexico. The talks failed, and the government has kept up the military pressure on the ELN ever since. Added to this was lost revenue from dwindling oil production in the Eastern Plains, an ugly and violent feud with the FARC, and chaos among the group's leadership. Some factions of the ELN refused to negotiate with the Uribe administration. Other leaders simply left the group altogether.
During this period, the ELN focused on its political activity and on trying to gain some legitimacy with the marginalized communities where the group still had presence.
The group has also prospered since the demobilization of the FARC since their peace agreement with the Colombian government. In 2016, when the FARC was abandoning much of its territory, the ELN moved in to take over drug trafficking and contraband, especially in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander and in the northwestern department of Chocó.
This gave the ELN greatly increased criminal profits, as well as swelling the manpower and territory of its various Fronts.
During this process, the ELN was still engaged in peace talks with the government of Juan Manuel Santos to try and reach a deal similar to the FARC. In September 2017, the two sides signed a ceasefire which ran from October 1 to January 9, 2018. But it was not able to be renewed and no similar ceasefire has been signed since.
In April 2018, the government of Ecuador stopped being a guarantor of the peace process after the kidnapping and murder of three Ecuadorean journalists by an armed group along the Colombia-Ecuador border. The talks then moved to Havana, Cuba, where Colombia’s peace negotiations with the FARC had taken place.
This unstable situation has grown more volatile since Colombia’s President Iván Duque came to power in August 2018, as he returned to aggressive policies against criminal groups.
In January 2019, the ELN attacked a police training school in Bogotá with a car bomb, killing 21 people. As a result, Duque froze all peace talks and asked the Cuban government to send home all ELN representatives on the island. Cuba did not follow this request but a number of ELN leaders, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” and Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” have been stuck in Havana, Cuba, ever since.
On October 25, 2020, a joint operation by military and police in the municipality of Nóvita, in the northern department of Chocó, led to the killing of Andrés Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel," a charismatic and well-known ELN commander within its Western War Front.
In October 2021, the ELN carried out a series of attacks on Ecopetrol oil infrastructure in Colombia, which it said were meant to "open a debate" about the state's use of oil resources. Attacks on oil pipelines are an old modus-operandi for the ELN, which it used liberally during the 1990s, especially in Santander and other regions of Colombia's Eastern Plains.
In late 2021 and early 2022, the ELN has faced a series of assaults on its positions in Venezuela's Apure state and Colombia's Arauca department by ex-FARC Mafia forces, principally the 10th Front and 28th Front, leaving dozens dead and hundreds displaced. While the ELN is believed to outgun the ex-FARC Mafia, the dissident fronts have been cavalier in taking the fight to the larger group in its Colombia stronghold of Arauca.
The main decision-making body of the ELN is the Central Command (Comando Central - COCE), composed of five commanders. Directly below this is the National Directorate (Dirección Nacional - DINAL), where 23 representatives from each War Front sit. Following this comes the eight War Fronts, the main fighting structures, which are made up of a commander, a political leader, and a military leader.
Currently, Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro, alias "Antonio García," is the commander-in-chief of the guerrilla group.
He is followed by Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltran,” who leads the ELN delegation to peace talks with the government and is in charge of political matters and recruitment. Jaime Galvis Rivera, alias "Ariel," oversees the group's financial matters, while Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” manages the relationships between the COCE and the various distinct War Fronts.
Pablito, who is known for his belligerence, orchestrated the car bomb attack in Bogotá in 2019 that resulted in the end of the peace talks. He has also played a central role in the ELN's evolution into a bi-national group, using his relationship and knowledge of the department of Arauca, on Colombia's border with the Venezuela and its eastern state of Apure.
Added to the highest levels of leadership is the group's eight War Fronts. The ELN’s horizontal structure allows each Front to operate and take actions independently. These are:
- The Northeastern War Front Manuel Pérez Martinez (Guerra Nororiental Manuel Pérez Martínez -FGNO), which operates in the department of Norte de Santander and the state of Zulia, Venezuela.
- The Northern War Front (Frente de Guerra Norte - FGN) which operates in the departments of La Guajira, Cesar, Magdalena, and Atlántico.
- The Manuel Vásquez Castaño Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental Manuel Vásquez Castaño – FGO) in the departments of Chocó and Risaralda.
- The Jesús Darío Ramírez Castro War Front (Frente de Guerra Jesús Darío Ramírez Castro - FGJDR) with influence in the department of Antioquia and southern Bolívar
- The Central War Front (FGC) with influence in the departments of Tolima and Risaralda.
- The Omar Gomez Western War Front (Frente de Guerra Occidental Omar Gomez - FGO) in the departments of Chocó and Risaralda.
- The Carlos Alberto Troches Zuleta Southwestern War Front (Frente de Guerra Suroccidental Carlos Alberto Troches Zuleta - FGSO) in the departments of Nariño and Cauca.
