Colombia has downgraded the threat level of one of the country's oldest criminal groups, which means fewer resources and troops will go toward fighting it. This only confirms the EPL's continued downward spiral.
Last week, Colombia's director of the national police, General Jorge Luis Vargas, told Congress that the threat level of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL) was being downgraded from an Organized Armed Group (Grupo Armado Organizado - GAO) to an Organized Criminal Group (Grupo Delictivo Organizado - GDO). This is the first such downgrade of a criminal organization since this system was put in place in 2016.
According to Vargas, the continued success of security operations against the EPL has reduced the group's criminal and territorial control.
In 2018, the police launched Operation Esparta against the EPL. Since then, 61 separate operations have reduced the group's numbers from 535 to 235, the general explained.
A number of recent setbacks have left the EPL's latest leader Robinson Quintero, alias "Macho," increasingly isolated, including the arrests of EPL leaders known as "Candado," "Chucho Negro" and "Pita" in the border towns of Cúcuta, Zulia and Ocaña, according to La Opinión
“After [EPL leader Victor Navarro], alias 'Megateo,' was killed in 2015, top leaders have not lasted long within the criminal structure. We're stopping them within three to six months, as occurred with...alias 'Pácora' in 2019. This has led to...the desertion of members,” General Fredy Tibaduiza, commander of Colombian police along the Venezuelan border, told Caracol Radio.
InSight Crime Analysis
It is uncertain how exactly the resources dedicated to fighting the EPL will vary with this downgrade. But it confirms this once-feared group is a shadow of its former self.
According to the categories implemented by the Ministry of Defense, the status of a GDO means the army will no longer be deployed to fight the EPL, only the police.
This seemed to be an inevitable conclusion to a series of bad decisions made by the EPL, as well as the security operations.
The start of the EPL's decline can be traced back to the death of Navarro in 2015 at the hands of the Colombian army. But since that time, a series of successors have been unable to unite the group, and divisions between its political wing and drug trafficking elements have become more pronounced.
Leaders came and went. Reinaldo Peñaranda Franco, alias "Pepe," was arrested in 2018 before Luis Antonio Quiceno Sanjuan, alias "Pácora," was killed in October 2019.
A nascent civil war saw one of the group's top drug traffickers sentenced to death by a revolutionary war council in May 2020.
At the same time, the group sought to rejuvenate itself by conquering other groups. However, an attempt to establish a presence along the Naya River drug trafficking route in the southwestern Cauca department failed.
The EPL has also been pushed back from its heartland of Catatumbo, a coca-growing area in the department of Norte de Santander, by its fiercest enemy: the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). Not even an alliance with the Rastrojos, which is also an enemy of the ELN, has changed the equation.
As InSight Crime predicted, the divisions of the EPL will likely lead to fragmentation into factions divided by political or criminal interests. The current, weak leadership of Quintero may be the final chapter of the EPL as a united organization.