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. Initially a Marxist-Leninist nationalist movement, it now appears more focused on kidnapping, extortion and attacks on economic infrastructure. And while it eschewed drug trafficking for decades, it has recently been linked to the narcotics trade and has sought alliances with large drug trafficking organizations. Militarily, it has been greatly debilitated and has dropped from an estimated 5,000 soldiers in the early 1990s to a force believed to number around 2,500 fighters.
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, which left an estimated 135 of its then 200 members dead.
Principal Criminal Groups
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.
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.
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 Bolivar 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 at the top. Some factions of the ELN refused to negotiate with the Uribe administration. Other leaders simply left the group altogether.
Around the early 2000s, the ELN also had to contend with increasingly violent confrontations with the FARC and power struggles among their leadership.
The guerrilla’s horizontal structure has given leaders a high degree of independence and decision-making capacity. This has led the ELN’s criminal structure to be largely based around autonomous factions, each focused on drawing criminal income from its area of operations.
It is not surprising that, over the years, the modus operandi of the ELN has evolved towards increasingly autonomous factions, focused on the criminal income of each region.
Over time, the kidnappings which had long characterized the ELN were overshadowed by the high profits brought in from coca crops, drug trafficking, illegal mining and contraband.
While different fronts vary in their levels of involvement with drug trafficking, this criminal economy is a mainstay for the ELN.
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.
The ELN maintains a horizontal structure for military decisions, with commanders of various Fronts given a high degree of autonomy but political decision-making is made by its Central Command (Comando Central – COCE).
The group’s commander-in-chief is Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” who is also the commander of military matters within the COCE. The second-in-command is Eliecer Herlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio García,” in charge of international relations and military strategy. He is followed by Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltran,” who lead the ELN delegation to peace talks with the government and is in charge of political matters and recruitment. A highly important member of the group is Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” reputed for being belligerent and fiercely opposed to talks with the government. Finally, Rafael Sierra Granados, alias “Ramiro Vargas,” is in charge of finances.
Alongside the COCE, the ELN has a National Directorate (Dirección Nacional – DINAL), created in 1982. It includes members of all of the ELN’s Fronts, including its international and urban warfare fronts, as well as representatives for financial and logistical matters.
Beyond these groups, the ELN’s horizontal structure allows each Front to operate and take actions independently.
The ELN currently has seven active Fronts in Colombia.
– The Manuel Pérez Martínez Northeastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Nororiental Manuel Pérez Martínez – FGNO) in the department of Norte de Santander.
– The Northern War Front (Frente de Guerra Norte – FGN) in the departments of La Guajira, Cesar, Magdalena y Atlántico.
– The Manuel Vásquez Castaño Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental Manuel Vásquez Castaño – FGO) in the departments of Arauca, Boyacá y Casanare.
– The Jesús Darío Ramírez Castro War Front (Frente de Guerra Jesús Darío Ramírez Castro – FGJDR) in the departments of Antioquia and Sur de Bolívar.
– The Omar Gomez Western War Front (Frente de Guerra Occidental Omar Gomez – FGO) in the departments of Chocó an 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 16 of Colombia’s 32 departments, as well as in its major cities, including Bogotá, according to military intelligence sources. Its presence is particularly strong along the border with Venezuela, especially in the departments of Arauca and Vichada, as well as along the Pacific coast, where it has established strongholds in the departments of Chocó, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Nariño.
Furthermore, the ELN has rapidly expanded into Venezuela, having benefited from a close relationship with and receiving protection from certain officials in power. It has consolidated its presence in the Venezuelan states of Zulia, Táchira, Apure and Anzoátegui, while gaining a presence in the states of Amazonas, Bolívar, Barinas, Trujillo, Portuguesa, Lara, Falcón and Guárico. In Venezuela, the group has focused strongly on controlling criminal economies like illegal mining and oil smuggling.
Allies and Enemies
In Colombia, the ELN is currently embroiled in two important conflicts, in the department of Chocó and the region of Catatumbo, in Norte de Santander.
In the first instance, it is fighting the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Cartel, for control of territories formerly controlled by the FARC, especially the border with Panama and the Darién Gap.
In Catatumbo, it has been winning a long campaign against the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), or the Pelusos, to control major drug trafficking corridors in the area, also left behind by the FARC after their demobilization.
The ELN also has complex relations with various factions of the ex-FARC Mafia, dissident criminal groups who refused to demobilize. These do not answer to one central leadership and have diverse interests, with the ELN having fought against and allied itself with various dissident FARC factions across Colombia and Venezuela.
The ELN has strong prospects ahead now that it has become the most powerful criminal group in Colombia, is entrenching itself in Venezuela, and is also one of the principal organized crime players in the Americas.
It has expanded rapidly since the FARC peace agreement of 2016, both absorbing guerrillas who did not wish to lay down their arms and capturing key areas left behind by the FARC.
Furthermore, the ELN is consolidating itself as a truly transnational guerrilla group, due to its control over drug trafficking, illegal mining, human trafficking and smuggling in much of Colombia and Venezuela.
Furthermore, the above would create a problem for Colombia to continue its offensive against the guerrillas. This is because their actions would be impeded by the border and, given the null communication with the Venezuelan government, there does not seem to be a will on the other side of the border to fight the group.