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.
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.
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.
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.
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.