The Colombian army discovered the large camp in the southwestern province of Nariño used by National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas for an unusually sophisticated rest and relaxation site. According to El Espectador, the camp included a bar, dance floor and cockfighting pit, as well as a separate area used for training exercises and ideological workshops.
Authorities say the camp had the capacity to house some 200 rebels, but no arrests were made during the operation.
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The discovery is a reminder of the ELN’s relative strength in certain parts of the country, especially in Nariño. If official estimates of the camp’s capacity are correct, that would mean it could potentially hold a quarter of the group’s estimated 1,000 active fighters. InSight Crime estimates the group has just over 200 fighters in the province.
In all of the county, Nariño is probably one of the only places the ELN could get away with such a large camp. State presence in the embattled province is minimal. It is home to a significant amount of illicit coca cultivation, and its border with neighboring Ecuador makes it a key corridor for drug trafficking routes, training, respite, arms and munitions shipments, and other critical aspects of maintaining an insurgent army.
The size of the camp also suggests the ELN is on the rise. After struggling in the early 2000s, the group has reemerged as a significant player, in part due to its alliances with drug trafficking organizations and with its larger guerrilla cousins in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
At the same time, the two guerrilla groups’ politics have, for the moment, diverged. The FARC has entered into peace talks with the government, but the ELN has so far refrained.
The ELN has announced it would be willing to join the peace process, but its insistence on a ceasefire as a precondition (something the government has consistently rejected) suggests that the ELN’s leadership is more interested in sitting back and watching what befalls the FARC before agreeing to sit at the negotiating table.
The government has placed some preconditions of its own on potential talks with the country’s second largest guerrilla group. The ELN, for instance, is still holding a number of civilians for ransom, something this government has made clear it will not negotiate.