The ELN, Colombia’s last rebel army, has engaged in exponential growth over the last four years, both in Colombia and within Venezuela, and may now be described as a Colombo-Venezuelan force, with enormous implications for both countries.
In October 2018, reports reached InSight Crime of a massacre of miners in Bolívar state, along the Venezuelan border with Guyana. It was attributed to the National Liberation Army (ELN). This made no sense, as while the ELN has long had a presence in Venezuela, this was just across the border from Colombia, not on the other side of the country.
Requests were sent to all of our correspondents spread across Venezuela to report on any news of ELN presence. The replies surprised us. ELN presence was reported in 12 of Venezuela’s 24 states, with armed and uniformed presence in five of those states. It was clear to us that the ELN had become a Colombian-Venezuelan group.
The ELN presence in Venezuela dates back decades. We remember the complaint lodged with the Organization of American States in July 2010, when the government of Álvaro Uribe presented accusations that some 1,500 Colombian rebels were living in Venezuela. In those days the rebel presence was about sanctuary, the ability to live out of reach of the Colombian military, and carry out training, planning and logistics operations without molestation.
SEE ALSO: ELN in Venezuela Profile
The situation today is different. Venezuela is a now major source of income for the ELN, not just from extortion, but the running of illegal gold mines, many of these in Bolívar, hundreds of kilometers away from the Colombian border. There is also evidence of involvement in drug trafficking, with planes laden with cocaine departing from areas of Venezuela under ELN control.
The recruitment of Venezuelans into ELN ranks now number in the hundreds, according to our sources. The ELN has also been engaging in political work in Venezuela, infiltrating local politics in many of the states and municipalities where it has a strong presence and building up social and political networks that reflect those in places like Arauca, on the Colombian side of the border. They have even been distributing food in Venezuela.
Our analysis on this was recently confirmed in Revista Semana by an old friend, a fellow Briton who has lived for two decades in Venezuela, Phil Gunson, who now works for International Crisis Group:
“On this side of the frontier, we feel that the ELN…is more and more a Venezuelan organization, not Colombian, in the sense that its most important bases and its principal sources of income are on this side, where it recruits more and more Venezuelans.”
This has huge policy implications for Colombia and for the United States as it seeks to promote regime change in Venezuela. It will also help define the future of the Colombian civil conflict as well as the possibilities of a Venezuelan civil conflict. One must remember that the ELN was born with backing from Cuba, the most important ally of the current Maduro regime.
Is it a coincidence that ELN expansion in Venezuela has occurred as the Cuban-backed Maduro resists multiple threats to his grip on power? Unlikely. Will the ELN defend the Maduro regime against opposition elements seeking power? Almost certainly, as this would represent a direct challenge to their interests in Venezuela.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
It also means that the ELN is unlikely to roll over if a US-backed government takes power in Venezuela and threatens its strongholds and influence in the country. The ELN has been resisting US-backed governments in Colombia for decades, why would it act any differently in Venezuela?
The current situation in Venezuela provides perfect conditions for the ELN to expand, politically, militarily and economically, as well as present itself as a Pan-American and Bolivarian, not just Colombian, rebel force.
However, another scenario could also suit the ELN. A fully fledged civil conflict in Venezuela, where it could ally itself with 'colectivos', radical Chavista elements in the military and militia as well as the organized crime groups that have deep roots in the Maduro regime. This unifying of civil conflicts in Colombia and Venezuela is a very real possibility and one that should be guiding policy-makers in Colombia and abroad as they promote regime change in Venezuela.
But it is not just the ELN who depend on Venezuela for sanctuary, funding and recruitment. The ex-FARC Mafia, more specifically the FARC dissidents, also have significant, and growing, presence across the border. Their biggest outpost is in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, under the command of the FARC’s most famous narco-guerrilla, Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40.” Up to 500 ex-FARC mafia are based here, a large percentage of them Venezuelan, and perhaps the main dissident leader, Miguel Botache Santillana, better known as “Gentil Duarte.”
Colombia and Venezuela are like Siamese twins, their criminal histories joined at the hip. Relying on primitive diplomacy, military action and short-term gains will simply result in prolonged suffering. What is needed is considered and precise surgery to ensure that both countries tackle their criminal issues in tandem, with a long-term view and intimate cooperation on the social and economic fronts, not just from a law enforcement perspective.
Current government rhetoric does not suggest the presence of any such subtlety. A civil conflict in Venezuela will simply only strengthen the ELN and Colombia’s criminal dynamics and condemn us to further decades of violence.