HomeColombiaEPL

The EPL, also known as Los Pelusos, is an armed group mainly based in Catatumbo, a region of Colombia’s northern department of Norte de Santander, where it is mostly involved in drugs and arms trafficking.

In early 2021, the group suffered repeated blows in battles with Colombian armed forces and criminal rivals. It is now no longer considered a major national security threat and is unlikely to ever get back to that level.

History

The Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) emerged in 1967 as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The guerrilla group succeeded in gaining a following among workers and rural communities by preaching Mao Zedong’s "Three Worlds Theory," which argued that the developing countries of the third world must ally with those of the second world in order to defeat the hegemony of the United States and, at the time, the Soviet Union.

In the early 1980s, the EPL began to distance itself from its former Maoist principles, prioritizing political struggle over armed resistance. In addition, the EPL’s strategy moved from traditional guerrilla warfare to one focused on inciting popular insurrection, with Colombian cities and towns becoming more important to their armed struggle.

Along with these changes, the EPL also embarked on a plan to expand its presence at the national and international level. As a result, the rebel group began to establish a presence in the Catatumbo and Putumayo regions as well as in other countries like Venezuela and Ecuador.

Finally, on March 1, 1991, 2,200 members of the guerrilla group demobilized and formed a political party called Esperanza, Paz, y Libertad (Hope, Peace and Liberty.)

However, a group of guerrillas within the EPL rejected this peace agreement. This marked the beginning of the current incarnation of the Pelusos. This included one of its founders, Francisco Caraballo, who had extensive experience commanding EPL structures all over Colombia. But his capture in 1994, continued pressure from armed forces and prime drug trafficking routes being contested by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and paramilitary groups prevented the EPL from growing into a real transnational force.

Leadership

One of the EPL’s most important commanders was Victor Ramón Navarro, alias “Megateo,” who led the group from 2005 to October 2015, when he was killed in an operation by security forces. Since then, no leader has managed to keep a hold on power for long, which has contributed to the group’s woes. Navarro’s successor, Guillermo León Aguirre, alias “David León,” was captured in Medellín on December 15, 2016. The next one, Jade Navarro Barbaso, alias “Caracho,” lasted a mere 40 days.

In 2019 and 2020, internal divisions have worsened within the EPL as its members have been divided between its traditional “guerrilla” faction still located in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander, and another faction focused on drug trafficking at the Colombia-Venezuela border, based in Cúcuta.

This division has been worsened by more deaths and arrests among senior commanders. In October 2019, the Colombian army killed then-leader Luis Antonio Quiceno Sanjuan, alias “Pácora,” More recently, Pácora's successor, Richard Arley Díaz Garay, alias “Cóndor,” was captured in Norte de Santander.

Geography

The EPL has maintained a regular, if diminished presence, in Catatumbo and along the Venezuelan border. However, ongoing battles with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN) has forced them to withdraw to the municipalities of Ocaña, Abrego, Sardinata and Hacarí, as well as the metropolitan area of Cúcuta and Puerto Santander.

From 2017 to 2019, it seems the EPL sought to make inroads into other parts of Colombia, specifically the strategic drug corridor of El Naya, far to the south of its usual base of operations. However, authorities dismissed this link and claimed the EPL never established a firm foothold in El Naya.

Allies and Enemies

Under the rule of Navarro, the EPL sought to maximize its drug trafficking profits by establishing alliances with the FARC and the Urabeños in Catatumbo. This alliance allowed the EPL to move drugs freely along routes connecting Catatumbo to Venezuela, to then be smuggled on to to Central America and the United States.

Since 2018, the group has battled the ELN for control of territory and criminal proceeds in Catatumbo. As of January 2021, it is uncertain what remaining criminal economies or drug routes the EPL continues to operate, since it has lost a lot of ground.

In April 2021, the Colombian government downgraded the EPL’s threat level from an organized armed group (Grupo Armado Organizado – GAO) to an Organized Criminal Group (Grupo Delictivo Organizado – GDO), meaning fewer resources and men would be deployed to fight it.

Prospects

With no leader able to maintain a hold on the group for long, with its membership internally divided and unable to stand up to pressure from the ELN and Colombian armed forces, the EPL’s days as a criminal force may be numbered.

It is unlikely that its membership will disappear and the risk is that they will either fragment into newer, smaller criminal gangs or join larger organizations such as the ELN.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

COLOMBIA / 8 JUL 2021

Los Comandos de la Frontera, or the Border Command, formerly known as La Mafia, is a group made up of…

COLOMBIA / 20 OCT 2021

The Pachenca, also known as the Conquering Self-Defense Forces of the Sierra (Autodefensas Conquistadores de la Sierra), emerged following the…

COLOMBIA GROUPS / 18 JAN 2022

The 10th Front, also known as the Martín Villa Front, is one of the most active elements of the ex-FARC…

About InSight Crime

LA ORGANIZACIÓN

Extensive Coverage of our Chronicles of a Cartel Bodyguard

23 SEP 2022

Our recent investigation, A Cartel Bodyguard in Mexico’s 'Hot Land', has received extensive media coverage.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime, American University Host Illegal Fishing Panel

19 SEP 2022

InSight Crime and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University discussed the findings of a joint investigation on IUU fishing at a September 9 conference.

THE ORGANIZATION

Impact on the Media Landscape

9 SEP 2022

InSight Crime’s first investigation on the Dominican Republic made an immediate impact on the Dominican media landscape, with major news outlets republishing and reprinting our findings, including in …

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Sharpens Its Skills

2 SEP 2022

Last week, the InSight Crime team gathered for our annual retreat in Colombia, where we discussed our vision and strategy for the next 12 months.  During the week, we also learned how to…

THE ORGANIZATION

Colombia’s Fragile Path to Peace Begins to Take Shape

26 AUG 2022

InSight Crime is charting the progress of President Gustavo Petro’s agenda as he looks to revolutionize Colombia’s security policy, opening dialogue with guerrillas, reforming the military and police, and…