The seizure of photos and files from the ELN, Colombia's second biggest guerrilla group, offers a glimpse of the workings of the rebel organization, often overshadowed by the rival FARC.
As El Tiempo reports, the files were found on a computer seized in a July 4 raid on a National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN) camp. As well as internal reports detailing the group's operations, the documents include images of leaders known by the aliases "Gabino," "Antonio Garcia," Pablo Beltran," and "Ramiro Vargas," standing together against a heavily forested background (See below).
The photos were apparently taken near the Venezuelan border in the Norte de Santander department, where rebel leaders had gathered for the group’s Fourth Congress, held between July and August 2006. During this meeting, the ELN reportedly established a special commission to seek rapprochement with their longtime rivals, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
According to an ELN report on the gathering, also reportedly seized by the armed forces, this effort was proceeding well, and was geared towards adopting an “attitude of dialogue” with their guerrilla cousins. However, the document also reportedly notes that there had been several attacks on ELN columns by FARC units, despite the attempts at reconciliation. This ceasefire with the FARC was finally brokered in December 2009, when the ELN’s Central Command and the FARC’s seven-man Secretariat announced a national alliance. Despite some minor skirmishes over the next couple of months, most of which occurred in the strategic frontier department of Arauca, fighting between the two has been virtually non-existent since September 2010.
As InSight Crime has reported, this alliance has been immensely valuable to the ELN, who have been experiencing something of a “second wind” in recent years. As a result of increased funds and more strategic alliances, Admiral Edgar Cely, the commander-in-chief of the Colombian Armed Forces, has estimated the total number of ELN fighters to be 2,000, up from 1,500 in 2006.
However, one aspect of the FARC alliance may not be so beneficial to the ELN’s long term survival. Because the two groups have pledged to take part in any future peace negotiations together, the ELN has essentially given up an important advantage: its superior public image. For much of the past 40 years, the group has claimed to represent the interests of the Colombian people better than the FARC, and has been perceived as less engaged in drug trafficking. On the computer, police also reportedly found a detailed account of cocaine production in 15 different regions.
If true, this would contradict the ELN’s repeated denial of involvement in the narcotics trade, which it has denounced as “detrimental to humanity.” This is not the first time that the group has been linked to drug trafficking, however. In 2007 the ELN formed an alliance with a faction of the Norte del Valle cartel known as the Rastrojos in order to obtain more funding in exchange for guarding drug laboratories and escorting cocaine shipments.
Once the ELN officially reconciled with the FARC, however, whatever supposed “moral high ground” they had was lost.