When Colombia’s largest guerrilla group declared an “armed strike” on the first anniversary of the official start of its peace negotiations with the government, it was just the latest paradox revealing internal cracks in this powerful organization. But it seems the more belligerent factions of the guerrilla group may be taking the upper hand from those seeking peace.
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) announced an armed strike on February 7 that has hit Colombia’s rural and urban communities, paralyzing transport, shutting down commerce, spreading fear, and claiming several lives. At least one soldier and several ELN members have been killed since the strike began on February 10.
The backlash was swift. On February 12, the Attorney General’s Office obtained new arrest warrants against the ELN’s top commanders, although for crimes not related to the strike. Five members of the ELN's Central Command, along with several other guerrillas, were charged with last month's killing of three demobilized members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). They were also accused of involvement in recruiting child soldiers in western Colombia.
The ELN's Warmongers
Among the accused are several chiefs who are currently at the top of some of most violent -- and likely richest -- ELN units. Their actions have posed a threat to the peace process for years, and it is thought that they are seeking at least in part to protect their stake in the drug trade.
One is Commander Ogli Ángel Padilla, alias “Fabian,” who oversees the Western War Front on the Pacific coast where the ELN currently control coca cultivations and cocaine movements. This group has been described as a loose cannon, and it has shown opposition to the peace process for some time. It is also one of the blocs most engaged in open conflict, fighting the powerful Urabeños crime group over prime drug trafficking routes to the Pacific Ocean.
In mid-2017, authorities uncovered the first-ever electric narco semi-submersible, a sophisticated vessel built to move tons of cocaine, in the heart of his territory. It was attributed to the ELN.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
Another wanted ELN commander, Gabriel Yépez Mejía, alias “HH,” appears to have been flagged as a major drug trafficker based in the western department of Nariño, the cocaine capital of the world and a major heroin hub. This is where the ELN killed the former FARC members, displaying the same unruliness that characterizes the group in much of the country.
Also on the list is Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” the newest addition to the Central Command, who is wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges. Notoriously belligerent, he sits astride some of Colombia’s most of important drug trafficking routes into Venezuela, and is thought to be hiding out across the border. Pablito’s promotion to the leadership council was probably an attempt by the ELN to get him to support peace efforts.
So what are their reasons for some of these powerful figures enforcing an armed strike that risks throwing more cold water on the peace process?
A Strategic Strike?
The ELN claims it is trying to revive the peace talks, attributing the strike to "the government's refusal to continue the fifth round of conversations in Quito" as well as the victimization of social leaders and protesters.
However, the ELN may also be seeking to strengthen its position in some of Colombia’s most criminally strategic regions, as the demobilization of the FARC has left power vacuums across the country.
People affected by the Western War Front’s strike in the northwestern department of Chocó who were consulted by InSight Crime speculated that the ELN may be using the strike as part of their territorial strategy.
In addition to feuding over turf with the Urabeños, the group has also accused the army of taking advantage of a recent three-month bilateral ceasefire to extend its territorial control into ELN areas. During the strike, the guerrillas stole several boats from the communities in northern Chocó. Locals believe that the ELN may use these to facilitate their own transport in the area. At the same time, the group has warned locals for months that they have disseminated landmines along access roads, one of their favored tactics for maintaining territorial control.
It is feasible that the ELN is manipulating the strike to reorganize following the ceasefire, especially in areas where they run lucrative criminal economies.
As a result of their actions, the ELN’s warmongers are quickly drowning out the group’s peace advocates.
Clock Ticking for Peace Talks
The ELN’s armed strike came around a year after the ELN’s more powerful cousins, the FARC guerrillas, began to lay down their weapons following a historic peace deal with the government.
But Colombia and the ELN’s hopes of striking a similar deal are growing fainter by the day.
ELN chief peace negotiator "Pablo Beltrán" is the strongest peace advocate in the Central Command and has been holding court in Ecuador, sitting down with social organizations and calling for the government to return to the negotiating table. But he appears to be in the minority, with the chaos in Colombia strongly contradicting Pablo Beltrán’s declared intention of “lowering the intensity of the conflict.”
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ELN Peace
His has been an uphill struggle. The newest round of talks that were supposed to start this year never really took off, with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recalling his government negotiators after the ELN unleashed a wave of violence following the end of the bilateral ceasefire.
Furthermore, Santos is reaching the end of his tenure. Presidential elections are coming up mid-year, putting the talks at further risk. For now, Santos is focusing on military successes. The armed forces claim to have taken 90 ELN members out of action in just over a month, while his negotiators stay home. A successor less amenable to the peace talks could double down on this strategy, potentially giving other elements of the ELN a reason to side with the warmongers over the peacemakers.