On the same day that Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, the ELN, resumed peace talks with the government, reports emerged of a battle between the rebels and former guerrillas embedded in the main cocaine hub on the Venezuela border: the region of Catatumbo.
The fighting -- between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the former insurgents from the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular – EPL) on March 15 -- resulted in at least six deaths in the embattled region in the Norte de Santander department of northeast Colombia, El Espectador reported. The clashes occurred in Teorama municipality, according to El Colombiano.
The spate of violence followed a failed meeting between the two groups, according to Colombia's top military commander, General Alberto José Mejía.
“No agreement was reached between [ELN and EPL] leaders and they decided to start killing each other,” Mejía said, adding that they were fighting over “drug trafficking, cocaine and the control of illegal crops.”
SEE ALSO: EPL Profile
Over the past few days, fighting between the two groups has affected 17,000 people in the municipalities of San Calixto, El Tarra, Teorama, Convención, Hacarí, El Carmen and Tibú, according to a United Nations report. The clashed have caused civilian and military casualties, and displacements.
Map of the affected area c/o UN OCHA
InSight Crime Analysis
Both the ELN and the EPL, also known as the “Pelusos,” are involved in drug trafficking in Catatumbo, which has some of the densest coca fields in the country. Nowhere in the world is cocaine so cheap to produce, and its border with Venezuela provides a perfect drug route and refuge for armed fighters.
Until recently, this type of fighting was relatively uncommon in this coveted corner of Colombia. The now-demobilized FARC, the ELN, and the EPL have cohabited in Catatumbo for years under a relatively fragile non-violence agreement.
If clashes continue, victimizing the civilian population, they will further undermine the ongoing peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government, talks that have already hit major snags. Violent actions by the ELN's more belligerent factions caused the talks to be suspended until recently.