President Gustavo Petro has offered Colombia a tantalizing vision of “Total Peace:” a negotiated end to all the armed conflicts that have plagued the country for generations. At the top of his list is the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
The prospect of a demobilized former guerrilla -- Petro was once a member of the M19 rebel group -- who has risen to the presidency through victory at the ballot box convincing Colombia’s last major insurgency to lay down their arms and pursue its political aims peacefully is enticing. And it is a vision the ELN leaders have publicly bought into.
“We also feel responsible for delivering this mandate for changes in Colombia, including that there is peace,” the ELN’s lead negotiator, Israel Ramírez, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” told EFE in September, in an interview republished by Colombia's El Tiempo.
But the obstacles Petro faces are many. And among the biggest is one that may lie outside his control: Colombia’s troubled neighbor, Venezuela.
The ELN is no longer just a Colombian group. Today it is a binational group, and the safety, criminal wealth, military support, and political alliances that the Venezuelan regime provides to the guerrillas are a spoiler to peace in Colombia. And while the Venezuelan government has so far expressed support for a renewed peace process, it is far from clear what role it will play, as the connections between the guerrillas and the Venezuelan state have also helped the autocratic regime of President Nicolás Maduro consolidate power.
“For the next Colombian government, any peace negotiations will have to pass through Venezuela, and this is going to impact binational and diplomatic relations,” said Charles Larratt-Smith, an academic and co-author of the study “Why is it so difficult to negotiate with the ELN.”
“As long as the ELN is allowed to operate in Venezuelan territory, then there will be no peace.”
Venezuela and an Elusive Peace in Colombia
In the six decades since the ELN began its revolution, seven different Colombian presidents have tried to negotiate with this rebel group, but not one has been able to reach an agreement with the guerrillas. While each failure was unique, in each case negotiators struggled to overcome many of the same obstacles Petro faces today.
The rebels’ demands are complex and in the past have extended beyond specific issues such as poverty and underdevelopment and into wholesale political changes to Colombia’s political and economic model.
Negotiations are also complicated by the nature of the ELN. The group is not a rigidly hierarchical, centrally commanded insurgency but a federation of semi-autonomous regional networks known as War Fronts. The ELN’s decision-making process requires these often fractious fronts to come to a consensus for major decisions.
In addition to these longstanding obstacles, Petro will also have to overcome the legacy of the failures of the 2016 peace accords with the ELN’s insurgent cousins, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
The state’s failure to deliver on pledges of rural development and of helping demobilized fighters safely reintegrate into society has eroded trust in the Colombian state and its promises.
“One of the challenges now is why would the ELN believe anything the Colombian state offers when they’ve seen how it has largely failed to make significant inroads with demobilized [FARC] communities?” said Mathew Charles, a journalist and academic at the University of Rosario in Bogotá who studies criminal dynamics in Colombia.*
The state’s failure to occupy the territories left by the demobilizing FARC also created an underworld vacuum, which in many places the ELN has filled, taking over former FARC territories and criminal economies. This strengthening has changed the balance of power for any negotiations.
“The FARC arrived at the negotiating table in Havana in a moment of military and political decline, while the ELN is on the rise,” said Luis Trejos, an academic at Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla and an expert on the conflict in Colombia.
Perhaps the most important element of this rise has not been in Colombia at all but in Venezuela.
Two of the ELN’s strongest and most belligerent fronts, the Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental) and the Northeastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Nororiental), have long used Venezuela as a refuge and a source of income. But their post-FARC expansion has seen them take the final steps toward becoming binational groups.
Aided by their relationships with local political leaders and the military in Venezuela, the fronts now operate with near-total impunity along much of the Colombia-Venezuela border and even beyond. There, they have taken over lucrative criminal economies including drug trafficking, gold mining, and contraband, while building socio-political networks within communities and military alliances with the Venezuelan security forces.
