In the border area where northeast Colombia’s Catatumbo region meets the northwestern Venezuelan state of Zulia is one of the world’s most seamless cocaine corridors.
Every step of the cocaine supply chain from coca cultivation to international export can be found within a few hundred kilometers. On the Colombian side of the border, the security forces have been impotent in efforts to stem the drug flow, while on the other side the Venezuelan authorities and are actively involved in facilitating the trade.
Today, control of this area rests in the hands of a group that insists it does not traffic drugs -- the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla insurgency formed in Colombia in the 1960s.
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The ELN’s rejection of the drug trade was at one point sincere, but its denials have become harder to sustain. Drug trafficking has been infiltrating its revolution for well over a decade, but the ELN’s takeover of the Catatumbo trafficking corridor over the last five years marks an evolutionary leap, turning its Northeastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Nororiental) into the owners of one of the world’s most important cocaine production centers and a major supplier dealing directly with Mexican cartels.
The ELN's expansion along the Colombian-Venezuelan border over the last five years expands far beyond the Catatumbo-Zulia region. The rebels now stand on the cusp of controlling a stretch of border that runs thousands of kilometers from the Caribbean coast to the Amazon rainforest. With it, the group has positioned itself to be the gatekeeper of trafficking routes used to move an estimated 250 tons of cocaine every year.
The Temptations of the ELN
When the cocaine trade swept across Colombia in the 1980s, the ELN stood apart. The group’s leaders condemned the “drug trafficking bourgeoisie” and issued directives banning their regional fronts from seeking a slice of the incredible wealth that was on offer. But as the ELN watched its guerrilla cousins in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) use cocaine money to build an insurgent army that dwarfed its own, bit by bit, its resistance began to weaken.
When coca crops began to spring up in its territories, the ELN started charging farmers a type of tax known in Colombia as gramaje. Soon, in some regions, the guerrillas were also providing protection for coca crops, laboratories, and drug routes, and even supplying precursor chemicals.
“It became obvious that they had to participate somehow because they needed the money,” Mathew Charles, a journalist and academic specializing in Colombian criminal dynamics, told InSight Crime. “Officially, the central command says they’re not involved, that all they do is tax the traffickers that use their territory. But we know that’s not the case.”
The demobilization of the FARC in 2017 completed the ELN transformation from a drug trade puritan to a major transnational player. When the FARC turned over their arms after striking a peace deal with the Colombian government, they left a vacuum in some of Colombia’s most prized stretches of drug trafficking real estate. The ELN was well-positioned to capitalize in many of these areas and nowhere more so than Catatumbo.
Catatumbo is a lawless land of sweeping valleys and towering mountains where armed groups rule and the security forces tread lightly and seldom. The department of Norte de Santander, where Catatumbo is located has over 40,000 hectares of coca crops that could yield over 300 metric tons of cocaine a year, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It also has a wealth of cocaine processing laboratories and isolated cross-border rivers that are perfect smuggling routes.
When the FARC withdrew from Catatumbo, the only thing standing between the ELN and control of the region was the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), a small splinter cell of a long-demobilized rebel army that had abandoned the revolutionary struggle in favor of controlling cocaine labs and trafficking routes in Catatumbo.
“The ELN and the EPL began to occupy territories left by the FARC, but the agreement had always been that the FARC took care of the illegal crops, the ELN provided supplies for coca production, and the EPL sold the product,” said a member of an international aid organization working in Catatumbo, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “The ELN started to break these agreements as it realized that the EPL had a lot of money because of the sales and because they took care of processing labs.”
Little remains today of the EPL. And while a small dissident faction of the FARC has returned to the region, the ELN is by far the most powerful armed group in Catatumbo and the most important actor in the Catatumbo drug trade.
By 2018, the ELN and the EPL were at war. The fighting was bitter and bloody and thrust the region into a humanitarian crisis. But the ELN began to push back the EPL and take control of more and more of Catatumbo -- and its coca crops, processing laboratories, and trafficking routes.
The ELN now rules over tens of thousands of hectares of coca-cultivating territories where, in addition to protecting existing plantations, it forces local farmers to plant new ones, according to investigations by the International Crisis Group. The ELN uses its territorial control to ensure it has control over the trading of the coca base -- an intermediate phase in cocaine production -- these farmers produce.
