Colombian guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) has used Venezuelan territory for decades, but its presence in the country has become increasingly important since 2000 as its Colombian operations have been squeezed by paramilitary groups and security forces.
This coincided with the arrival of former Venezuela President Hugo Chávez in 1999. Chávez’s rise to power and his idea of a socialist model for Venezuela was the ELN’s entry point. The political platform of the late president shared similar ideas with the ELN. This would eventually benefit the ELN and other guerrilla groups in Colombia.
After the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in 2017, the ELN increased its presence on Venezuela-Colombia border, taking over territories and criminal economies previously controlled by the FARC. This spurred a rapid expansion of the group through Venezuela, particularly in the southern mining region. Today, the ELN is present in half the states of the country and controls vital economic resources.
Venezuela’s current conditions have exacerbated a government crisis that has boiled over alongside rising crime rates and the penetration of organized crime into the highest levels of the government. The Andean nation has not only become a mafia state, but has sought alliances with groups like the ELN in the midst of such institutional chaos.
The ELN has used Venezuelan territory at least since the 1970s, when an army push against the group in Antioquia province — Operation Anori — almost destroyed its leadership, forcing the group to move its main power base to Arauca, on the Venezuelan border. From that time onwards, the ELN came to establish a presence in the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure.
Initially, Venezuelan governments were hostile to the rebels, particularly following the 1995 massacre of eight Venezuelan marines by the ELN in Apure. But from his election in 1999, Hugo Chávez displayed a friendlier attitude towards the ELN and the FARC, generally tolerating their presence in the country. This new climate, combined with increasing pressure from security forces, paramilitary groups and the FARC in Colombia, meant that the ELN’s presence in Venezuela became increasingly significant from 2000 onwards.
With the signing of the peace accords and subsequent demobilization of FARC units in 2017, the ELN had the opportunity to consolidate with greater strength along the Venezuelan border, finding a footing in many territories and criminal economies previously controlled by the FARC.
As well as tightening control in its traditional Venezuelan strongholds of Apure and Táchira, the ELN spread north into Zulia, and south into Amazonas and Bolívar. Control over the border secured the group’s access to profitable drug trafficking and smuggling routes, and persuaded embattled President Maduro of the group’s potential usefulness as a buffer against foreign invasion.
Equally significant was the group’s rapid expansion through the mining region of southern Venezuela. The guerrillas cut a swathe through the mining arc, seizing control of illegal mines from local mafias and extending the ELN’s influence all the way to Venezuela’s eastern frontier. Their control of gold, coltan and diamond deposits not only swelled the guerrillas’ coffers, but also gave them powerful leverage with the bankrupt Venezuelan regime. Today, local opposition and indigenous leaders allege that the ELN actively collaborates with security forces and the Venezuelan national government to impose discipline on mining communities and ensure a constant flow of mineral rents.
The ELN exerts a high level of social control in its areas of operation. It acts as a de facto State power in its strongholds in Táchira, Apure and Amazonas – administering justice, imposing curfews and punishing those who violate its norms. The group also holds significant sway with local political authorities. In some regions, members have even been observed distributing the subsidized food boxes from the government program known as the Local Storage and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción – CLAP), using this as a type of propaganda to influence the civilian population.
All this suggests that Venezuela is now much more than a strategic rearguard area for the ELN. As the group continues to expand throughout the country, recruiting desperate young Venezuelans and demonstrating its usefulness to the Maduro administration, it can increasingly be considered a Colombo-Venezuelan rebel army.
The ELN’s leadership is concentrated in the Central Command (Comando Central – COCE), historically made up of five people. However, each of the various regional commanders has high levels of operational autonomy. Several have close ties to Venezuela.
Eastern Front commander and COCE member Gustavo Anibal Giraldo Quinchia, alias “Pablito,” is said to live in Apure. Sources told InSight Crime that Pablito’s ranch had been seized from its previous owners by the government. Pablito has long been among the ELN’s most belligerent commanders, and is believed to have masterminded the attack on the Bogotá police training school in January 2019 that effectively ended the ELN’s negotiations with the Colombian government.
The leadership of the Eastern Front has remained fairly intact since the early 2000s. It includes alias “Lenin,” who has been named by Colombian intelligence documents as the primary link between the ELN and the Maduro government.
Other members of the COCE also use Venezuela as a hideout, from where they send orders and messages back to units in Colombia. Rafael Sierra Granados, alias “Ramiro Vargas,” is believed to be based in the state of Miranda. Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio Garcia,” has previously been located in Apure and Zulia and allegedly maintains strong links to the Maduro government.
Another ELN member that may also be in Venezuela is Northeastern Front member, alias “Ariel.” It’s possible he coordinated part of the latest ELN attacks in Colombia along with Pablito. However, information about Ariel is still unclear. While unconfirmed, it’s believed that he operates in Colombia’s La Guajira near the border with Venezuela.
