Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” was a peasant recruit who rose to become the commander in chief and political leader of Colombia guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). He is one of the group’s elders and maintains strong ties to Cuba, which has supported the guerrilla group since the 1960s.
Gabino was born January 25, 1950 in San Vicente de Chucuri, a city in Colombia’s mountainous central northern department Santander. He joined the ELN in 1964, at age 14, when the insurgency was but an idea. In 1965, Gabino participated in the ELN’s first military assaults in the municipality of Simacota, Santander. In 1973, he became part of the national leadership council after two founding members died in battle.
In the late 1970s, he assumed joint leadership with Manuel Perez, alias “El Cura,” the Spanish priest who had joined the group in the 1960s. After El Cura’s death in 1998, Gabino became commander in chief of the ELN. He is considered the ELN’s main strategist and its elder statesman, having seen the group’s beginnings and its near endings.
Gabino also opened the way for peace talks on several occasions, including trying to join government negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in 2012. The ELN and the Colombian government announced “exploratory” peace talks in June 2014, and in March 2016 announced a formal negotiating agenda.
Extortion and kidnapping are the ELN’s primary revenue sources. The guerrillas also dabble in Colombia’s drug trade but are far less involved than larger guerrilla group the FARC.
Colombian courts have sentenced Gabino, in absentia, for multiple crimes including a 1998 massacre in which 84 people burned to death following an ELN oil pipeline bombing, and the mass kidnapping of 186 people from a church in Cali in 1999.
Gabino’s ELN group operates throughout Colombia and sometimes across the border in neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela. The guerrilla army is generally considered strongest in Colombia’s oil-producing regions like the Eastern Plains and parts of the Andean mountain range.
Allies and Enemies
Gabino is wanted by the Colombian and US governments. His group reportedly works with organized crime elements in drug and kidnapping operations and occasionally formed limited alliances with the FARC.
Despite aggressive bombing and sabotage campaign directed mainly against international energy firms and Colombia state oil company Ecopetrol, the ELN has declined from a mid-1990’s peak of close to 5,000 fighters to around 2,000 fighters today. As the ELN’s commander in chief, Gabino’s fate is strongly linked to the outcome of the ongoing peace negotiations with the government.