An ongoing conflict between Colombia’s two last remaining guerrilla groups continues to escalate along the Colombia-Venezuela border, highlighting the region’s role as an increasingly important and disputed organized crime hub in Latin America.
Following a recent series of violent clashes in northeast Colombia’s embattled Norte de Santander department, former insurgents of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular – EPL) have “publicly declared war” against the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), according to a statement published recently on Twitter by the ELN.
In the statement from the ELN’s Northeastern War Front, the guerrilla group interprets the EPL’s latest monthly announcement as a declaration of war due to the inclusion of a threat to “confront [the ELN] without consideration until [the EPL] recovers its territory and people.” The ELN also took issue with the EPL’s claim that “all organizations present in the Norte de Santander territory will align themselves with [the EPL’s] rules.”
The ELN stated that militants and family members of the EPL not actively engaged in the clashes will be “respected” and that “once the current confrontation is cleared up and resolved” the two guerilla groups should work to reach a “final solution” with the local communities of the fought-over region of Catatumbo, considered to be the cocaine hub of the department of Norte de Santander.
Norte de Santander Governor William Villamizar told El Colombiano on March 21 that the intensity of confrontations was beginning to dwindle compared to the deadly clashes of the week prior, and called on the groups to “resolve their differences through actions other than confrontations and leave the civilian population out of it.”
Edgar Andrés Pallares Díaz, the head of Norte de Santander’s institution in charge of public security and human rights, has called on the Colombian government to raise the issue of civilians getting caught in the crossfire at the recently reconvened peace talks with the ELN.
InSight Crime Analysis
The escalating tensions between the ELN and the EPL in Catatumbo are tied to the region’s growing importance as an axis for criminal activities and newly shifting dynamics of criminal control.
As InSight Crime has previously reported, Catatumbo not only has one of the highest yields of coca crops in the country and the ability to cheaply produce cocaine, but its location on the border with Venezuela gives criminal actors access to key drug trafficking routes and other lucrative activities like contraband smuggling and extortion.
The ELN and the EPL both have a long history in Catatumbo, with the EPL in particular enjoying loyalty from the local communities due to its ability to maintain the facade of an ideological drive in spite of operating purely as drug traffickers. However, with the recently “declared war” between the two groups, and the growing presence of several former paramilitary groups like the Rastrojos and the Urabeños, the battle for control could become more protracted and bloody.
Struggles for control over this major center of criminal activity have spiked following the recent demobilization of the country’s former largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which previously controlled large swathes of the region and had maintained a ceasefire agreement with the ELN and EPL.
Venezuela’s spiraling economic and political crises have also fueled corruption and desperation across the border, strengthening the relationships between Colombian criminal groups and corrupt Venezuelan security forces, and increasing the number of young Venezuelans coerced into providing cheap criminal labor to groups like the ELN and EPL.