ELN Commander Flexes Military Muscle in Colombia Ambush

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Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group has carried out its deadliest attack in years by killing 12 members of the security forces, in what appears to be a show of force by the newest member of the rebel army’s central command.

On October 26, members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) killed 11 soldiers and one police officer in a remote, mountainous region of Boyaca province. The security forces were transporting votes cast the previous day during Colombia’s local elections. Three other soldiers were injured in the attack, while two electoral officials, two soldiers, one police officer and one member of the U’wa indigenous group remain missing, reported Reuters

The ambush in Boyaca was the largest in a series of recent attacks allegedly carried out by the ELN. Another rebel assault over the weekend left one soldier dead in the department of Antioquia, reported El Colombiano. The ELN are also believed to be responsible for a grenade attack on October 27 targeting a police station in Norte de Santander department, which reportedly left one police officer injured.   

InSight Crime Analysis

According to El Tiempo, intelligence services are blaming the violence in Boyaca on ELN commander Gustavo Anibal Giraldo Quinchia, alias “Pablito,” who is known as a military hardliner and runs the rebel group’s operations in the region. Pablito, who joined the ELN’s Central Command (Comando Central – COCE) in January of this year, has coordinated attacks against oil and electrical infrastructure in eastern Colombia, where the guerrillas have historically been the most active militarily. 

Pablito is also believed to be a central figure in the ELN’s push into the illicit drug trade, and is wanted by the United States on drug trafficking charges, according to El Tiempo. The rebel group has traditionally been averse to drug trafficking on moral grounds, but in recent years their ideological opposition to the lucrative drug trade has all but vanished

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Initially, several analysts considered the inclusion of Pablito into the ELN’s Central Command as a positive indicator for peace negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government, which have been in the preliminary stages since June 2014. However, the recent attack could further delay progress for talks that have moved along at a very slow pace. Following the ambush, President Juan Manuel Santos vowed to intensify military operations against the rebel group, and said the aggressive tactics will not help the ELN in negotiations. 

“If the ELN think that these acts will win them political space or strengthen them in an eventual negotiation, they are completely wrong,” Santos said.

Sources close to the presidential palace have also told InSight Crime significant hurdles remain for the ELN and the government to begin formal negotiations.  

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