The dissidence of the EPL, which the security forces call Los Pelusos, is the dissidence of the guerrilla group Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL). It is now considered an armed organized group exclusively dedicated to drug trafficking. Its main operating centre is the border region of Catatumbo, where it has been involved in transborder criminal activities such as drug and arms trafficking.
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 penetrating the worker and peasant movements 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 and changed its behavior, prioritizing political struggle over armed resistance. In addition, the EPL’s strategy moved from traditional guerrilla warfare to one focused on inciting popular insurrection, which meant that cities also became centers of armed struggle. In Medellín, the EPL chose members to join the newly created Popular Liberation Army Brigades.
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 have 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, which translates to Hope, Peace and Liberty.
As is the case in all peace processes, a group of guerrillas within the EPL rejected the peace agreement. Among them was one of the group’s founders and commanders, Francisco Caraballo, who, by 1993, had already commanded 13 EPL structures operating in distinct regions of Colombia. However, Caraballo’s capture in 1994, pressure from the Colombian armed forces and the presence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and paramilitary groups, all impeded the growth of the EPL dissident group. At present, only one dissident front, the Libardo Mora Toro Front, remains. This front operates in the Catatumbo region, principally in the municipalities of Teorama, Hacarí, Convención, San Calixto and Ocaña. In 1999, the paramilitaries arrived in the department of Norte de Santander, which affected the EPL’s military activity and caused the group to retreat into rural, difficult to access areas.
The security forces call this EPL dissidence Los Pelusos and consider them an Organized Armed Group (Grupo Armado Organizado – GAO) that is dedicated exclusively to drug trafficking. However, some studies indicate that the group may continue to use guerrilla warfare tactics, has the capacity to affect the armed forces, and maintains a certain social legitimacy with communities in the areas in which it operates.
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 died in an operation by security forces. His successor, Guillermo León Aguirre, alias “David León,” was captured in Medellín on December 15, 2016. Following “David León’s capture, Jade Navarro Barbaso, alias “Caracho” assumed leadership. Although official information states that Caracho died in Teorama, 40 days after the capture of David León, his body had still not been found. According to official figures, the EPL had 132 members as of July 2017.
In the last two years, internal divisions have greatly affected the EPL. The group now has a mostly “guerrilla” faction located in Catatumbo, and another faction focused more on drug trafficking that operates on the border of the metropolitan area of Cúcuta.  The division has also led to the death of several important leaders of the group. In October 2019 the Army killed Luis Antonio Quiceno Sanjuan alias “Pácora,” the main head of the group. Jesús Serrano Clavijo, alias “ Grillo” was later assassinated in a revolutionary war council in March 2020. More recently, Pácora’s successor, Richard Arley Díaz Garay, alias “Cóndor,” was captured in Norte de Santander.
The EPL had a presence in 10 municipalities of Catatumbo, located in the department of Norte de Santander. Reports from 2017 suggest that the EPL is attempting to extend its presence into the Venezuelan territory at the edge of this region, but this is not yet confirmed. 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.
With the FARC’s demobilization and departure from the criminal landscape, rumors have circulated that the EPL is making inroads into other regions in Colombia such as the northern region of Cauca. However, links between the Cauca and the Catatumbo groups have not been proven, and some sources claim that those in northern Cauca are members of the FARC dissidence using the EPL’s name. However, confrontations with the ex-Farc Mafia in Cauca forced the EPL to retreat towards Valle del Cauca.
In January 2018, the Ombudsman’s Office issued a warning that the Libardo Mora Toro Front might be splitting into another group known as the Elisenio Torres Villalba Front, which planned to expand into the municipalities of Curumani, Chimichagua and Palitas in the department of Cesar. These municipalities are part of the Perijá mountain range, an important route for the movement of drugs and rebel ground troops. Still, there is no evidence that the group has a permanent presence in these areas.
Allies and Enemies
Megateo established a Pax Mafiosa model in Catatumbo. Seeking to maximize profits from drug trafficking, he allied with the FARC and the Urabeños to traffic drugs. This alliance allowed the EPL to move freely along the strategic corridors connecting Catatumbo to Venezuela and smuggle drugs out of the neighboring country to Central America and the United States.
Since 2018, the group has battled the ELN for control of territory and criminal proceeds in Catatumbo. Additionally, the EPL is divided in this area between two factions formerly led by alias “Pácora” and alias “Grillo.” The latter allied with Los Rastrojos in Cúcuta and Puerto Santander to maintain control over a key smuggling route to Venezuela. Finally, in Cauca, the group has had clashes with the ex-Farc Mafia for several months before moving towards Valle del Cauca.
Despite uncertainty surrounding the EPL’s leadership — which could be seen as internal fragmentation — the group has a tendency to stay in its comfort zone, remaining in the areas where it has operated for more than 20 years, with the aim of continuing drug trafficking activities. The EPL has reinforced its control in these areas by building legitimacy with the local communities. The bond established with local communities has made it difficult for security forces to conduct operations against the EPL, as illustrated by the lack of news about captures of leaders.
However, constant confrontations with the ELN have added to internal divisions within the group and reduced their capacity for combat in Norte de Santander, where they have lost strategic territories key to maintaining their criminal income.
 A. Villarraga. EPL: guerra irregular, pacto de paz y constituyente, impacto de las hostilidades en la población civil. Bogotá. Fucude, CNAI, OIM, Bogotá, 2010.
 Pacifista. “Exclusivo: al EPL por fin le llegó la hora de rendir cuenta”. Junio 23 de 2017. Publicado en: http://pacifista.co/una-puerta-a-la-verdad-al-epl-por-fin-le-llego-la-hora-de-rendir-cuentas/
 Pacifista. “‘Los Pelusos’: esta es la banda criminal que amenaza al Catatumbo”. Julio 4 de 2017. Publicado en: http://pacifista.co/los-pelusos-esta-es-la-banda-criminal-que-amenaza-al-catatumbo/
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 InSight Crime. “Arresto de narcoguerrillero podría generar violencia en oriente de Colombia”. 19 de septiembre, 2016. Publicado en: https://es.insightcrime.org/noticias/noticias-del-dia/arresto-importante-narco-guerrillero-podria-generar-violencia-oriente-colombia/
 InSight Crime. “Fricciones del EPL dan paso al ELN en Norte de Santander, Colombia” Septiembre 24 de 2019. Publicado en: https://es.insightcrime.org/noticias/analisis/fricciones-epl-eln-norte-de-santander-colombia/
 Fundación Ideas para la Paz. “Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) o Los Pelusos” En: Crimen organizado y saboteadores armados en tiempos de transición. Junio, 2017. Publicado en: http://cdn.ideaspaz.org/media/website/document/59d577971f5c5.pdf
 El Pilón. “Defensoría emite alerta temprana para el Cesar por presencia del EPL”. Enero 26 de 2018. Publicado en: http://elpilon.com.co/defensoria-emite-alerta-temprana-cesar-presencia-del-epl/
 El Heraldo. “¿Quién era ‘Megateo’ y por qué era tan buscado por las Fuerzas Militares?”. 2 de octubre, 2015. Publicado en: https://www.elheraldo.co/nacional/quien-fue-megateo-y-por-que-era-tan-buscado-por-las-fuerzas-militares-220518