The ELN has continued to be involved in clashes in Colombia's eastern department of Arauca, casting a shadow on its pledge to cease violent actions ahead of peace talks with the government.
Fighting between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and groups of the ex-FARC Mafia, dissident groups of the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) close to Colombia's border with Venezuela, have confined hundreds of people to their homes in recent days, according to an October 10 notice by Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo).
The news comes after the government announced the "reestablishment of peace talks" with the ELN, the country's strongest guerrilla group, in early October. That declaration came on the heels of President Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” proposal, which focuses on convincing criminal groups to lay down their arms in exchange for certain benefits.
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To back up its decision to restart negotiations with the ELN, the government noted the “clear evidence of military de-escalation in several regions where the guerrilla group is currently operating and, also, of how its structures are avoiding armed confrontation with the public forces.”
Data from the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflicto - CERAC), supported the government's claim. CERAC's September report noted that the number of fights the ELN were involved in across Colombia had fallen in comparison to August.
Arauca appears to be the exception.
InSight Crime Analysis
Arauca is a hugely important criminal enclave for the ELN and is home to one of its most notable leaders, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito.” The group has close ties to local communities there and controls lucrative drug trafficking routes connecting Colombia and Venezuela.
And even if the ELN wanted to broker a ceasefire there, it faces ambitious enemies on the ground. The ELN has long fought ex-FARC Mafia cells in the south of Arauca, such as around the town of Puerto Rondónón, as well as in the north at Arauquita. The conflict has left hundreds of people trapped in their homes and dozens of anti-personnel mines planted.
The group has also directly confronted authorities there. One Colombian soldier died and several others were injured in a reported clash with the ELN in Tame, Arauca, in September.
The ELN's presence in Arauca, and the importance of the department to the group, can be explained by its historical roots there: Arauca became the ELN's refuge after the government cracked down on the group in the 1970s. It enjoys lucrative profits from smuggling, extortion, and drug trafficking there as well as in neighboring Venezuela. This section of the notoriously porous border enabled the group to become a binational force.
Furthermore, Pablito, leader of the ELN's Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental) in Arauca, is an influential commander. His support for peace talks is both crucial and uncertain. His decision to carry out a car bomb attack in Bogotá in January 2019 put an end to the last attempted peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian state.
Alvaro Villarraga, professor and president of the Democratic Culture Foundation, a social development association, told InSight Crime that Pablito "is one of the commanders with the greatest influence on political-military decisions in the ELN guerrilla.“
However, Villarraga clarified that, although Pablito may have his doubts about peace talks, he may not be entirely hostile to the idea. He has accompanied ELN negotiating teams on several occasions and abided by the ceasefire between the ELN and the government of then-President Juan Manuel Santos between October 2017 and January 2018.