Ecuadorean security forces are on high alert after receiving reports Colombia’s ELN guerrillas are planning a cross-border attack, highlighting what has until now been a major blind spot in Ecuador’s border security strategy.
Security forces in Colombia have issued an alert to their Ecuadorean counterparts, seen by InSight Crime, that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) is planning an attack against military or police in the border region. The report identifies facilities and units in the municipalities of Mira in the province of Carchi and San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas as potential targets.
While the warning makes no mention of the motives for the attack, a senior official from the Ecuadorean police, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime any attack would likely be politically rather than strategically motivated.
According to the official, the ELN may be looking to retaliate against the Ecuadorean government for throwing guerrilla leaders out of the country after refusing to continue hosting peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government last year.
And the guerrillas could also be sending a message over Ecuador’s support for Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader who has declared himself president, as the guerrillas are believed to have ties to the current embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, the source added.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
The ELN has no verified armed presence within Ecuador, but according to intelligence reports seen by InSight Crime, the rebels’ Jose Luis Cabrera Company operates just to the west of the major Ipiales-Tulcan border crossing. The company is part of the Comuneros del Sur Front, which is a major player in the underworld war to control criminal economies in the Colombian border department of Nariño.
In addition, the police official reported that, while the ELN were in Ecuador for peace talks, they also worked hard to build a support network within the country. According to the official, the rebels established contacts with high-level national government officials, and local political and community leaders in the border region. While authorities believe their main aim was to establish political ties, they are concerned the guerrillas could also have been looking to set up logistical support networks and supply lines.
InSight Crime Analysis
An attack against the Ecuadorean security forces would be a high risk move for the ELN. The last underworld figure to launch spectacular attacks in Ecuador was Walter Patricio Arízala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” who led a criminalized splinter group of former guerrillas from the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia – FARC).
Guacho was killed in December 2018 after his attack against police, military and journalists in Ecuador only succeeded in pushing Colombia and Ecuador to dramatically improve bilateral security cooperation as they united to hunt down the former guerrilla fighter.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador Organized Crime News
With the Colombian government desperate to strike hard at the ELN following the car bomb attack on police facilities in Bogota that killed 21 people in mid-January, an ELN attack in Ecuador would likely provoke a similar cross-border assault.
However, sources in Ecuador also talk of a different concern – that the ELN will look to build on the foundations they established during peace talks to use Ecuador as a rear guard, logistical hub and supply line. This would also potentially increase their criminal earnings as it would allow them to control movement through what is one of the main cocaine trafficking corridors out of Colombia and a region where illegal gold mining is on the rise.
While the ELN’s border strategy remains unclear, the attack alerts stand as a stark warning to Ecuadorean authorities: by focusing their attention almost exclusively on the ex-FARC Mafia, they have created both space and opportunity for the ELN.