- The Camilo Torres Restrepo National Urban War Front (Frente de Guerra Urbano Nacional Camilo Torres Restrepo - FGUN), with a presence in the country’s main cities such as Medellín, Barranquilla, Bogotá, Popayán, Neiva, Cúcuta, Villa del Rosario, Bucaramanga, Barrancabermeja, Ibagué, and Cali.
All of these War Fronts are subdivided into smaller groups, sometimes also referring to themselves as fronts, with more localized power bases.
The ELN currently operates in at least 23 of Colombia's 32 departments
The main ELN strongholds are the departments of Choco, in the northwest of the country; Bolivar, in the center; Norte de Santander, in the northeast; and Arauca, in the east of the country. In these regions, the ELN control parts of the drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, and extortion economies.
To a lesser extent, but with strategic importance, the group is in the departments of Antioquia, Cesar, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, and Vichada. These departments are key for their coca crops, cocaine production, or smuggling routes to Ecuador and Venezuela.
The border with Venezuela has become the most important region for the ELN. The main war fronts there are the North Eastern and Manuel Vásquez Castaño Eastern War Front, which have strengthened their presence inside Venezuela in recent years, reaching at least seven states within that country.
InSight Crime has documented that the ELN has made incursions into states such as Anzoátegui, Bolívar, and Guárico, in the center and south of the country.
Allies and Enemies
The ELN has had multiple allies and enemies over its dozens of years in operation. These relationships are often determined by local or sub-regional interests of the War Fronts rather than a national policy of enmity towards a particular group.
In Antioquia, the group has been fighting the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) since 2019. Another enemy are the Caparros, a small criminal structure operational in Colombia’s Antioquia and Córdoba departments, who are also known as the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Front and the Caparrapos.
The guerrillas have also been fighting the Urabeños for years in Choco, in western Colombia, a department that is key to the movement of drugs to the Pacific Ocean and the smuggling of migrants to Panama. In the midst of this war, the ELN has made alliances with small groups in the urban centers of Choco and Antioquia, with the aim of receiving intelligence and an armed wing in these areas. In exchange, these groups receive supervision and support from the larger player.
One actor that was once an ally of the ELN is the 10th Front of the ex-FARC Mafia. It is now the guerrillas' main enemy on Colombia's border with Venezuela.
In 2019, the groups were reported to have made non-aggression agreements in the Arauca, Boyacá, and Casanare departments. However, in 2022, animosity between the ELN's 10th Front and Domingo Laín Front reignited in Arauca and the state of Apure, Venezuela. The conflict continued until the end of the year.
During the same period, the group went from battling with the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) in Norte de Santander and Cesar, two departments on the border with Venezuela, to become one of the main groups in the area, controlling cocaine production points.
Another unexpected ELN ally is the ex-FARC "Segunda Marquetalia," led by Luciano Marín Arango, alias "Iván Márquez". Since 2018, high commanders of both groups have met in Venezuela, where they have discussed a strategy for criminal expansion in South America, among other aims.
Finally, some security elements in Venezuela are also strategic alllies of the ELN. These relationships have allowed the guerrillas to strengthen rapidly on the Venezuelan side of the border.
Today, the ELN is today one of the main criminal groups in Colombia and Venezuela. Its strength poses new challenges for any eventual demobilization and calls into question the ability of the Colombian government to defeat the guerrilla group..
The ELN and the government of President Gustavo Petro began a new round of peace talks in November 2022.
These talks face several obstacles. First, is the ELN's horizontal structure that gives each War Front certain independence and creates the room for eventual disarmament orders from the COCE to be refused by members.
In addition, the guerrilla group is at a historic moment. With a force of up to 5,000 members, controls an extensive network of criminal rents throughout Colombia, and has leaders who, like Pablito or Ariel, seem more interested in economic opportunities of continued criminality than in reaching a political agreement for peace.
As such, the future of the peace talks is undoubtedly in the hands of the ELN. There is a long way to go before an agreement will be reached. The guerrilla group will undoubtedly continue strengthening itself as talks go on, as they have done in the past.
Finally, there is the ELN's binational character. In Venezuela, the ELN now operates with certain freedoms thanks to its relations with politicians and security forces. The ELN groups operating in Colombia appear to have different interests and behaviours than those operation in Venezuela, and the distance between these two stances could lead to problems in reaching concensus.
At present, it appears most likely that the ELN will continue to be the most important binational group in the north of the region, and that it will grow stronger in Colombia and Venezuela regardless of the peace talks with Gustavo Petro's government. However, the rapid strengthening of the guerrilla group may create rifts among their leaders, particularly between those not in the same country. The risk of losing internal cohesion is therefore a real possibility.