Colombia’s ELN rebel group, often forgotten and underestimated, is increasing its strength thanks to a belated involvement in the drug trade, and alliances with both its guerrilla cousins the FARC, and a new generation of narco-paramilitary groups.
The evidence for this resurgence has come in flashes.
On June 15, police in Popayan, the capital of the violence-struck province of Cauca, stopped a Mazda 323 at a routine checkpoint and found the car was filled with explosives, El Colombiano newspaper reported. The driver admitted he was part of the·National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN), but the police were unable to adequately clear the area around the car bomb. It exploded, killing one person and injuring another 16. Authorities stated that the bomb’s target was the center of Popayan. Eight days later, in the Norte de Santander province along the Venezuelan border, ELN rebels clashed with the army, leaving three soldiers and four guerrillas dead.
In the early 1990s, the ELN reached its apex with a force close to 8,000 rebel soldiers and at least three times as many logistical and political supporters. After a steep and rapid decline in the late 1990s, the ELN became largely irrelevant. But a sudden rise in estimated rebel troop levels, as well as a spike in military actions related to their new-found financial sources, is starting to turn this perception around.
Admiral Edgar Cely, the commander-in-chief of the Colombian Armed Forces, has put ELN numbers at 2,000, up from 1,500 in 2006. He said that the Popayan car bomb was retaliation for the eradication of drug crops in their area of operations in Cauca. While it is unclear how detonating a car bomb in an urban area would affect drug eradication efforts, it is clear that the ELN are deeply involved in the drug trade in the southern states of Cauca and neighboring Nariño.
The ELN, thanks in part to leadership from former Catholic priests, had historically shunned drug trafficking money as anti-revolutionary. But in the last decade that resistance has been eroded, and now rebel units in the states of Antioquia, Arauca, south of Bolivar, Cauca, Choco, Nariño and Norte de Santander have become involved, in one way or another, in the drug trade. This has allowed the group, which has traditionally relied on extortion and kidnapping as sources of finance, to increase its revenue streams.
Another reason that the ELN has been able to strengthen itself is that the fratricidal war with rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) appears to be over. This began at the end of 2005, although there had been occasional clashes beforehand. Fighting was bitterest in the states of Cauca and Arauca, along the Venezuelan border.
In December 2009, the ELN’s Central Command (known as the COCE) and the FARC’s seven-man ruling body, known as the Secretariat, announced an alliance and ceasefire across the country. This took immediate effect and held everywhere except Arauca where fighting between the two groups continued until September 2010, when the COCE and Secretariat were able to finally impose discipline on their units in this strategic frontier department.
This ceasefire between the two rebel groups is moving towards an alliance in some parts of the country, and has freed them up to redirect resources previously dedicated to fighting each other toward fighting the security forces, as is evident in the increased frequency of fighting between the government and both these groups in 2010 and 2011.
The ELN has also made other important allies. In Cauca, the group allied with the so-called "bandas criminales" -- criminal gangs -- or BACRIM, one of the new generation narco-paramilitary groups that emerged from peace talks in the mid-2000s.
In order to resist FARC encroachments into its territory, it allied itself in 2007 with a faction of the Norte del Valle drug cartel, the Rastrojos. In return for selling coca base to the Rastrojos, guarding drug laboratories and escorting shipments down to departure points along the Pacific coast, the ELN received money, weapons, ammunition and new communications equipment. This allowed the ELN to not only to beat back FARC advances in Cauca, but take over some of the rival rebel group’s territory.
This alliance with the Rastrojos has developed over the years, with the two groups most recently launching joint operations against the security forces. The ELN also have dealings with the BACRIM in Norte de Santander, Antioquia, and in the south of Bolivar state. These agreements, which revolve almost exclusively around the drug trade, are allowing the ELN to better equip themselves and recruit more fighters.
It is also likely that the FARC and ELN will start working more closely. They have pledged to negotiate any peace settlement with the government together (the ELN held a series of meeting with the previous administration of President Alvaro Uribe in Cuba which came to nothing), and to unite their military efforts.
While the FARC founder and leader Pedro Marin, alias “Manuel Marulanda,” appeared keen to absorb the ELN and take over their territory, after his death in 2008, and with the ascension of Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias “Alfonso Cano,” there seems to be a real desire on the part of the FARC to work more closely with the ELN.
The two groups seem to complement each other. The FARC is better at military strategy, capacity-building, and implementation of these components in the battlefield. The ELN has been better than the FARC at political infiltration and the construction of networks of collaborators in both rural and urban settings. These are skills that Saenz is keen to use and implement as he tries to increase the FARC’s urban reach and penetration.
With new agreements with the FARC and the clear delineation of territory, the ELN have already begun to strengthen themselves in their key areas of operation. This is a trend that is likely to continue as the security forces overlook them in favor of their more powerful FARC cousins. As their involvement in drug trafficking deepens, the ELN will again become a serious force.