“The drug market is not an open market where you sell to the highest bidder,” said a drug trafficking expert and investigator based in Norte de Santander, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “If you are cooking [producing coca base] in the ELN’s zones, you sell to the ELN.”
This coca base is then processed into powdered cocaine in crystalizing laboratories, which in Catatumbo include “mega-labs” that can produce upwards of 3.5 metric tons of cocaine per month. Colombian authorities allege that the ELN is one of the lab owners.
Completing the Cocaine Chain
Control of Catatumbo on the Colombian side of the border turned the ELN’s Northeastern War Front into one of the biggest cocaine suppliers for drug traffickers shipping cocaine from the Caribbean coast and helped them establish ties to international buyers. But the ELN secured a place at the table of transnational players with its simultaneous expansion into the state of Zulia across the border in Venezuela.
The ELN’s expansion into Zulia in the wake of the FARC’s demobilization stood in stark contrast to its campaign to take over Catatumbo. In Catatumbo, where the ELN faced competition for its claims to the territory, local communities suffered mass displacements, confinement, and targeted killings of civilian “collaborators” as the ELN fought to wrest control of the area from the EPL. But in Zulia, where there were no competitors to fill the vacuum left by the FARC, the ELN won over local communities with a charm offensive.
“The ELN has made the community see it as a group that has a just cause, that is not an illegal group but a real army,” said a resident of the ELN-controlled municipality of Guajira in Zulia, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
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By ingratiating themselves into local communities, the ELN quietly spread throughout the state, which acts as a transnational launchpad for drug shipments. In Zulia, there are dozens of clandestine airstrips used by light aircraft carrying cocaine shipments to Central America and Mexico. Access to and, in some cases, control of these airstrips allows the ELN to profit from every step in the cocaine supply chain that begins in Catatumbo and ends with drug-laden flights out of Venezuela.
“The guerrillas are in charge of security, setting up roadblocks, and watching over the airstrips, making sure everything works as it should do,” said a farm owner who runs a ranch in ELN-controlled territory where airstrips are located in Zulia.
The ELN has also taken over municipalities where cocaine production has been slowly taking root. As a recent InSight Crime investigation revealed, authorities have discovered large-scale coca plantations in ELN-dominated territories while cocaine laboratories have proliferated in the same municipalities.
Zulia also offers virtual impunity for the ELN and the guerrillas maintain close ties with elements of the Venezuelan state there. Numerous InSight Crime sources in ELN-controlled territories, speaking on condition of anonymity, describe how the ELN collaborates with the military at all levels to facilitate and protect their trafficking operations. Under the state-drug trafficking axis collectively known as the Cartel of the Suns, as long as the right people are paid, shipments can move through checkpoints unchecked, aircraft can land on landing strips hidden in plain sight, and fly unseen through monitored airspace
“Here, there is a perfect alliance between the municipal, state, and national governments, the armed forces, drug traffickers, and the guerrillas,” a former Chavista official in central Zulia, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime in an interview conducted in 2021.
Securing access to clandestine airstrips where aircraft can take off and land with little fear of intervention represented more than one more source of drug trade income for the ELN. It also represented a cocaine crossroads where they could hand over shipments directly into the hands of the world’s biggest buyers -- Mexican cartels.
For years, there have been reports that Mexican cartels have sent emissaries to both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border to broker cocaine deals and oversee production. And now that the ELN is increasingly enmeshed in cocaine production and trafficking, the guerrillas have become trusted suppliers and brokers of processed cocaine for the Mexicans, according to media investigations, the Colombian authorities, and InSight Crime investigations in the region.
Colombian officials have reported to the media that the rebels’ main Mexican connection is the mighty Sinaloa Cartel. The drug trafficking expert in Norte de Santander told InSight Crime this relationship was forged during the ELN’s conflict with the EPL, which was allegedly backed by the Sinaloa Cartel's rivals, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG). The Mexicans dispatched emissaries to the region to liaise with the guerrillas when the fighting put cocaine shipments at stake.
“The Jalisco Cartel started supporting the EPL while the others [the Sinaloa Cartel] supported the ELN,” said the drug trafficking expert.
