For three days in mid-February, the ELN made a show of force, staging simultaneous operations in a show of force which sent a clear message to the government about the risks of not pressing ahead with peace talks.
On February 10, 2020, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), which InSight Crime named the most powerful criminal group in Latin America in 2019, publicly announced the implementation of an "armed strike" across nine Colombian departments. The strike lasted 72 hours, from February 14 to 17.
Over that time, Colombia saw at least 27 operations by the ELN around the country, including attacks on electrical infrastructure, clashes with the Colombian Army, closures of national highways due to bomb threats, explosive devices left in cities, one sniper attack, as well as numerous graffitis and flags hailing the group.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
Entire rural communities were left paralyzed due to the fear of reprisals for not abiding by the group’s orders.
The Colombian government responded with the deployment of military units in the departments like Chocó, Bolívar, Cesar, Antioquia and Norte de Santander, according to Uno Noticias. while the army allegedly prevented 94 further operations by the ELN nationwide, General Luis Fernando Navarro, commander of Colombia's armed forces, was quoted as saying by W Radio.
InSight Crime Analysis
This nationwide show of strength essentially proves that the ELN is Latin America's only criminal group able to bring large parts of a country to a halt.
It also showed the government the risk of not pressing ahead with peace talks in Cuba, suspended since January 2019, and which the group has wanted to resume.
Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) demobilized after signing a peace agreement with the government in 2016, the ELN has swiftly taken control of regions the FARC left behind.
This growth was reflected in the efficiency of its armed strike. The 27 incidents surpassed the 20 events which marked a similar rally by the ELN in 2018.
Norte de Santander and Cesar were the most affected areas in February but some of the operations revealed the ELN's ability to wield power without violence.
In Chocó, a department that has been heavily affected by the ELN's Western War Front (Frente de Guerra Occidental), a warning was enough to stop transport along the Istmina River, a key municipality for connecting the department, which led to a food shortage, Caracol reported.
A similar situation occurred in Arauca, a department historically controlled by the ELN's Domingo Laín Sáenz Front, where a significant amount of land transportation and economic activity was halted. Local media reported that few businesses opened and that many areas turned into "ghost towns" during the armed strike.
Likewise, in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca's port city, thousands of people were reportedly unable to travel as river transportation was stalled due to fears of ELN reprisals.
The only comparable recent event came in October 2019, when the Sinaloa Cartel mobilized hundreds of gunmen and shut down the city of Culiacán, forcing authorities to release Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo." But while this happened in the Sinaloa Cartel's backyard, the ELN's force projection was across a far broader area.
With a presence across Colombia and a capacity to halt activity in entire regions, the ELN may now be able to pressure the national government into returning to the negotiating table in Havana. Peace talks with the group were discontinued after the ELN's Bogota attack on January 21, 2019.