Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía, alias "Pablito," is a member of the ELN’s Central Command (Comando Central – COCE). He has traditionally been one of the ELN’s most belligerent commanders and was critical of peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government. He was the commander of the Domingo Laín Sáenz Front until 2015 and was appointed third-in-command of the group in June 2021 following the resignation of Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias "Gabino."
Pablito is a native of Sarare, born into one of the first families to colonize the region and which had longstanding relations with the ELN. He was recruited into the ranks of the group in 1982 by Jaime Quiroz in Arauquita.
The Domingo Laín Sanz Front saw an opportunity to take advantage of the oil boom in Caño Limón, Arauca. It began to gain control of the department by extorting the oil multinationals as well as carrying out extortion and kidnapping. This allowed Pablito to progressively show his capacity for leadership.
By 1989, when Jesus Emilio Jaramillo, the Bishop of Arauca, began protesting against the actions of the ELN, Pablito personally ordered and directed his murder. This became a turning point for the ELN in Arauca as their new leaders, including Pablito, no longer held back in their use of violence.
In 1993, Pablito was already a leader within the Compañía Simacota. In 1995, he carried out his first international operation, leading an attack against the Carabobo military base in the Venezuelan state of Apure.
By 1998, he was commanding the Compañía Simacota, which was active around Arauquita. In 2000, he became the commander of the Domingo Laín Sáenz Front of the Eastern War Front (Frente Domingo Laín Sáenz del Frente Oriental de Guerra). During his leadership, the Domingo Laín Sáenz Front grew its military strength and capabilities, and its influence in Arauca increased.
At the Fifth ELN Congress in 2015, it was announced that Pablito would join the COCE, the group's central command. However, he rejected this appointment, showing that the Front he commands had severe reservations about positions being put forth by the COCE.
Despite reservations about peace talks, in May 2018, he traveled to Havana, Cuba, for negotiations with the Colombian government, along with other senior members of the ELN. But in January 2019, the talks collapsed after the ELN set off a car bomb outside a police training school in Bogotá, killing 21 people.
That same month, Colombia offered up a reward of up to 4 billion Colombian pesos ($1 million) for any information leading to the capture of ELN leaders, including Pablito, Gabino and Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio García."
Since then, Pablito has remained in Cuba, along with much of the COCE and the ELN's negotiating team. Colombia and the United States have continuously piled on the pressure for Cuba to extradite the ELN leadership, including Pablito, but Havana has categorically refused.
In April 2021, rumors circulated that Pablito had died from natural causes in Cuba. The guerrilla group rapidly dismissed this as false and said he remained in good health.
Pablito is being sought by the United States on arms trafficking charges and for the kidnapping of American journalists. According to information from authorities, Pablito controlled drug trafficking routes in western Colombia, as well as in Venezuela. He is also accused of kidnapping, extortion, and attacks on oil infrastructure.
The last high-profile action allegedly commanded by Pablito was the car bomb attack against the Santander General Police School in Bogotá in January 2019, which killed 21 people.
Pablito is also considered to have played a key role in setting up the ELN inside Venezuela. After escaping prison in 2009, Venezuela went from being the Eastern War Front’s hideout to serving as its command center for both military and financial operations. In the state of Apure, his men began creating connections among local communities. InSight Crime investigations found that children in communities under the ELN's control in Apure were taught about imperialism, class struggle, and the legitimacy of the ELN’s revolution in school.
Pablito is the commander of the ELN's Eastern War Front, which operates in Colombia and Venezuela. According to reports, the guerrilla boss has moved easily between the Colombian department of Arauca and the state of Apure in Venezuela where he was understood to have set up his command center.
When most of the ELN's COCE went to Cuba to negotiate with the Colombian government and ended up stuck there when the talks failed, Pablito remained in the field. One expert in Colombian peace negotiations told InSight Crime that "[Pablito] took advantage of the obvious disconnection between the COCE in Havana and the political and military structures in Colombia and Venezuela to make these structures grow in the way he wanted."
While it is uncertain where Pablito is currently based, he remains one of the foremost commanders of the ELN with broad authority over ELN troops in Colombia and Venezuela. The group's Colombia strongholds are in Arauca and Vichada, along the Venezuela border, and in the departments of Chocó, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Nariño along the Pacific Coast. In Venezuela, It has consolidated its presence in the states of Zulia, Táchira, Apure and Anzoátegui, while gaining a presence in the states of Amazonas, Bolívar, Barinas, Trujillo, Portuguesa, Lara, Falcón, and Guárico.
Allies and Enemies
Pablito is a respected veteran within the ranks of the ELN and has broad authority in the insurgent organization's military decisions. His arrival at the COCE in 2015 was seen by many analysts as a strategic decision by the high command of the ELN to join the peace negotiations with the government at the time and attract those who rejected this initiative.
With the presence of ex-FARC mafia groups in Venezuelan territory, old friendships were reborn that had a more criminal than political tint. According to information from the Colombian media, members of the ELN, who had Pablito's approval, were dispatched in Apure in 2018 with the Second Marquetalia led by Iván Márquez in order to divide drug trafficking corridors and charges.
It is widely believed that Pablito continues to command the ELN's Eastern War Front from El Nula, in the Venezuelan state of Apure. With the retirement of Gabino as head of the ELN in June 2021, Pablito has positioned himself as one of the commanders with the greatest power within the guerrilla group.
Given the role he has played in expanding the ELN's presence in Colombia and Venezuela, getting Pablito to the negotiating table is a must for any peace talks to succeed. Should Pablito distance himself from the peace talks begun with President Gustavo Petro, this would deal a major blow to the peace process. And yet Pablito has always been cautious regarding such negotiations, as evidenced by him not joining the former ELN negotiating team in Cuba.
His stance on Petro's "Total Peace" plan is unknown, although early talks between the ELN and the Colombian government have begun.