A recent split within the EPL guerrilla force has left it weakened and allowed its rival, the ELN, to gain an advantage in Norte de Santander, a Colombian department on the border with Venezuela which contains crucial drug trafficking routes.
Severe cracks appeared within the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL) in May. In a written statement to allies in Venezuela, the EPL announced that its commanders along the Venezuela border, in the department of Norte de Santander, were considered renegades and that it would no longer be responsible for their actions.
The statement explained that EPL leaders in Puerto Santander, a border town in Norte de Santander, had been expelled from the group after disregarding orders by the group's central command to regroup inland to the center of the Catatumbo region -- an order likely meant to add EPL reinforcements to restart a recent turf war with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).
SEE ALSO: EPL Profile
Those accused of disobedience were identified as “Grillo,” “Chupeta,” “Barba Roja,” and “El Ahijado.” El Ahijado has since been killed on the orders of Luis Antonio Quiceno Sanjuán, alias “Pácora,” the EPL commander in central Catatumbo. According to a military source consulted by the newspaper La Opinión, El Ahijado was captured and tortured so that he would reveal the exact location of his comrades.
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The EPL is now bitterly divided between two factions. The first, its more traditional guerrilla faction in Catatumbo, is still trying to recover from the costly war it waged against the ELN in 2018. The second, the recent rebels, have made an alliance with Los Rastrojos to control the profitable drug trafficking routes bordering Puerto Santander.
Although the split happened this year, frictions within the EPL date back to the death of the group’s leader, Víctor Ramón Navarro Serrano, alias "Megateo," in 2015. InSight Crime confirmed during a visit to Cúcuta that the group was divided over how to handle revenue from drug trafficking.
The rift began after Quiceno Sanjuán, the EPL commander in Catatumbo, sent a team led by Jesús Serrano Clavijo, alias “Grillo,” to take over drug trafficking routes in Norte de Santander's capital of Cúcuta. This was seen as crucial as the EPL had been losing its fight with the ELN for control of the department.
Rather than support the EPL’s cause, Serrano Clavijo made an alliance with Los Rastrojos to share the use of and profits from the drug route that runs through Puerto Santander and crosses the Venezuelan border at Boca de Grita in the state of Táchira.
In this way, the EPL’s breakaway faction has extended its influence around Puerto Santander, primarily along a border stretch that runs for 20 kilometers from the towns of Guarumito to Vigilancia.
According to various sources consulted in Cúcuta, the EPL specializes in drug processing in the area. It reportedly has at least three laboratories in Puerto Santander processing coca paste.
The new faction likely decided to enjoy these profits rather than return to war with the ELN. But in so doing, it left the EPL severely weakened in its traditional base of Catatumbo.
The ELN has seized control of important territories from the EPL in the Catatumbo, according to Josué Meridiano, who is part of a state security watchdog in Norte de Santander. “The EPL maintains a presence in areas like Teorama, Hacarí and San Calixto. But they no longer control the territory nor do they have the influence and capacity that they had before the conflict,” explained the investigator.
The guerrilla arm of the EPL, led by Pácora, has been relegated largely to the municipalities of Convención and Sardinata.
Controlling Catatumbo is a prize for the ELN. Catatumbo is one of Colombia's largest coca cultivation areas and has the capacity to produce cocaine at a low cost. And its remote location near Venezuela also gives criminal actors access to key drug trafficking routes and other lucrative activities, such as smuggling contraband and taxing crossing migrants.
Although dynamics in Norte de Santander can change rapidly, the EPL's divisions have played right into the ELN's hands.