The ELN’s criminal economies and armed presence in Venezuela are concentrated in the states of Zulia, Táchira, Apure, Amazonas and Bolívar. Over the last three years, the group has maintained and strengthened its presence along the Colombian border, allowing it to control cross-border drug and contraband flows and recruit new members from among Venezuelan migrants. Simultaneously, it has undertaken a precipitous expansion through the mining regions of Amazonas and Bolívar, laying claim to mineral deposits and strategic river routes. The group now controls a wide corridor across the south of the country, all the way to the Guyanese border.
As the ELN consolidates its presence in Venezuela, it is also reported to be establishing bases and strengthening its forces in Barinas, Guárico, Lara and Falcón. The Sierra de San Luis, on the border between Lara and Falcón, is believed to be a region of strategic expansion for the group, serving as a base for clandestine airstrips and a potential springboard to the Caribbean coast.
ELN emissaries have also been observed in Anzoátegui, Trujillo and Portuguesa. Rumors that it the group is looking to establish bases in Yaracuy and Delta Amacuro have not yet been confirmed.
Allies and Enemies
The ELN has been tolerated by Venezuelan authorities for years, and there are signs that the Maduro government increasingly sees it as a strategic ally in the face of mounting international pressure. The group is able to operate with near-total impunity thanks to its close ties with the security forces and local government in some parts of Venezuela’s border region, and in the Orinoco mining arc. While it is unlikely the ELN has been formally integrated into any Venezuelan defense strategy, there are signs that the Maduro government may be seeking closer collaboration with the group. Unconfirmed Venezuelan intelligence leaks suggest that military units are under instruction not to attack Colombian guerrilla groups on the border, but rather to provide them with logistical support.
Although there have been several rumors about the relationship between the ELN and Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), the connection seems to be more one of criminal convenience and profiteering than a stable alliance. The groups collaborate in fuel smuggling operations in Apure, and ELN units pay a tax to the GNB in Amazonas and Bolívar for its “protection” of the illegal mines. However, the groups have also clashed over the division of criminal rents. Towards the end of 2018, the capture of alleged ELN Eastern Front commander Luis Felipe Ortega Bernal, alias “Garganta,” sparked a confrontation between the military and guerrillas that left four GNB members dead.
Throughout the state of Bolívar, the ELN have clashed violently with the local mining mafias known as "sindicatos," in order to seize control of illegal mines. Meanwhile, they are seeking alliances with Brazilian criminal groups to manage gold and drug trafficking routes into Brazil.
The departure of the FARC from the criminal scene and the emergence of dissident former rebel fighters may provide a valuable ally for the ELN in Venezuela. A meeting between ELN high commanders and FARC dissidents reportedly took place in October 2018, in Venezuela’s Apure state. The two groups allegedly agreed upon a non-aggression pact and the distribution of drug trafficking routes. Today, relations between the two guerrilla groups on the ground remain cordial, and there are signs they may even be collaborating more closely in certain regions, such as the mines of Yapacana, Amazonas.
The ELN’s most serious current conflict is with the Colombian guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), for control of cocaine production and trafficking in Catatumbo, on the border between Colombia and Venezuela. Although the conflict is rooted in Colombia, it has expanded into municipalities in the south of Zulia, Venezuela. The ELN has also clashed with the Rastrojos in Colón, southern Zulia, due to the entry of this paramilitary group into the region.
The ELN’s recent expansion in Venezuela has been driven by changing criminal dynamics following the demobilization of the FARC, escalating military offensives against ELN units in Colombia, and the tolerance if not active support of the Maduro government. All of these factors look set to continue.
Although the Maduro regime does not officially recognize the ELN as an ally, his administration has welcomed the group’s presence in Venezuela and considers the guerrillas a strategic asset. As well as providing a shield on the Colombian border, criminal rents generated by the group are increasingly greasing the wheels of cash-strapped and corrupt local administrations and security forces. This is particularly the case in the mining arc, from where gold mined by the ELN is almost definitely feeding State coffers. Maduro’s increasing dependence on gold to keep his regime afloat is only likely to strengthen this relationship in the future.
ELN commanders have publicly declared their willingness to defend the Maduro administration against any external aggression, claiming solidarity with the ideals of the “Bolivarian Revolution.” In reality, the situation is more complex: ELN units have considerable autonomy, and are motivated by their own criminal and ideological interests. But given the extent to which the ELN’s criminal empire has benefitted from Maduro’s compliant administration, the current context produces a powerful confluence between the group’s economic interests and its rhetorical position. It would therefore likely resist any transition government that came to power.
The return to arms of several former FARC commanders in 2019 and the reconsolidation of ex-FARC mafia units on the Colombia-Venezuela border raises the stakes further. Although a re-empowered ex-FARC is weakening the ELN’s hegemony in some of its strongholds, so far there is no sign of renewed tensions between the two. Indeed, the groups appear to be seeking closer collaboration, raising the specter that they could present a united front in the face of any threat to the status quo in Venezuela.