The New Gatekeepers of the Border
Different geographical conditions and trafficking dynamics mean the ELN will not be able to replicate the Catatumbo-Zulia supply chain elsewhere. But the entire length of the frontier offers trafficking opportunities for whoever controls the crossings. In most places, that is the ELN. With control of one of the most prized trafficking territories in Venezuela currently up for grabs, it is well-placed to position itself as the most important actor in drug trafficking across the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
Although there is evidence of incipient cocaine production in the Venezuelan state of Apure and rumors of it in other border states such as Amazonas, there are no coca cultivation zones in the border region that compare to Catatumbo or other epicenters of cocaine production in Colombia. But there is a multitude of trafficking corridors that lead by land, water, and air to the Caribbean, Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, and even directly to Europe.
The ELN’s role in these routes varies from region to region, but it is ascending.
In areas such as the northern tip of the border where the Colombian department of La Guajira meets Zulia, or the central region of the Norte de Santander to Táchira crossings, the ELN controls clandestine border crossings known as trochas. Anyone using the trochas, including drug traffickers, must pay the guerrillas’ “taxes” to secure safe passage.
“The guerrillas get a slice of all the money that enters through the trochas,” a journalist in Táchira, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime.
Further south, the ELN’s control of river crossing points into the Venezuelan states of Apure and Amazonas also allows it to charge traffickers to move shipments across the Orinoco River that separates the two countries.
Elsewhere, though, ELN trafficking cells have a more direct role, making deals with traffickers to move shipments from ELN-controlled production zones in Colombia to dispatch points in Venezuela.
On the Vichada-Amazonas border, for example, Colombian police told InSight Crime the ELN manages two routes: one along the Meta River and the other along the Vichada River. Uniformed guerrillas are rarely seen transporting drugs, the police said. Instead, the ELN uses civilian trafficking cells that can maintain a low profile as they head for the border under guerrilla protection.
A similar modus operandi was also reported to InSight Crime by a local source further to the south in Guainía, who described how the ELN recruits indigenous youths to transport drugs.
“We have lived side by side with the guerrillas on this drug trafficking route for years,” said a local government official in Puerto Inírida, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “We work with transporting [drugs], and acting as guides, but we are forced to do it.”
For the ELN, there is now one final piece of the puzzle: Apure, a central border state that is a hotspot of clandestine airstrips as well as another region where cocaine production is beginning to take root.
Although the ELN has long controlled border crossings into Apure, until recently the transport and dispatch of cocaine shipments has largely been handled by two ex-FARC dissident factions, the 10th Front and the Second Marquetalia.
But since the start of 2022, the ELN has all but driven the 10th Front from Venezuela while the Venezuelan military has dismantled much of the ex-FARC’s faction’s drug trafficking infrastructure. The Second Marquetalia, meanwhile, has been brought to its knees by a string of mysterious attacks that have killed or wounded all of its most important commanders.
The weakening of the ex-FARC has removed the major obstacles that would have blocked the ELN from claiming Apure’s coca crops, cocaine laboratories, trafficking routes, and narco-airstrips. It may even find in the remnants of the Second Marquetalia, which has maintained good relations with the ELN until now, a network that is prepared to use its expertise and contacts to run these operations as a de facto wing of the ELN.
If the ELN does take over trafficking in Apure, it will control border crossings along the whole frontier, at least three cocaine production zones on both sides of the border, and international cocaine dispatch points in three Venezuelan states.
The Venezuelan border is not the only place where the ELN has capitalized on the demobilization of the FARC to move deeper into the drug trade, with the guerrillas also taking steps into transnational trafficking in regions such as the department of Chocó along the Pacific coast.
For the moment, the rebels still lack the international connections and logistical know-how to compete with Colombia’s leading cocaine trafficking networks on a transnational level, but with their territorial reach and military capacity, they have the potential to transform themselves into one of Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organizations.
Nevertheless, the relationship between drugs and the ELN remains complex, and the guerrilla group is still primarily an insurgent organization.
“To believe that it is a criminal group is not to understand the complexity of this organization, they maintain a strong political component,” Luis Trejos, an academic and investigator who is an expert in Colombia’s conflict, told InSight Crime.
Colombia’s history is littered with examples of involvement in the drug trade corrupting guerrillas' political aims, and the ELN’s leaders surely know the risks. Since the election of the left-wing peace advocate Gustavo Petro as president of Colombia, those leaders have been raising the prospect of peace talks with the Colombian government. And the two fronts that will likely be hardest to convince to join any process are the same two fronts currently growing wealthy and powerful from the Venezuelan drug trade -- the Northeastern and Eastern War Fronts.