ELN and EPL Conflict Intensifies at Colombia-Venezuela Border

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A recent massacre that left eight people dead near the Colombia-Venezuela border shows how much the conflict has intensified between two armed groups battling for control of the drug trade in the Catatumbo region, and how authorities seem unable to halt the territory’s growing violence.

On July 30, a group of 10 armed men opened fire in broad daylight at a billiards hall in the town of El Tarra, located in the department of Norte de Santander on the Colombia-Venezuela border, according to a report by local media outlet La Opinión.

Among the victims were at least two demobilized members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and a local community leader.

The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), which have been embroiled in a violent conflict over the control of cocaine production in the border region with Venezuela, have both denied responsibility for the incident, each allegedly with their own press release.

However, La Opinión revealed that there are rumors the massacre may have resulted from shifts in the relationship between the ELN guerrilla group and alleged FARC dissidents who could be joining the ranks of the EPL, according to reports gathered from fieldwork in the area.

The ELN’s violent actions in the territory have worsened over the past week, including in Venezuela. On July 26, Venezuelan journalist Sebastiana Barráez reported on the killing of six workers and the seizure of a farm in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia, presumably by ELN members.

Both farmers and journalists in the area have reported that another victim of the attack on the farm was a Venezuelan soldier. Although the government of President Nicolás Maduro has not confirmed that claim, InSight Crime had access to a police report identifying the slain military official as Roberto Ultin González, an active duty army lieutenant in the special forces. It stated that he had been injured during “an exchange of gunfire between the Venezuelan army and Colombian irregular groups.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Colombian and Venezuelan authorities seem to have abandoned the Catatumbo region to its own fate, and the criminal groups battling over the border area’s drug market have lost no time in taking advantage of the situation.

The armed confrontation between the ELN and the EPL for control of the Catatumbo, one of Colombia’s top cocaine producing areas, has only gotten bloodier and seems to have descended into chaos. The recent massacre in El Tarra and deadly confrontations in Venezuelan territory clearly illustrate the gravity of the situation.

While Venezuelan authorities have preferred to stay out of the conflict, leaving their side of the border in the hands of the guerrilla groups, the Colombian government has proven itself incapable of slowing the momentum the criminal organizations have gained despite their desire to do so.

SEE ALSO: ELN Profile

In April of 2018, when it was made public that the conflict had affected some 17,000 people, Colombia’s Vice President Óscar Naranjo traveled to Norte de Santander department. He made assurances that the government “will fiercely combat the armed groups … We’ve also committed to further progress so that the security forces continue to ensure conditions in the region return to normal with a comprehensive presence of territorial control.”

However, four months after Naranjo’s announcement, the situation in the region has not improved. The armed groups still control the Catatumbo, above all the ELN, which is still pursuing peace negotiations with the Colombian government, at least publicly.

SEE ALSO: EPL Profile

In El Tarra, where the recent killings occurred, some local union leaders say they had not seen armed attacks like it since the paramilitary groups entered the region in 1999. And they are demanding an explanation from the authorities.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations and others are decrying the presence of criminal groups in Venezuelan border towns like Catatumbo and Jesús María Semprún. The director of the NGO Fundación Redes, Javier Tarazona, said that Venezuelan authorities “keep quiet and don’t act against the brazen Colombian guerrilla incursion onto Venezuelan soil.”

*This analysis was written using information prepared by InSight Crime’s Colombia investigation team.

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