The ELN has gained strength in a crucial drug trafficking region in the southern part of Colombia's Bolívar department -- confirming that they have benefited from the demobilization of rival guerrilla force, the FARC.
Located in the center of Colombia, the southern part of Bolívar offers easy access to multiple regions of the country, as well as two key borders for drug trafficking routes: Panamá and Venezuela.
Moreover, the region has vast coca crops and convenient transportation for drugs along the Magdalena River. It is also home to the San Lucas mountain range, a hotspot for illegal mining.
SEE ALSO: ELN Profile and News
The combination of vast criminal wealth and the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) has brought the southern Bolivar region battles among criminal groups, which include the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the Urabeños, and dissident members of the FARC.
InSight Crime Analysis
Historically, the presence of the ELN in the municipalities of southern Bolívar is hardly a novelty. The group has been in the area since the late 1960s when it expanded there after being founded in San Vicente de Chucurí in northern Santander.
Originally, ELN territory extended as far as the San Lucas mountains, a natural border between Bolívar and Cesar departments and a protected enclave.
Twice, the ELN has seen major challenges to its dominance over the area: the FARC guerrillas starting in the 1980s, and the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) in the early 2000s.
Recently, the ELN guerrillas have assumed complete control over the municipalities Simití, San Pablo, Santa Rosa del Sur and Cantagallo. These areas collectively account for around 5,000 of the 6,100 hectares of coca cultivation reported in Bolívar in 2017.
The ELN has also set up cocaine processing labs, using the convenient Magdalena River to ferry troops and drugs from these towns to the northern Caribbean coast.
SEE ALSO: The ELN as a Colombo-Venezuelan Rebel Army
In addition to the above, the ELN has set up illegal gold mining operations in San Lucas. Five mining sites seized in 2016 were estimated to bring in a combined two billion Colombian pesos ($620,000) a year.
Information obtained by InSight Crime during fieldwork in southern Bolívar showed that the situation there could deteriorate in a similar way to parts of Antioquía and Córdoba, where groups such as the Urabeños, Los Caparrapos, the ELN and ex-FARC mafia all vie for control.
But the criminal bonanza may have fostered temporary truces between the ELN and the Urabeños, allowing them to split profits from the cocaine and mining businesses and reduce armed conflict in southern Bolívar.
An example of these truces took place in Simití, where InSight Crime confirmed that the ELN controls coca crops while the Urabeños are in charge of cocaine production and transport.