The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) is one of the two main guerrilla armies with left-wing political ideologies operating in Colombia. Initially a Marxist-Leninist nationalist movement, it now appears more focused on kidnapping, extortion and attacks on economic infrastructure. And while it eschewed drug trafficking for decades, it has recently been linked to the narcotics trade and has sought alliances with large drug trafficking organizations. Militarily, it has been greatly debilitated and has dropped from an estimated 5,000 soldiers in the early 1990s to a force believed to number around 2,500 fighters.
The ELN was formed in the 1960s, just as Colombia was emerging from a bloody, sectarian struggle known as “La Violencia,” and numerous religious and student movements — some of which drew inspiration from the Cuban revolution — were gaining strength in the country. These two movements would form the core of the guerrilla group from its onset in July 1964, when the small, armed insurgency began training in San Vicente de Chucuri, in the department of Santander. Six months later, on January 7, 1965, the rebels overran Simacota, a small village in Santander, officially announcing their presence.
From the beginning, the ELN was a highly ideological outfit, combining its Marxist-Leninist outlook with liberation theology, the religious movement inspired by the Catholic Church’s announced shifts in its Vatican II Conference. Some of the group’s first recruits came from the church, including Camilo Torres, a popular and outspoken Colombian priest who died in his first battle in 1966. Other priests came from Spain, including Manuel Pérez, alias “El Cura,” who was nearly executed during an internal purge by the group’s mercurial leader, Fabio Vásquez Castaño, in the 1970s. By that time, the group was reeling, and it was nearly annihilated completely during a 1973 military offensive, which left an estimated 135 of its then 200 members dead.
Principal Criminal Groups
Vásquez Castaño was vanquished from the group and Pérez and a former peasant farmer-turned-soldier named Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” took control. Under new leadership, the ELN slowly recuperated, in part because of its increased use of methods it had once condemned, principally kidnapping. During the 1980s, the rebels became specialists in kidnapping and drew much of their revenue from the ransoms. The group also got lucky when several large oil discoveries brought multinational companies into their area of operations. The resulting revenue from both the theft of oil and extortion gave the ELN renewed energy.
By the mid-1990s, the ELN reached its apex, commanding an army of close to 5,000 soldiers and at least three times that in student, union and political supporters. It regularly bombed the country’s largest oil pipelines, including those that supplied oil from BP’s and Occidental Petroleum’s fields in the Eastern Plains region, even while it siphoned from the royalties this oil provided the region. It drew revenue from war taxes levied on coca and marijuana growers, particularly in the southern part of the Bolívar department, where the ELN’s leadership had established its home base. And, despite Pérez’s death in 1998 of hepatitis B, its military actions also became bolder. In May 1999, for instance, the ELN, dressed as military personnel, snatched 186 people from a Cali church in what remains the largest single kidnapping in the country’s history. In April that same year, the group hijacked an Avianca flight with 43 passengers and crew, forced it to land in a remote area and took all those on board captive.
However, internal fighting and the lack of a coherent national strategy left the group vulnerable to attacks by right-wing paramilitary groups and the Colombian armed forces. Beginning in the late-1990s, the group suffered a series of setbacks at the hands of the paramilitaries in its Bolivar stronghold. Desperate, the group teamed up with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) to beat back the attacks, but ultimately lost control of the lucrative area. It was the beginning of a decline for the ELN, which steadily lost ground in other parts of the country to both the paramilitary forces and the military.
The military setbacks pushed the group to negotiate a settlement with the administration of Álvaro Uribe Vélez between August and December 2002 in Cuba, and later between June 2004 and April 2005, in Mexico. The talks failed, and the government has kept up the military pressure on the ELN ever since. Added to this was lost revenue from dwindling oil production in the Eastern Plains, an ugly and violent feud with the FARC, and chaos at the top. Some factions of the ELN refused to negotiate with the Uribe administration. Other leaders simply left the group altogether.
Indeed, the ELN has always been characterized by internal power struggles, maniacal leaders and disorganization at the top. It is little surprise then that over the years, the ELN’s modus operandi has evolved and increasingly autonomous factions have acted in more criminal than ideological terms. The one-time quasi-religious movement that claimed kidnapping was “anti-revolutionary” remains a potent kidnapping operation. What’s more, the rebels abandoned the belief that drug trafficking would destroy the country and are increasingly active in the trade, be it protection of large drug trafficking organizations or the creation of their own production or distribution networks. The ELN is also still focused on attacking economic infrastructure, in particular oil pipelines and electricity pylons, and extorting foreign and local companies. On a political level, the group is much weaker than it once was, but can still draw revenue from local officials who are sympathetic to their aims and get a cut of the money.
The ELN and the Colombian government opened the preliminary stages of peace talks in June 2014, and set an agenda for the talks in March 2016. However, numerous obstacles — including the ELN’s failure to release a high-profile hostage — delayed the talks until their eventual inauguration in February 2017.
The ELN operates using columns and so-called “War Fronts.” The group also has urban militias in some of the major cities and many of the smaller villages where it operates. The ELN’s National Directorate (Dirección Nacional) has 23 members, and the Central Command (Comando Central – COCE) has five commanders. Each commander is in charge of a different area: military affairs, political functions, international affairs, financial functions, or communications between the COCE and the “War Fronts.” The commander-in-chief of the ELN is currently Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino.”
The ELN operates in nine of Colombia’s 32 departments with a particularly strong presence in northeastern Colombia. Additionally, recent reports suggest the group may be ramping up operations in neighboring Venezuela.
Allies and Enemies
After peace talks failed with the Uribe administration, the ELN increasingly allied itself with powerful drug trafficking organizations such as the Rastrojos, in part to keep its dreams of a revolutionary change at the top alive, in part to keep its mortal enemies like the FARC at bay.
However, in 2009, after years of bitter fighting, the ELN successfully negotiated a ceasefire with the FARC. In more recent years, this has evolved into a full-blown alliance in which the guerrilla groups have cooperated in military operations, exchanged hostages, launched joint political campaigns and worked together targeting multinational mining and oil companies.
After peace talks began between the Colombian government and the FARC in November 2012, the ELN repeatedly expressed their desire to be involved, even reportedly sending an unauthorized delegation to Havana, Cuba. After numerous false starts and lengthy behind the scenes discussions, in February 2017 talks officially commenced in Quito, Ecuador. Despite these ongoing negotiations, the government has been keeping military pressure on the group, while the ELN has also continued carrying out attacks across the country.
Like the peace process with the FARC, the negotiations with the ELN are not expected to be concluded quickly. Moreover, there have been signs that some the group’s leadership are not on board with the peace process. This raises the possibility that many ELN members may defect from the organization and continue criminal activities even in the event of a final deal.
At the same time, the ELN has been establishing or strengthening its presence in areas formerly under FARC control as the latter group demobilizes. In some cases, the ELN has been absorbing dissident FARC elements into its ranks.