The killing of the leader of the EPL’s political and military wings by the Colombian army comes at a critical time for the criminal group, as it finds itself bitterly divided and losing ground to the ELN in its home base in the Catatumbo region.
On September 27, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero announced the death of Luis Antonio Quiceno Sanjuan, alias “Pácora,” the chief commander of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL). Quiceno Sanjuan was killed during a joint army and police operation in the municipality of Sardinata in the northeastern department of Norte de Santander.
Another EPL commander, identified as alias “Hugo,” was also captured during the operation.
Pácora was crucial to the EPL. A member of the group for more than 20 years, he assumed leadership in October 2015 following the death of Víctor Ramón Navarro, alias “Megateo,” and the subsequent capture in 2016 of his successor, Guillermo León, alias “David León.”
General Nicacio Martínez of the Colombian military referred to Pácora’s death as an overwhelming victory against the group, which has now seen at least four important targets fall in 2019.
The first occurred in January with the capture of Reinaldo Peñaranda Franco, alias “Pepe’ or “Pedro,” the EPL’s leader in the department of Cesar. Later, in February, authorities arrested Luis Miguel Montejo Salazar, alias “Bayan,” a top security operative for both Megateo and Pácora.
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Pácora may prove to have been the EPL’s final overall leader, with divisions within the group now only likely to deepen, allowing the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) to strengthen its criminal reach in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander.
As previously reported by InSight Crime, the EPL currently finds itself divided between a guerrilla faction in Catatumbo — which Pácora led before his death — and a drug trafficking faction that, in alliance with the Rastrojos criminal gang, has taken over one of the country’s most important drug routes along the Venezuelan border near the metropolitan area of Cúcuta.
Local sources on the ground in Catatumbo told InSight Crime that, despite having years of experience within the EPL, Pácora was unable to unite the group. Any reunification now seems a distant prospect.
Back in May, the faction controlled by Pácora rejected any further association with the group in Cúcuta, which is more focused on drug trafficking than the EPL’s traditional political ideology.
The death of Pácora could potentially lead to a further decline within the EPL’s political faction in Catatumbo, as the drug trafficking faction led by Jesús Serrano Clavijo, alias “Grillo,” attracts members with the allure of profit.
SEE ALSO: EPL Profile
But the clear winners of this situation will be the ELN. The guerrilla group came out on top of a war with the EPL throughout 2018 and early 2019 and has been gaining momentum in Catatumbo, particularly in municipalities like El Tarra, Ocaña, El Carmen and San Calixto.
The ELN is now likely to push for control of other areas contested by the EPL, including Teorama, El Tarra, Hacarí, Playa de Belén and Sardinata.
Gaining control of Catatumbo would be no small accomplishment. Not only does this region have the country’s largest coca crop harvests and the capacity to produce cocaine at a low cost, but its remote location on the border with Venezuela also provides access to key drug trafficking routes and other lucrative activities, such as contraband smuggling, arms trafficking and extorting those illegally crossing the border.
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