Colombian guerrilla group the ELN has used Venezuelan territory for decades, but its presence in the country has become increasingly important since 2000 as its Colombian operations have been squeezed by paramilitary groups and security forces.
This coincided with the arrival of former Venezuela President Hugo Chávez in 1999. Chávez’s rise to power and his idea of a socialist model for Venezuela was the ELN’s entry point. The political platform of the late president shared similar ideas with the ELN. This would eventually benefit the ELN and other guerrilla groups in Colombia.
After the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in 2016 and the guerrillas’ subsequent demobilization in 2017, the ELN increased its presence on the border with Venezuela. The group’s passage into the neighboring country also became more accessible.
Venezuela’s current conditions have exacerbated a government crisis that has boiled over alongside rising crime rates and the penetration of organized crime into the highest levels of the government. The Andean nation has not only become a mafia state, but has sought alliances with groups like the ELN in the midst of such institutional chaos.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) has used Venezuelan territory at least since the 1970s, when an army push against the group in Antioquia province — Operation Anori — almost destroyed its leadership, forcing the group to move its main power base to Arauca, on the Venezuelan border. One of the group’s most powerful units, the Domingo Lain Front, was formed in Arauca in the late 1970s.
In addition to using the country as a hideout, the ELN has carried out kidnappings and extortions in Venezuela, where they are beyond the reach of Colombian security forces. There are indications that the group is also increasingly involved in cross-border drug trafficking.
Previous Venezuelan governments were hostile to the rebels, particularly following the 1995 Cararabo massacre of eight Venezuelan marines by the ELN in Apure state. In 1998 the government allowed Colombia to enter its territory to pursue ELN guerrillas who had taken refuge there after an attack.
Principal Criminal Groups
During his presidency, Hugo Chavez displayed a friendlier attitude towards the ELN and FARC, generally tolerating their presence in the country. This new climate, combined with increasing pressure from security forces, paramilitary groups and the FARC in the Colombian departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander, meant that the ELN’s presence in Venezuela became increasingly significant from 2000 onwards.
With the signing of the peace accords and the departure of the FARC from the armed conflict, the ELN had the opportunity to consolidate with greater strength along the Venezuelan border, where it once fought previously Colombia’s strongest guerrilla group in the FARC over this prized territory.
Norte de Santander and Arauca departments became dominated by the guerrillas, who now compete to a lesser extent with other armed Colombian criminal groups. Control over the border not only allowed the group to have control of drug trafficking routes, but it also guaranteed a constant flow and created a trench between the two countries supported by the government of Nicolás Maduro.
The ELN uses Venezuela, particularly Apure state, as a hiding place for its leaders and as an operations center for criminal activities, including kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking and gasoline smuggling.
There have been reports of the guerrilla group exerting social control in some parts of Apure, acting as a de facto state power to resolve disputes between citizens and keep some kind of order. According to Nuevo Arco Iris, the group has almost total control of communities on both sides of the Apure-Aracua border, punishing criminals, carrying out public works projects and charging “taxes.”
The Domingo Laín Sáenz Front, one of the ELN’s most important and belligerent structures, linked up with the group’s Eastern War Front that has a presence on the Venezuelan side of the border. This is also where the front’s leader, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” hides out. Interpol issued a red notice against Pablito in October of 2018 for his arrest.
The Carlos Germán Velasco Villamizar Front is also present in Venezuela. This faction, which operates in the municipality of Cúcuta and its surrounding area, has handed out pamphlets and established an armed presence across the border.
End of the year celebrations in December of 2018 were even decimated by the presence of some members of this front and the distribution of pamphlets. Citizens in the border state of Táchira were warned about being well-behaved during the festivities.
However, although the guerrillas have expanded their presence in large part into Venezuela, it’s unclear whether they are simply cells, as is usually the modus operandi of the ELN, or the actions of specific organized fronts.
Another ELN member that may also be in Venezuela is alias “Ariel.” It’s possible he coordinated part of the latest ELN attacks in Colombia along with Pablito. However, the information about Ariel is still unclear. While unconfirmed, it’s believed that he operates in Colombia’s La Guajira near the border with Venezuela.
The ELN already has a presence in 12 of Venezuela’s 24 states, according to sources consulted by InSight Crime. With armed groups, clandestine transmitters and even the distribution of subsidized food boxes known as Local Storage and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción – CLAP) — which are supposed to be provided by the Venezuelan government — the ELN has established its presence in Venezuela and shown itself as a true power broker.
The distribution of CLAP boxes — which must be registered with the country to obtain such food aid — in some of Venezuela’s states, as documented by the Fundación Redes non-governmental organization, suggests this group can wield control and influence over the population.
This further demonstrates the penetration of the ELN within the Venezuelan government, allowing the group to distribute subsidies and use this as a type of propaganda to influence the civilian population.
Eastern Front commander Gustavo Anibal Giraldo Quinchia, alias “Pablito,” is said to live in Apure. Sources told InSight Crime that Pablito’s ranch had been seized from its previous owners by the government. A Colombian intelligence report, leaked in 2010, suggested that ELN commanders Antonio Garcia and Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” were also based in Apure, and moved “freely” between the cities of La Victoria and Guasdualito.
