Torched cars. Explosive attacks. Armed patrols. After dozens of coordinated events to paralyze portions of Colombia, ELN militants underscored that the armed group remains the country's main criminal menace and threat to security.
Between February 23 and 26, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) orchestrated a so-called paro armado, or armed strike across Colombia that included violent attacks, according to the Institute for Peace and Development Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz - Indepaz).
For 72 hours, the group blocked off national highways, set off explosions, burned vehicles, carried out targeted killings and hung the ELN's flag from public buildings. Additionally, armed members of the group patrolled the streets of villages and towns in parts of Colombia where they maintain a strong presence. Indepaz registered 65 separate incidents during the armed strike across the departments of Norte de Santander, Santander, Cesar, Cauca, Nariño, Casanare, Arauca, Valle del Cauca, Huila, Antioquia and Chocó.
Prior to the start of the armed strike, the Colombian government insisted the ELN would not have the ability to carry it out and suggested political interests were behind their attempts to paralyze the country. However, the ELN proved it could do so, both in its traditional strongholds and in areas where it has increased its power since the now-extinct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) came to a peace agreement with the government in 2016.
Though dissident FARC factions, known as the ex-FARC Mafia, continue to threaten Colombia, the ELN has taken on the mantle of being Colombia's prime security threat. Already in 2018, InSight Crime named the group its Criminal Winner for the year. And the escalation of its criminal control can be seen by comparing the location and number of events during a previous 72-hour armed strike in March 2020. That strike saw 27 incidents in nine departments. The latest one recorded 38 more incidents in 11 departments. Colombia's Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP), recorded actions in even more departments, saying that 17 of Colombia's 32 departments had been affected by the latest armed strike.
Here, InSight Crime explores some of the strengths that have allowed the ELN to become Colombia's largest criminal threat.
The armed strike showed the range of criminal governance the ELN enjoys in distinct parts of Colombia. Almost half of the incidents during this armed strike took place in Norte de Santander, a crucial area along the Venezuelan border that has been the focus of much criminal violence of late. There, the ELN openly patrolled the streets of several towns, blocked off highways, torched vehicles and left suspected explosive devices. It is no surprise that the ELN has doubled down on Norte de Santander. The local capital, Cúcuta, and its surrounding area are home to trails crossing the Venezuelan border, along which drugs, migrants, weapons and contraband are moved. The ELN has battled for control of the area against a range of Colombian and Venezuelan non-state armed actors, including the ex-FARC Mafia, the Rastrojos, the Urabeños and the Tren de Aragua.
In Cauca, an important coca-growing hub, the placement of explosives devices and the burning of vehicles were recorded. Temporary curfews were also enforced in both departments, and businesses were forced to close.
The armed strike also spread to areas of Colombia that had been spared in 2020. The northwest department of Antioquia and the southwest department of Nariño, crucial for drug trafficking to Central America and Ecuador respectively, felt the impact of the ELN. In El Bagre, a municipality in Antioquia, a number of schools and 90 percent of businesses were closed, according to Gabriel Rodríguez, a government official in the town, who spoke to RCN Radio.
In Nariño, one of Colombia's main coca-growing areas, the ELN shut down entire highways and burned vehicles to create road blocks. This department has become a frequent backdrop for disputes between ELN and its rivals, as it is one of Colombia's major dispatch points for cocaine being sent to North America and Europe.
In the eastern department of Arauca, right on the border with Venezuela, the ELN attacked a police station in the town of Fortul, while in nearby Saravena, shopkeepers were forced to close their businesses. In recent months, Arauca has been a regular battleground between the ELN and the ex-FARC 10th Front for control of cross-border drug trafficking and extortion.
An Unstoppable Force
The 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC left a major power vacuum, which the ELN has filled.
In 2017, when the FARC demobilized, the ELN was estimated to have some 1,400 members. Its status as the country's remaining guerrilla force served to fill its ranks. By 2019, the force swelled to about 4,000 militants. Its current number of fighters is hard to estimate but it is likely to be even higher, due to its rapid territorial expansion and its strong presence in Venezuela, which has given the ELN more opportunities for recruitment.
No longer playing second fiddle to the FARC, the ELN has strengthened significantly. Peace talks with the Colombian government, ongoing since 2017, were derailed in January 2019 when a an ELN car bomb exploded at a police training school in Bogotá, killing 21 people.
The man responsible for ordering the crime was allegedly Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito," currently the ELN's third-in-command.
Since the attack, President Iván Duque has ordered security forces to relentlessly target ELN members and infrastructure. But while arrests of ELN members and seizures of its drug shipments happen regularly, the group does not appear to have been significantly weakened.
Instead, its defiance has only grown. When Duque attended a security meeting in the department of Arauca to discuss clashes between the ELN and dissident FARC groups in January this year, ELN members appeared on the streets of Arauquita, a town not far from the meeting.
Catch Me if You Can
While the ELN has maintained some presence in Venezuela since the 1980s, it has steadily strengthened its ties to official and criminal actors in that country, especially in recent years.
InSight Crime has reported on how the ELN has acted as an extension of the Venezuelan State in parts of the country, including enforcing control of criminal activities, fighting rival groups and ensuring authorities get a cut of criminal economies, such as illegal mining.
Venezuela has also become more than a refuge for the ELN. There, the criminal group is now firmly entrenched, drawing manpower and profiting from drug trafficking, illegal mining and other activities.
With the ELN ostensibly an ally of the Venezuelan government, it can use territory and resources there to plan actions, train members and grow stronger without the fear of being attacked by security forces, as in Colombia. This is only reinforced by its control of the border crossings between the two countries, which members can largely do at will.
While the group's strength in Venezuela grows, its power in Colombia does as well. The range and intensity of the recent armed strike, especially when compared to the one in 2020, show how the ELN has only increased its criminal empire in the country where it was born.