A huge cocaine processing complex run by the ELN has been found in west Colombia, showcasing the guerrilla group's role in a drug trade that could soon be changing hands.
The Colombian Armed Forces have discovered one of the biggest cocaine laboratories ever found in the western department of Nariño, according to an army press release. The compound was reportedly capable of producing seven tons of cocaine per month and was run by the Comuneros del Sur Front of Colombia's second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Estimated to be worth over $3.2 million, with more than $1.9 million in drug precursor materials, the complex consisted of two cocaine manufacturing plants, a living area for 50 people, and an electricity plant.
Three months of intelligence gathering led authorities to the cocaine processing facility, located in a woodland area in the municipality of Samaniego. The army seized 347 kg of what appeared to be cocaine, over 15,000 liters of liquid cocaine, seven tons of solid precursor material, and over 91,000 liters of liquid precursors.
InSight Crime Analysis
Nariño is one of Colombia's main coca producing regions, with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group known to use it as a base for cocaine production. It is far less common, however, to discover an ELN-run cocaine lab, especially of this scale.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
Following decades of avoiding involvement under Manuel Perez Martinez, alias "El Cura Perez," the ELN's greater role in the drug trade is now evident throughout Colombia. In the key coca growing department of Norte de Santander, the ELN front Juan Fernando Porras Martinez is funded entirely by drug trafficking, according to intelligence sources consulted by InSight Crime. The front's leader, alias "Gonzalo Satelite," allegedly took over a large coca producing zone following the demobilization of the Bloque Catatumbo, a faction of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
Nevertheless, the ELN still appears to lack an efficient trafficking network in this region, with sources telling InSight Crime they have been unable to move 4.5 tons of cocaine since the recent death of major cocaine broker Victor Ramon Navarro, alias "Megateo."
While the ELN's traditional distance from the drug trade has been considered a reason for their slower growth compared to the FARC, the tables could soon turn. A potential demobilization of the FARC -- who are currently believed to control up to 70 percent of all coca cultivation in Colombia -- looms on the horizon. The ELN, however, are still struggling to get peace talks with the government underway. As a result, should elements of the FARC abandon their drug trafficking infrastructure across the country -- as was the case with the demobilization of the AUC -- the ELN may be next in line to fill the vacuum.