The government of Colombia has rejected the appointment of a top ELN commander as a delegate in peace talks and has ordered his capture — a move that likely spells the end of the negotiations with the guerilla group, which is already ramping up its criminal activities.
On November 20, Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Relations confirmed that earlier in the month it had verbally requested, on behalf of the administration of President Iván Duque, that the Cuban government act on an Interpol red notice and capture National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) commander Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino.”
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
This comes after the ELN — Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla group — announced the designation of Gabino as a peace negotiator in Havana, Cuba. The announcement came in a letter from Pablo Beltrán, the head of the ELN’s peace negotiation team, to High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos.
Gabino joined the ELN at a young age and has been part of the guerrilla group’s national leadership council for decades. The future of the peace talks is growing more uncertain, partly because of continued ELN attacks and kidnappings. The group has also doubled down on their criminal activities, expanding into neighboring Venezuela and across Colombia.
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The Colombian government’s rejection of Gabino participating in the peace talks puts the process at a critical crossroads. Gabino is well respected within the ELN, so other important leaders may well abandon the negotiations amid growing concerns about the viability of the talks if he is not part of the process.
This includes Commander Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” the leader of the powerful Eastern War Front, and Commander Ogli Ángel Padilla, alias “Fabian,” who leads the ELN’s Western War Front along Colombia’s Pacific coast, where the group controls strategic land for coca production and cocaine trafficking.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ELN Peace
While these two commanders have so far stuck with the negotiations, Gabino’s rejection and the potential end of the peace process may further exacerbate the threat they pose to the Colombian government by allowing them to focus exclusively on the group’s criminal activities. The ELN’s criminal experience and military strength has allowed the group to continue attacking key oil pipelines and rival groups, such as the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular – EPL).
Since the departure of the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), InSight Crime has found that the ELN’s Eastern War Front has consolidated its presence in 19 municipalities and is seeking to expand into 11 more. This military and logistical capacity, compounded by the likely exit of Pablito and other key members from the peace talks, may further fuel the ELN’s criminal expansion.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.