“As long as they continue to consolidate power and expand in Venezuela, the Eastern War Front, at least, will have even fewer incentives to negotiate,” said Sebastián Zuleta, an expert in peace negotiations and the Colombian conflict, who has advised the Colombian government on talks with the ELN.
The Eastern and Northeastern War Fronts have both balked at the ELN’s past attempts at peace negotiations. Both fronts voted against peace talks at the ELN’s 50th-anniversary conference in 2015. And the Eastern War Front’s most important commander, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” delivered the death blow to a peace process that began in 2017 when he allegedly ordered a bombing of a Bogotá police academy that killed 22 cadets and injured 70 others in January 2019 -- reportedly without the knowledge of the ELN’s other national leaders.
Since the FARC's demobilization, their increasing strength along the Venezuelan border has made these radical fronts the wealthiest and most ideologically influential factions within the ELN. They now have little reason to submit as they expand, no matter what deal the leadership strikes.
"There are many powerful commanders, above all Pablito, who will never agree to any conditions that the Colombian government suggests or applies because now they have their project on the Venezuelan border," said Larratt-Smith.
A Venezuelan State Reliant on Guerrilla Criminality
While the ELN is now a binational group, it is not a binational insurgency. Far from attempting to overthrow the Venezuelan state, the guerrillas have instead acted as a paramilitary force supporting the Maduro government. And so any new peace process must involve the Venezuelan government.
Petro appears to recognize this. On September 13, he sent an official letter to Maduro requesting that Venezuela act as a guarantor in peace talks with the ELN. Maduro accepted within hours, stating on a television show that, “Colombia’s peace is Venezuela’s peace.”
Petro’s move to involve Venezuela in the process mirrors the FARC process when former president Hugo Chávez was a key player in bringing the insurgents to the negotiating table in 2012. And although Chávez died less than a year into the talks, Maduro continued to support the peace process after succeeding him as president.
This support at least in part came from a shrewd political calculus. For years, the Chávez government had cultivated relations with the FARC not only out of ideological sympathy but as a strategy to undermine a hostile Colombia and its military backer, the United States. By 2012, a change of government in Colombia had seen a thaw in relations and a change in priorities. At the same time, Venezuela was keen to dispel any international accusations of supporting terrorism.
There are striking similarities today. Recent years have seen relations between Colombia and Venezuela hit new lows, while the Venezuelan government entertained serious fears about a US invasion launched from Colombia to remove Maduro from power.
Once again, there was a strategic advantage for the Venezuelan government to allow the guerrillas to operate in the border region. This was laid bare in Colombian intelligence reports published by Noticias RCN in July 2022, which InSight Crime has not been able to independently verify, which reported how the ELN had drawn up plans to deploy as a paramilitary force to protect the Maduro regime in the event of a foreign invasion.
With the arrival of Petro, though, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been re-established for the first time since 2019. There have even been efforts to restore relations with the United States, which although tentative and limited, are at least a sign that military action is no longer on the table.
“Once Colombia convinces Venezuela that it is not a threat to its sovereignty, that's when Venezuelan cooperation on the ELN will come,” said Trejos.
With these geopolitical shifts, the current climate could favor Venezuelan support for a peace process. However, Maduro’s internal political calculations are very different from Chávez’s in 2012.
“Now, it is much more complicated because the Venezuelan government, and these armed groups have a mutual need for each other,” said Zuleta.
This mutual need stems from the ways that the guerrillas have helped Maduro cling to power, weathering economic, social, and political crises. Today, the guerrillas continue to help prop up the state.
The Venezuelan military continues to cooperate with the ELN. The guerrillas have partnered with the security forces to target enemies that represent a security risk or an obstacle to the regime’s objectives, such as the Colombian criminal militia the Rastrojos, the renegade FARC dissidents of the 10th Front, and the mining gangs of Bolívar.
The threats to Maduro have been political as well as military. The guerrillas have helped in this area as well, especially in the border region, which is a traditional hotbed of support for the Venezuelan political opposition. There, the guerrillas have interfered in elections, according to various media reports and InSight Crime sources on the ground. In areas where the opposition has won elections, the ELN's presence is often strong enough to prevent opposition administrations from governing freely.
