The arrest in Venezuela of alleged ELN members is a reminder of the value of the neighboring nation as a safe haven to Colombia’s rebel group. Its rearguard use has grown due to the ELN’s peace negotiations with Colombia’s government, and Venezuela’s own internal crisis.
A joint operation between Venezuela’s army and Colombia’s navy led to the arrest of 11 suspected members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN), Colombian military authorities reported on April 30.
The individuals are members of the “Rafael Villamizar” finance commission, which is part of the Domingo Laín Sáenz front, according to the navy’s press release. They were arrested in the Paez municipality in the state of Apure, which borders the department of Arauca in Colombia.
Based on intelligence provided by Colombia, the Venezuelan army had reportedly located the ELN’s safe house three days prior to the arrests. Authorities also seized 200 kilograms of cocaine, nearly 100 kilograms of marijuana, half a metric ton of explosives and several weapons when they arrested the alleged ELN members.
The official press release notes that the type of explosive is used in the fabrication of improvised explosive devices, raising the possibility that it was to be used to carry out attacks in Colombia. Authorities recently blamed another commission of the Domingo Laín Sáenz front for an attack against an oil pipeline in Colombia’s Arauca department last month.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
In November 2015, Colombian authorities announced the seizure of a small quantity of marijuana smuggled from Venezuela into Arauca that was allegedly intended to be sold by elements of the Rafael Villamizar commission.
InSight Crime Analysis
The presence of ELN members in Venezuela is nothing new. Its members, and particularly those of the aforementioned front, have used the neighboring nation as a safe haven as far back as the 1970s. Arauca, across the border from Apure, has long been a stronghold for the ELN.
But this dynamic grew in importance after Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1999. From the start, he took a starkly different approach to Colombia’s government and was vocal about his sympathies for the rebel groups, who he considered ideological allies, although he ran hot and cold on both rebel armies. Both the ELN and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) enjoyed relative tranquillity on the Venezuelan side of the border, and could escape military operations against them in Colombia, because the jurisdiction of Colombian security forces stops at the border.
SEE ALSO: ELN in Venezuela
The implementation of the FARC peace process and the current peace negotiations between the ELN and the government of Juan Manuel Santos have increased the importance of Venezuela’s strategic role. Before the peace talks formally began there was already evidence that the ELN was upping its kidnapping activities from across the border in Venezuela. Given that abandoning kidnapping was one of the conditions of the peace negotiations, the ELN could make up for that loss in criminal income in Colombia by increasing its kidnapping across the frontier in Venezuela.
This dynamic is worrying. Reports have already signalled the likely dissent of several of the ELN fronts in the event of a signed peace agreement, and Venezuela is an attractive alternative to Colombia. At least one of the five top FARC commanders who rejected the peace agreement with Colombia’s government, Géner García Molina, alias “John 40” or “Jhon 40,” has reportedly taken refuge in Venezuela, in the state of Amazonas, which borders Apure where the ELN members were arrested.
Both Apure and Amazonas are relatively rural, less populated states compared to those on the northern part of the border — Táchira and Zulia — and lend themselves to clandestine operations.
Moreover, as InSight Crime has previously pointed out, the ELN’s increased control of illicit activities due to the FARC demobilization process could be seen as a simple means of gaining leverage at the negotiation table with Colombia’s government. But it also increases the criminal profits that ELN fighters will be asked to abandon in order to join a potential peace agreement. And this severely increases the already substantial risk of dissent among ELN ranks, thus affecting the overall possibility of a successful end to the conflict.
SEE ALSO: ELN Peace
Given these dynamics, the decision by Venezuela’s army is significant given the relative impunity Colombian guerrilla fighters have enjoyed in Venezuela. It is however too early to know whether this operation by the government of President Nicolás Maduro — who has his own, arguably bigger internal security problems to consider — signals an upcoming trend, which may hold significant repercussions for the ELN, or whether it will remain a sporadic crackdown on the part of Venezuela.