The dissident 10th Front of the ex-FARC Mafia has been busy. After taking on multiple enemies on Venezuelan soil, the group now appears to be taking on a far larger criminal obstacle: the ELN.
On January 7, Colombia's Attorney General's Office issued a warning that the fight between dissident forces of the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) was expanding. In a statement, authorities warned that ex-FARC forces were moving from their stronghold in Norte de Santander to attack the ELN in Arauca, a Colombian department on the border with Venezuela.
Additionally, Colombia's attorney-general, Francisco Barbosa, warned that clashes between the 10th Front and the ELN had stretched to three border areas, Norte de Santander, Arauca and Casanare.
This expansion comes after at least 27 people were killed since the start of January in this conflict on both sides of the Venezuela-Colombia border.
The 10th Front has grown in prominence in the last two years as arguably the strongest remnant of the FARC. It has aligned itself with Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” who is seeking to unite the disparate ex-FARC Mafia, a network of loosely connected criminal groups which broke off from the FARC after their demobilization in 2016.
In September 2020, the 10th Front began to face off against two separate adversaries, as InSight Crime reported in a recent investigation. First, it became a spearhead against the largest rivals in the ex-FARC Mafia, the Second Marquetalia. Led by some of the most prominent former FARC commanders, the Second Marquetalia also sought to claim the legacy of the old guerrilla group and operated in both Colombia and Venezuela. Repeated clashes by the 10th Front saw the Second Marquetalia pushed back and three of its four top leaders killed on Venezuelan soil.
At the same time, the 10th Front stood up successfully to several attacks by Venezuelan military forces. Thousands of people were displaced, at least 16 Venezuelan soldiers were killed and the 10th Front remained entrenched in the western state of Apure.
Buoyed by these victories, the 10th Front has taken the fight to the ELN. But could this be a fight too far? The ELN is another kettle of fish. While the latest news suggests other ex-FARC fronts are going to back up the 10th Front, the ELN can call on more men across more territory, it is better financed and is led in the area by a feared veteran commander, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias "Pablito."
The ELN largely controls Arauca and Apure, in Colombia and Venezuela, and had remained outside the clashes between FARC dissident groups. There is no clear reason for this fight with the 10th Front, though various versions have emerged, including top commanders being killed and quarrels linked to drug trafficking and territorial control.
InSight Crime looks at three potential consequences of this conflict:
A Risky Bet
Both the 10th Front and the ELN have cards to play here.
The 10th Front, led by Jorge Eliécer Jiménez, alias “Arturo,” has high confidence after fighting off the Second Marquetalia and the Venezuelan Army. While there have been casualties on both sides, the army eventually withdrew from Apure and the Second Marquetalia has been greatly weakened by the loss of key leaders and fighters. Meanwhile, the 10th Front does not appear to have ceded any territory. It has developed the military capacity and support networks necessary to resist incursions and may feel it can now take on the larger ELN.
The ELN has advantages, however. It maintains close ties to the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro and its fighters can easily move across the border. Its most numerous and powerful front, the Eastern War Front, commanded by Pablito, rules over most of the border crossings between Apure and Arauca. It could also call upon troops from neighboring areas to pour in to defend territory. Pablito is not one to be intimated, with a track record among the guerrillas going back decades. He allegedly ordered the January car bomb attack on a Bogotá police school that killed 23 and led to the end of peace talks between the ELN and the government.
Renewing Historic Conflict
After the FARC demobilized in 2016, several ex-FARC Mafia groups tried to take over ELN territory at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Clashes were mostly sporadic until last year. The level of violence seen in early 2022 and the expansion of the conflict to multiple departments suggest this may be a drawn-out conflict.
However, the ELN and the 10th Front have a history of conflict. From 2004 to 2010, when the FARC was still active, it is estimated 50,000 people were displaced and over 1,100 killed along the border as a result of ELN-FARC violence involving the 10th Front, according to the BBC. In 2010, the two groups agreed to a truce and divided control of lucrative criminal economies, especially cocaine trafficking and contraband.
Uncertain Military Impact
On January 3, Colombian President Iván Duque announced the deployment of two army battalions in the region, saying that "intelligence and counterintelligence" efforts would be supported by drones and border surveillance.
It is not the first time that the Colombian government has taken this approach. Colombia has permanently mobilized the military in Norte de Santander, due to prior disputes among FARC dissident groups. However, the presence of security forces has not had a measurable permanent impact on criminal operations. It is uncertain whether this new deployment to counter the 10th Front-ELN conflict will lead to a different result.
Additionally, the movement of Colombian troops to the border may increase tensions between the two countries Venezuela's security forces were hit hard by the 10th Front and are known to cooperate with the ELN, giving them a clear reason to take sides in the fight. Maduro has also doubled down on blaming the Colombian government for the presence of "terrorists" inside Venezuela.