“The municipal government has to work with the guerrillas. If you are from the opposition, you have to accept that and respect their rules and regulations,” a local government official in a border municipality in Táchira, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime.
Venezuela’s economic decline poses a threat more pernicious but ultimately even more challenging than these direct military and political threats to Maduro’s power.
Venezuela’s economy is still suffering from years of hyperinflation, rampant corruption, and punishing international sanctions. This left the government teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, starved of foreign currency, and unable to pay living wages to the security forces and other branches of the State.
Once again, the criminal activities of the ELN have offered respite from these challenges.
The guerrillas’ control of territories in the mineral-rich states of Amazonas and Bolívar helps the state claim a share of the gold produced in illegal mining operations. Trading this gold internationally has helped the government skirt US sanctions and provided sorely needed foreign income to the government.
The guerrillas also share profits from mining as well as other criminal economies such as contraband, fuel smuggling, and drug trafficking, with Venezuelan security forces, according to multiple current and former security forces officials, local and national political sources, experts, investigators, and community sources in the border region, who all spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
As the government does not have the resources to pay living wages to security forces, it permits police and military of all ranks to pad their income with this dirty cash to keep them loyal.
“[The military and the guerrillas] have an agreement, practically a corrupt business that they run together on the border,” said Romel Guzamana, an indigenous National Assembly representative for the state of Amazonas.
The state’s alliances with the ELN helped Maduro weather the storms of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis and he has now reached what may be his most stable position of power in years. The opposition is weakened and divided, international relations are thawing, and the Venezuelan economy has stabilized and seen limited growth. For Maduro, maintaining an active ELN may still outweigh the benefits of facilitating a peace process.
“There is a parasitic and symbiotic relationship between the Maduro government and the ELN, and this will be very difficult to undo,” said Zuleta.
Mutual Spoilers or Mutually Dependent on Peace?
For the moment, it is looking increasingly likely that a new ELN process will begin, and that Venezuela will offer its public support to Colombia's President Petro.
The doubts that loom largest are how sincere Maduro’s involvement in the upcoming peace process will be, and how the mutual dependence of the Venezuelan state and the now binational Eastern and Northeastern War Fronts of the ELN will affect both the fronts and the Venezuelan government’s willingness to fully participate.
Even if Maduro can be convinced that brokering peace is once again more politically beneficial than enabling war, he may find the ELN is now too deeply entrenched in Venezuela and has grown too powerful for him to control.
“If, for whatever reason, the moment arrives when they [the ELN and Venezuelan regime] no longer need each other, then I can’t see the ELN picking up its tents and its arms and going back to Colombia. It is going to stay there,” said Zuleta.
The Venezuelan military has already learned painful lessons about taking on entrenched guerrilla groups. When the military attempted to drive the FARC dissident 10th Front out of Apure in early 2021, the campaign ended with a humiliating withdrawal. And the much larger and stronger ELN would make for a much more formidable opponent.
“What happened with the 10th Front would be child’s play compared to what would happen if they confronted the ELN,” said Zuleta.
This alone could be enough to deter Maduro from truly supporting Petro’s plans for peace with the ELN -- or at least to hedge his bets by playing both sides. For both Petro and Maduro -- and for Colombia and Venezuela -- the stakes are high.
“I believe Venezuela is going to find itself at a crossroads, if it supports Colombia in finding a negotiated resolution to the conflict with the ELN but the process is not successful, then it could pay the price of an armed conflict in Venezuela,” said Trejos, who has extensively studied Colombia’s armed conflict and peace processes.
The ELN's internal divisions, the rising strength of Colombian rebel elements in Venezuela, and its growing Venezuelan constituency, combined with the symbiotic relationship with the Maduro regime mean a swift resolution to peace negotiations remains a distant prospect.