The killing of ELN commander Uriel -- a well-known figure often seen in propaganda videos and press reports -- is a visible win for Colombia’s security forces, but it won’t have much impact on the guerrilla group as a whole.
On October 25, Andrés Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel” or “Pedro,” was killed in a joint operation by the military and police in the municipality of Nóvita, in the northern department of Chocó. He was a leader within the Western War Front (Frente de Guerra Occidental) of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN).
In a video statement about the operation, President Iván Duque confirmed his death, saying that Uriel "was responsible for crimes such as the kidnapping and killing of social leaders, persecution and threats, ... the killing of soldiers and police officers, and ... encouraging the recruitment of minors.”
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ELN negotiator Luz Amanda Pallares, alias “Silvana Guerrero," sent a message to the ELN rank and file about Uriel's death.
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Uriel's killing is one of the most severe blows dealt by the Colombian government to the ELN in recent years. But it is likely an isolated victory, as it will do little to halt the transnational spread of arguably Latin America’s most powerful criminal syndicate.
Though highly visible, Vanegas Londoño served more as a local leader than a national one.
“It is a definite loss at a strategic, regional level, but it absolutely does not affect the ELN’s national dynamics. Like all regional commanders, Uriel took on various responsibilities, but he was more involved in the propaganda and ideology side [than military operations]. In a certain way, he was a public relations figure for the ELN,” Luis Fernando Trejos, a researcher at Colombia’s Universidad del Norte, told InSight Crime.
Several ELN top leaders have continued to hole up in Cuba since peace talks with the Colombian government were stopped in early 2019. Uriel's killing, however, underscores that the government has no intention of returning to any form of negotiations, despite repeated attempts by the criminal group to seek a ceasefire.
Vanegas Londoño was particularly important to the ELN’s Western War Front, where he was reportedly third-in-command, under the leadership of Ogli Ángel Padilla, alias “Fabián.” This front is considered the second-most powerful within the ELN after the Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental), under the command of Gustavo Anibal Giraldo, alias “Pablito.” The Western War Front is estimated to have about 800 men, including 500 active militants and 300 in various support networks, according to Colombian media reports.
Besides being one of the ELN’s most well-known figures on social media, Uriel oversaw the group’s political and ideological work. From southern Chocó, he was charged with recruiting members from rural and Indigenous communities in western Colombia.
The ELN has been fighting a long and bitter turf war to control prime drug trafficking real estate in Chocó against the Urabeños, a trafficking group and paramilitary force. Some analysts have suggested that Uriel’s death may, at least temporarily, destabilize the ELN in the area.