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.
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 travelled 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 was the commander of the Eastern War Front, which operates in Arauca, Boyacá and Casanare (a region known as ABC). According to reports, the guerrilla boss moved easily between the Colombian department of Arauca and the state of Apure in Venezuela where he was understood to have a camp, farms and a base from where to manage his drug trafficking networks.
However, he is now based in Cuba with much of the ELN's foremost commanders. And while his status certainly grants him broad authority over ELN troops in Colombia and Venezuela, it is uncertain in which areas he exerts most control. The ELN itself has become a transnational criminal group in recent years, growing to an unparalleled presence in both countries. Its 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.
As third-in-command, Pablito likely has broad sway over all ELN actions.
Allies and Enemies
Pablito is a respected veteran of the ELN and has broad authority as a military commander. His ascension to the COCE in 2015 was seen by many analysts as a strategic decision by the ELN’s highest commanders to involve him in the peace talks with the government and secure his support.
Considering that he was the commander of the ELN’s most important war front both in financial and military terms, a distancing and opposition to the peace talks on the part of Pablito and his troops would have been devastating for the negotiations.
While the talks went on, Pablito remained cautious about the peace process and allegedly continued to order attacks by ELN troops.
After the talks failed in 2019, his stock remained high though and he was appointed third-in-command of the ELN in 2021 after the retirement of Gabino.
Pablito is believed to still be in Cuba, with much of the top ELN leadership. With the retirement of Gabino in June 2021, Pablito's importance remains strong, being now in the top three commanders of the guerrilla group. News leading to his capture, as well as other top ELN leaders, is worth up to $1 million for the Colombian government making him one of the country's most-wanted men.
His immediate future remains dependent on the continued support of the Cuban regime, which has so far refused Colombian and American pressure to extradite him.
Should he succeed in returning to Colombia or Venezuela, he would likely immediately return to action as one of the ELN's foremost field commanders.