Colombian authorities dismantled a drug trafficking ring said to form part of an alliance between the ELN and the Rastrojos, underscoring the increased importance of business ties between Colombia's guerrilla groups and the 'bandas criminales' (BACRIM).
Colombia's National Police announced on August 14 that they had seized 857 kilos of cocaine and arrested 12 people believed to form part of a drug trafficking ring linked to the National Liberation Army (ELN). Among those detained was the network's alleged leader, Orlando Moreno Torres, alias "Doble Cero." The operation was the result of two years work between Colombian authorities and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and was carried out in Bogota, Bucaramanga, Cucuta, and three towns in southern Bolivar province, reported EFE.
According to police, the ring bought coca base in southern Bolivar and later processed it into cocaine hydrochloride using drug laboratories protected by the ELN in their strongholds throughout the department. The ring received up to $1 million in exchange for producing a ton of cocaine per month, which was then transported to Venezuela and later trafficked abroad.
Police said that "strategic alliance" between the ELN and the Rastrojos enabled the transport of the cocaine shipments into Venezuela.
InSight Crime Analysis
The ELN's involvement in the drug trade is a relatively new development in their 48-year history. Drug trafficking was typically shunned by the ELN as the profits were deemed "anti-revolutionary." However, faced with falling into insignificance -- their numbers declined from a peak of 8,000 fighters in the early 1990s to around 1,500 in 2006 -- their resistance faded and the group became increasingly involved in protecting drug labs and shipments. This brought in significant profits for the ELN and represented a turn away from their traditional money-making activities, extortion and kidnapping.
The ELN-Rastrojos alliance has its roots in an agreement made between the two groups in 2006 when the ELN were still locked in a fratricidal war with their guerrilla counterparts, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The ELN provided cocaine base and laboratories to the Rastrojos, in exchange for weapons needed to fight the FARC in Colombia's southwest. Although the FARC-ELN war officially ended with a ceasefire declared in 2009, the ELN has maintained connections with the Rastrojos throughout Colombia. In January, authorities said they broke up a drug trafficking operation jointly run between the two organizations in the southwest province of Nariño.
Working with the Rastrojos along the Venezuelan border is enormously beneficial to the ELN as the Rastrojos are now the main criminal organization controlling the drug trade along the Colombia-Venezuela border, according to Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris. The Rastrojos are even said to have established a connection with Mexican group the Zetas in order to transport cocaine out of Venezuela.
Ties between the ELN and Rastrojos are indicative of a more general shift in Colombia's criminal landscape. Alliances between these previous ideological allies are becoming more common, as Colombia's criminal actors realize it is mutually beneficial to maintain a working business relationship, over engaging in a conflict costly to both sides. The FARC and Rastrojos have agreements in areas of Colombia to exchange drugs for weapons and the Urabeños are believed to buy coca base from the guerrillas in certain regions, for example.
It is likely in the Rastrojos' interests to maintain these alliances now more than ever. Since the surrender of their leader Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba," to the DEA in May and the arrest of their founder Diego Perez Henao, alias "Diego Rastrojo," in Venezuela the following month, the group is in a state of flux, with no clear successor rising to the fore. This gives the Rastrojos additional incentive to maintain their business ties with groups like the ELN.