Colombia's defense minister announced that a questionably high number of ELN guerrilla fighters had been "neutralized" this year, in what appears an attempt by the government to understate the rebel group's size as it has done in the case of other criminal groups.
Colombia's Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas claimed on June 6 that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) lost 456 members during the first five months of 2017, according to the senate's news service.
The minister, who estimates that the ELN currently has some 1,400 fighters, said that the total number of those "neutralized" included 140 fighters who demobilized, according to Caracol Radio. Of the rest, 293 were reportedly captured and 24 were killed during security operations. (These figures add up to a total of 457; the reason for the small discrepancy in the total is unclear.)
Two days later, on June 8, Villegas claimed that there were only about 350 dissident elements of the ELN's guerrilla cousins, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), who had refused to demobilize under the terms of a peace agreement reached last year, according to a Defense Ministry press release.
Villegas also claimed that Colombia's most powerful crime group, the Urabeños, had lost more than half of its members in five years -- shrinking from around 4,000 to only 1,800 today.
Last month, the defense minister made similar comments but offered a different timeframe, claiming that the Urabeños' force had decreased from 4,000 in 2010 to 1,800 currently, according to El Colombiano.
InSight Crime Analysis
Villegas' comments concerning the ELN's losses this year are likely more closely linked with political messaging than the reality on the ground, particularly since they come in the context of slow-moving peace talks between the government and the rebel group.
It is improbable that the ELN lost more than 450 of its officially estimated 1,400 total fighters -- around one-third -- in just the past five months. If this were the case, there would be little reason for the government to dedicate considerable time and resources to peace negotiations with the group, which (at least according to the figures cited by Villegas) would appear to be weakening rapidly.
In fact, InSight Crime field research combined with other evidence suggests that the ELN is actually expanding by overtaking illegal economies abandoned by the demobilizing FARC. InSight Crime investigations in the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, and Nariño have shown that FARC dissidents are joining the ELN in significant numbers, and InSight Crime believes that the number of ELN fighters could be as high as 2,500.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
This is not the first time that Villegas has offered dubious statistics concerning the strength of criminal organizations operating in Colombia.
As mentioned above, the defense minister has insisted that there are only around 350 FARC dissidents. But based on InSight Crime's extensive field investigations, we estimate that there may be as many as 360 dissidents from just four FARC fronts (the 1st, the 29th, the 32nd and the 48th) along with the Jacobo Arena Column. Another 23 fronts have also witnessed dissidence, meaning the actual number may be far higher.
Moreover, Villegas' past statements on FARC dissidence have been inconsistent. The minister originally argued that only between 200 and 300 fighters were not part of the demobilization process. Toward the end of May, Villegas announced that 172 dissident fighters had been captured. Yet two weeks later, the minister cited the estimate of 350 dissidents, raising questions about how he arrived at this figure despite the capture of so many suspected dissidents.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of Villegas providing hard-to-swallow statistics is his assertion that the Urabeños' force has been cut in half. In fact, as is the case with the ELN, there are signs that the group is as strong as ever. And again, the provenance of the figures cited by the defense minister is unclear.
A report from the Colombian think tank Indepaz cites official figures from 2010 indicating that the Urabeños had 1,351 members that year, not 4,000 as Villegas claimed. And the group's presence grew from 160 municipalities in 17 departments in 2010, to 279 municipalities in 27 departments in 2016, according to the report.