Colombian military intelligence claims that several ELN leaders may be hiding out in Venezuela, where they send orders and messages back to Colombia and at times pass back through to Colombia’s border department of Arauca.
The ELN is not thought to have fronts that are actually based in Venezuela, though several of its top leaders live in Venezuela’s Apure state, using the country as a base to coordinate operations and stay out of the reach of Colombian security forces.
On the other hand, the ELN’s criminal activities in Venezuela are concentrated in Táchira, Zulia, Trujillo, Anzoátegui, Lara, Falcón, Amazonas, Barinas, Portuguesa, Guárico, Bolívar and the aforementioned Apure.
In the case of Falcón, Lara, Guárico, Trujillo and Portuguesa, the ELN’s presence has been detected expansively through multiple sightings.
In Amazonas and Bolívar, the guerrilla group has concentrated on exerting control over illegal mining activities involving the Orinoco Mining Arc. The group participates in extractive activities, commercializing minerals and taxing others to extract materials.
The ELN’s expansion around this mining project — one of Venezuela’s most prominent — has allowed the group to cross the whole of Venezuela.
Along the border with Colombia in Táchira, Apure and Zulia, meanwhile, the group is engaged in recruiting and establishing an armed presence, in addition to controlling radio stations used to influence the Venezuelan people.
Recruitment is what most affects the border between the two countries as thousands of Venezuelans pass by daily fleeing the Maduro regime. Arauca, Norte de Santander, Apure, Táchira and Zulia have also become key pockets for the guerrillas to recruit migrants, who see a chance at survival within the group’s ranks.
Allies and Enemies
The ELN is broadly tolerated by the Venezuelan authorities, and several top leaders are thought to be based over the border. The group is able to operate with near-total impunity thanks to its close ties with the security forces and local government in some parts of Venezuela’s border region. The guerrilla group also has a relationship with the Venezuelan intelligence agency Sebin, according to a Colombian intelligence report.
The ELN have also worked with Venezuelan guerrilla group the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL), although there have been clashes between the two in recent years as they compete for territory in Apure.
Although there have been several rumors about the relationship between the ELN and Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), the link seems to be maintained due to the benefits it provides both groups. For more than 10 years, Chávez had recognized the guerrillas as a political entity and saw the group as an ally with common goals.
Some Venezuelan political leaders have denounced the relationship between the country’s armed forces and the ELN guerrillas. Other reports have also warned about the actions of such criminal groups, but without confirmation from the government of Nicolás Maduro.
However, both groups have allegedly battled over territorial control. Towards the end of 2018, the capture of alleged ELN Eastern Front commander Luis Felipe Ortega Bernal, alias “Garganta,” sparked a confrontation between the military and guerrillas that left four GNB members dead.
The departure of the FARC from the criminal scene and the emergence of dissident former rebel fighters provides another valuable ally for the ELN in Venezuela. A meeting between ELN high commanders and FARC dissidents took place in October of last year in Venezuela’s Apure state, according to La Silla Vacía. The two groups allegedly agreed upon a non-aggression pact and the distribution of drug trafficking routes.
With the start of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas, the ELN moved up to another level. The relationship between the Venezuelan regime and the guerrillas remained stable as the group used Venezuela to retreat from Colombian security forces.
At the beginning of 2017, the ELN’s Central Command began its own dialogues with the Colombian government. However, this was interrupted in early 2018 after the guerrillas attacked a police station in Barranquilla.
While living in Cuba at the time, the group’s leadership maintained the need to continue dialogues while part of the group continued to hide out in Venezuela.
The departure of former President Juan Manuel Santos and the arrival of President Iván Duque changed the prospects of dialogue with the ELN. Duque, an opponent of dialogues with the guerrillas, definitively cut off the possibility of such talks, leaving the ELN as the largest guerrilla group in Colombia and the government’s number one enemy after the group claimed responsibility for a deadly car bombing in the capital Bogotá in January 2019.
As a result, the guerrilla group has strengthened its links with the Venezuelan government. Although the Maduro regime does not officially recognize the ELN as an ally, his administration has welcomed the group’s presence in Venezuela and considers the guerrillas as an unofficial ally.
In Venezuela, the ELN continue to control criminal economies such as illegal mining and drug trafficking routes along the Atlantic, allowing the group to continue operating as one of the region’s most influential criminal groups.
On the other hand, Colombia’s government institutions continue asking Venezuela for clarity about the presence of the ELN, but have yet to receive a convincing response. Specifically, Colombian authorities are in search of ELN leaders like Pablito, Antonio García and Ramiro Vargas, who are believed to be hiding out in Venezuela.
By all accounts, it’s unlikely the relationship between the ELN and Venezuela will crack under the weight of requests from the international community due to the humanitarian and political crisis that the Maduro regime is confronting. Maduro may find use in the ELN as a possible defense mechanism in the case of US military intervention. The ELN may also benefit from its relationship with the Venezuelan government if such a situation were to develop.