Authorities in Colombia have opened an investigation into massive extortion payments made by a multinational company to guerrilla groups the FARC and ELN, spotlighting a source of revenue the ELN may increasingly rely upon should they give up kidnapping to facilitate peace talks.
Colombia's Attorney General's Office is investigating the Italian engineering firm SICIM for sending discreet payments to eastern fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) so that their employees and machinery would not be attacked, reported Reuters. SICIM was contracted from 2011 to 2013 to assist in the initial phases of construction for an oil pipeline in the country's northeast.
Among the evidence included in the investigation is a 2012 letter published by Semana from a member of the FARC to his ranking superior detailing how the two rebel groups would divvy up a six million dollar pay-out from SICIM.
Additional evidence includes numerous phone calls intercepted by the Attorney General's Office between two high-level SICIM executives -- identified by Semana as Francisco Elizondo and Roberto Jorge Rigoni -- and members of the ELN. In one of the recordings, Rigoni tells an ELN operative the guerrilla group would be given financial compensation in exchange for ensuring the safe passage of tractor trailers through the eastern department of Arauca.
But one unidentified official investigating the case told Semana it is unclear whether the SICIM executives were extorted or if they sent the money to the left-wing guerrilla groups on their own accord. According to the investigator, in January 2012 Elizondo reported the company was the victim of an extortion operation run by the FARC and ELN in Arauca.
However, “doubt exists if the complaint was real or if it was simply part of a strategy to pass themselves off as victims in order to not raise suspicion when they made the payments [to the guerrilla groups],” the investigator said.
In an email to InSight Crime, SICIM's legal representatives said, "It never received any notification from any Colombian Authority nor any official communication about the matter.
"As soon as the company learned, from Colombian media reports in January 2015, about a judicial investigation that would involve some former employees of the company, SICIM immediately began an internal investigation under Italian law through its 'Organismo di Vigilanza' (Supervisory Body) to verify what was happened, without identifying irregularities."
(See company's full response below)
Under Colombian law, a conviction for financing illegal armed groups can result in a prison sentence of anywhere from 13 to 22 years. In 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos stated any company that pays extortion fees to such groups would be expelled from Colombia.
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The ELN currently finds itself in a catch-22. On the one hand, the guerrilla group does not want to be left behind as the peace process advances between the government and their larger cousins, the FARC. The ELN -- which began preliminary peace talks with the government in June 2014 -- has previously resorted to kidnappings in a fruitless attempt to earn a place at the negotiating table. The rebel army's top commander, Nicolas Rodriguez, alias "Gabino,” recently indicated the guerrilla group would be willing to consider a ceasefire, which would be a crucial step towards beginning formal negotiations.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
However, entering into formal peace talks probably means the ELN would be forced to give up kidnapping, one of their principal sources of revenue. Ending kidnapping was one of the government's preconditions to sitting down with the FARC in 2012, and this would most likely hold for the ELN as well.
The FARC were able to commit to ceasing kidnappings because of the high profits they earn from the drug trade, with $200 million per year a conservative estimate. However, the ELN entered into Colombia's lucrative drug trafficking industry much later than the FARC, and have never made comparative profits from the trade. Unlike their guerrilla counterpart, pledging to stop kidnapping operations would seriously dent the ELN's finances, and it is unclear how they could recoup the lost profits.
Perhaps the most likely alternative for increasing revenue in such a situation would be for the ELN to step up extortion like that apparently seen in the SICIM case. As evidenced by the Attorney General's Office's investigation, the extortion of multinational companies can offer million-dollar payouts and is typically less complicated to carry out than kidnappings.
There would be an historical precedent for this. In the early 1980s, the ELN's forces had dwindled when they began extorting foreign oil companies, which gave them renewed strength and facilitated a renaissance. By the mid-1990s, the ELN had grown to almost 5,000 operatives, more than double the roughly 2,000 fighters currently believed to be among their ranks.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion
Another possibility would be for the ELN to increase their role in the country's drug trade. The ELN has already made a drug alliance with neo-paramilitary group the Rastrojos, and it appears any ideological objections to profiting from drug trafficking the rebel army once held have since vanished.
It's plausible to consider the ELN to be currently in a similar position as the FARC, in terms of the financial sacrifices each guerrilla group will have to make if they continue on the path towards peace. Just as the ELN would likely have to give up kidnappings in order to make the leap into formal peace talks, the FARC are under similar pressure to cut ties to the drug trade so that a peace agreement can be reached.
Towards that end, in January 2015 the FARC reportedly promised to give up their involvement in drug trafficking. But just as with the ELN, there are more questions than answers as to how such a scenario would play out -- with criminalization of isolated units a distinct possibility -- and what the potential consequences would be for Colombia's criminal dynamics.
*This story was updated to include comments from the company's legal representatives.