An international sting led to the biggest drug seizure ever linked to Colombia's ELN rebel group, a worrying sign of the guerrillas' ongoing drug activities that comes less than two weeks before the official start of peace talks with the government.
Authorities announced on January 25 that an operation involving Colombian, US and Central American authorities led to the seizure of just under 4 metric tons of cocaine.
The investigation indicated that the shipment had been assembled over a three week period under the supervision of "Tio," the leader in charge of the finances and the Pacific trafficking routes of the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN) in southwest Colombia. According to El Tiempo, the seizure was the largest single discovery of cocaine linked to the ELN on record.
The drugs were sent by speedboat from the port town of Tumaco in Nariño department to Guatemalan and Mexican shores, where the Sinaloa Cartel was awaiting the shipment. More than 2,800 kilograms were seized off the cost of Mexico, another 756 kilograms in Costa Rican waters and the remaining nearly 382 kilograms were intercepted by Salvadoran authorities.
A recent report has revealed that hundreds of civilians are fleeing as the ELN and the Urabeños criminal band (referred to as "Clan del Golfo" by the authorities) are battling to take control over the strategic port of Tumaco that was previously held by the demobilizing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Speaking about the group's activities in the area, a police investigator from Colombia's criminal intelligence unit told El Tiempo that "in Tumaco, [the ELN] is engaged in a territorial war against the 'Clan del Golfo' to capture the areas left by the FARC."
The ELN are scheduled to start formal peace negotiations with the government on February 7.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent record seizure combined with the ELN's reported attempts to take over former FARC territory suggests that the group's drug activities are already substantial and may be growing. This could prove problematic for the guerrilla leadership's control over its troops and the dissidence rate in the context of upcoming peace talks with the Colombian government.
According to InSight Crime calculations, one hectare of coca crops can yield 7 kilograms of cocaine per year. The 4 metric tons shipment would suggest that the ELN gathered coca paste from roughly 570 hectares, and the claim that the product was gathered in three weeks speaks to the group's logistical capabilities.
Considering the reports indicating that the group is taking over former FARC operations in Tumaco, the ELN's role in the drug trade could be poised to increase.
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According to the latest government report by the Colombian Observatory for Drugs (Observatorio de Drogas de Colombia), the area used for coca cultivation nearly doubled in Nariño department from around 17,300 hectares in 2014 to roughly 30,000 in 2015. And Tumaco was the biggest coca producing municipality in the country in 2015, with nearly 17,000 hectares accounting for 18 percent of the national total.
The possibility of the ELN significantly increasing its drug revenues has concerning implications in light of the upcoming peace talks. The group is already facing high levels of desertion among its ranks, and there are significant concerns about the level of control that the leadership exercises over the guerrilla group's various fronts.
Should the ELN succeed in absorbing the FARC's abandoned operations, its drug revenues will likely increase, providing more financial incentives for guerrillas to desert. This would further complicate talks with the group, whose leadership is struggling to present a unified negotiating front.