Authorities seized around 1.5 metric tons of cocaine linked to the ELN rebels in Colombia's Chocó department, the latest sign that the group is expanding by absorbing territory and dissidents of the demobilizing FARC guerrillas.
Colombia's military discovered the sizable cocaine shipment on March 19 along the Pacific coast of the Juradó municipality in Chocó, near the border with Panama, EFE reported. The shipment, reportedly belonging to Colombia's second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), appears to have been headed to Central America.
Meanwhile, a report published March 13 by the Colombian foundation Ideas para la Paz warned that the ELN is expanding in at least five departments by taking over illegal operations previously controlled by the demobilizing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), the country's largest guerrilla movement. Chocó appears among these areas, along with the department of Nariño, the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, Norte de Santander's Catatumbo subregion, and the Cauca department.
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In addition, in Cauca's Toribío municipality, FARC dissidents have allegedly joined the ELN group, according to local testimonies reported by Colombia's El País. The reports appear to confirm previous warnings that the FARC peace process could impact ELN activities in certain parts of the country.
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Colombian authorities had already seized a record-breaking four metric tons of cocaine from the ELN in January 2017 in Nariño, which supported the notion that the guerrilla group was assuming control of former FARC territories in that area. The latest seizure near the Panama border could indicate a replication of the this trend in Chocó -- another key department, given its Pacific coastline and its border with Panama -- at a time when Colombia is believed to be producing more cocaine than ever before.
In addition to the January seizure in Nariño, the department's key transshipment port of Tumaco has recently suffered from an outbreak of violence as criminal groups including the ELN battled for control of the port. InSight Crime field investigations have uncovered evidence that the ELN has taken over much of the FARC's system of "taxing" drug production in Nariño, the department with Colombia's highest levels of coca cultivation.
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Not only does the latest seizure add to evidence of the ELN's expansion in Chocó, but El País' report of FARC dissidents joining the rebel group could mean a worrying transfer of more than just territory between the two guerrilla movements. The ELN may also be inheriting the FARC's extensive operational knowledge regarding an array of criminal activities, built over decades of managing the drug trade.
As InSight Crime previously noted, these developments are likely to have considerable consequences for the ELN's incipient peace talks with Colombia's government. The considerable illegal profits that can be earned in the drug trade add to doubts about the ELN leadership's ability to ensure that rank-and-file members will abide by an eventual peace deal.