The narco-guerrillas of the EPL are expanding both in their traditional stronghold and across Colombia according to a new investigation, which suggests the group could be seeking to capitalize on the current flux in the Colombian underworld in order to emerge as a major national player.
Sources consulted for a report by La Silla Vacía have described how criminalized remnants of the demobilized guerrilla group the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL) have launched a far-reaching expansion plan.
The group has traditionally been confined to the eastern Catatumbo sub-region on the border with Venezuela, where it has access to coca crops and drug trafficking routes and can exert tight social control over communities. However, Wilfredo Cañizares, director of the human rights organization Fundación Progresar, told La Silla Vacía that the group is now setting up new military fronts in the department of Antioquia in the northwest, La Guajira in the north east and the central region known as the Eje Cafetero, or Coffee Axis.
In addition, the EPL has been expanding into new territories in Catatumbo, occupying municipalities and taking over drug trafficking routes previously controlled by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), numerous official and unofficial sources told La Silla Vacía.
Locals in Catatumbo also disputed the picture of the EPL painted by the authorities -- that of a small group of around 50 members that is entirely shorn of its ideological beliefs and concerned only with criminal activities. Instead, sources consulted by La Silla Vacía said they consider the EPL to be a guerrilla organization composed of up to 1,000 fighters that indeed maintains political structures.
InSight Crime Analysis
Catatumbo is one of the most prized criminal territories in Colombia; it is home to a significant portion of the country's coca crop and critical drug trafficking arteries into Venezuela. Moreover, the state has at best a tenuous control over the territory, allowing armed groups to flourish there.
InSight Crime's investigations in Catatumbo suggest the EPL could become the most powerful underworld actor in this territory as they are assuming control of drug trade interests run by the FARC, who are currently poised to demobilize if their stalled peace process with the state can be pushed over the finish line.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the EPL
However, if it is true that the EPL are also looking to expand their presence on a national level, then this displays an unprecedented level of ambition for the group, which, if realized, could see them established as powerful national as well as regional criminal actors.
However, such a strategy would not be without risk. The EPL would likely lose the substantial levels of social support and control they have in Catatumbo, which has been crucial to their success in the region. In addition, while in Catatumbo they are allied with the other armed groups present -- the FARC and the smaller guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación - ELN) -- in other regions they would likely find themselves coming into conflict with rival criminal structures, most dauntingly, the Urabeños, whose network expands into all three regions mentioned in the report.