The retirement of the ELN’s top commander and political leader may have sweeping implications for the guerrilla group as it seeks to maintain its position in both Colombia and Venezuela.

Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” said in a communication that poor health had led him to resign command of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio García,” will take over as the head of Colombia’s remaining rebel force, the communication said.

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Gabino and Garcia are part of the ELN’s five-member Central Command, which has been in Cuba since 2018 for peace negotiations with the Colombian government. Talks, however, broke down in 2019 after the government blamed the ELN for a car bomb attack at a Bogota police academy. President Iván Duque subsequently demanded that Cuba extradite the guerrilla leaders, but the island nation has refused to do so under the grounds of peace negotiation protocols.

Though he has resigned, Gabino said in the communication that he would be “available to represent the ELN in future peace talks.”

The guerrilla leaders said in a separate communication that Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” will serve under Antonio García, and Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablo Marín” o “Pablito” will be third-in-command.

It was reported previously that Gabino had been receiving medical treatment in Cuba, though he has not revealed his illness.

InSight Crime Analysis

Gabino’s announcement is unique. No guerrilla commander of his stature in Colombia has ever retired in this way. His counterparts have either been killed, captured, died of natural causes, or put down their arms as part of a peace process. 

The timing of this announcement is also unique. 

Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC)  demobilized in 2016, the ELN has grown to be arguably the most significant criminal threat in Colombia and Venezuela. It has taken over criminal industries, military capacity, territory and even manpower from the FARC.

Its fronts now control or contest virtually every major criminal economy in the two countries, especially illegal gold mining and drug trafficking. The group has seemingly achieved vertical integration in the cocaine trade: overseeing coca productiontransporting cocaine over land, even owning their own semi-submersible drug submarines to export it.

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Much of this criminal activity was not to Gabino’s liking. An eternal opposer of the ELN’s participation in the drug trade, Gabino last stated in October 2020 that the group had no connection to the production of cocaine in Colombia. 

In an interview with InSight Crime, Luis Eduardo Celis, an expert on conflict in Colombia, stated that García may well have his own stance on drug trafficking. “He may remind the ELN structures that profits from drug trafficking are to contribute to the group’s armed struggle, not for personal wealth,” Celis said.

But the ELN’s resounding success in pushing out criminal rivals in Colombia’s northeastern Catatumbo region has given it control over a colossal coca production base. It also maintains a strong presence in Nariño to the south and Chocó in the west, both major cocaine trafficking hubs. It is now the de facto principal guardian of Colombia’s coca industry. 

Neither García nor any other ELN leader, be they old-guard ideologue or new-fangled pragmatist, is likely to even try to sever that connection. 

So while he did state his retirement was due to health reasons, Gabino may have stepped away in order to maintain a measure of control over the transition. 

His legacy – having signed up at the age of 14 in 1964 – and his dedication to the ELN’s Marxist-Leninist ideals are above question. Since the death of ELN leader, Gregorio Manuel Pérez Martínez, alias “El Cura Pérez,” in 1998, Gabino has been remarkable in keeping the ELN’s disparate elements under one umbrella. 

For Celis, Gabino will still play an important role in the organization. “This is formalizing the transition to power of Antonio García…but they have made decisions collectively since Manuel Pérez,” the analyst told InSight Crime.

Passing the torch so publicly to García will go a long way toward assuring that the decision is more easily accepted. 

“The leaders haven’t left Cuba since 2018. But (despite that), I think the ELN has maintained its cohesion, those in Cuba are its political leadership. This is an organization with dozens of commanders but I do not think there has been any fragmentation,” Celis said.

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