The ELN is broadly tolerated by the Venezuelan authorities, and several top leaders are thought to be based over the border. As well as using the country as a hideout, the group runs kidnapping and extortion operations in Venezuela, out of the reach of the Colombian security forces. There are signs that the group is increasingly involved in trafficking drugs over the border.
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. One of the group’s most powerful units, the Domingo Lain Front, was formed in Arauca in the late 1970s.
Previous Venezuelan governments were hostile to the rebels, particularly following the 1995 Cararabo massacre of eight Venezuelan marines by the ELN in Apure. In 1998 the government allowed Colombia to enter its territory to pursue ELN guerrillas who had taken refuge there after an attack.
During his presidency, Hugo Chavez displayed a more friendly attitude towards the ELN, and to larger rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), generally tolerating their presence in the country. This new climate, combined with increasing pressure from the security forces, paramilitary groups and the FARC in the Colombian provinces of Arauca and Norte de Santander, meant that the ELN’s presence in Venezuela became increasingly significant from 2000 onwards.
Venezuela has become less welcoming for the ELN and the FARC since Juan Manuel Santos became president of Colombia in 2010 and improved relations with Chavez, and several ELN fighters have been captured and handed over since then, notably Nilson Teran Ferreira, alias "Tulio," in December 2010.
The ELN is not thought to have fronts that are actually based in Venezuela, though several of its top leaders live there, using the country as a base to coordinate operations and stay out of reach of the Colombian security forces. Eastern Front commander 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. A Colombian intelligence report, leaked in 2010, suggested that ELN commanders Antonio Garcia and Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” were also based in Apure, and moved “freely” between the cities of La Victoria and Guasdualito.
Venezuela is not just a hideout for ELN leaders, however, but is a location for them to run criminal schemes, including kidnapping, extortion, and, increasingly, international drug trafficking. This applies particularly in Apure. On a trip to the region in 2011, InSight Crime learnt that it was common knowledge in the Colombian border city of Arauca that the ELN ran an “office” to collect extortion payments just across the border in Apure. Residents cross the bridge into Venezuela, make their payments, and return to Colombia, with no intervention from the Venezuelan authorities.
ELN unit Domingo Lain’s Border Commission (Comision de Frontera) is in charge of cross-border actions including trafficking.
There have been reports of the guerrilla group exerting social control in some parts of Apure, acting as a de facto state power to resolve disputes between citizens and keep some kind of order. According to Nuevo Arco Iris, the group has almost total control of communities on both sides of the Apure/Aracua border, providing punishments for criminals, carrying out public works projects and charging “taxes.”
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. They also have a relationship with the intelligence service Sebin, according to the same Colombian intelligence report.
The ELN have also worked with Venezuelan guerrilla group the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL), although there have been clashes between the two in recent years as they compete for territory in Apure.
“Arauca: el gran fortin del Eln,” Nuevo Arco Iris, April 28, 2012
“Violence and Politics in Venezuela,” International Crisis Group, August 17, 2011