Colombia: ELN Rebels Join Forces with FARC
By Dialogo January 23, 2012
BOGOTÁ — In most countries, a communist insurgency that’s survived nearly half a century would constitute a vexing national security threat. But Colombia’s ELN guerrillas have always been something of an afterthought.
That’s because Colombian government troops have spent decades battling bigger and seemingly more dangerous foes. But that’s not to say the ELN (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Army) has stopped being a menace.
The ELN recently teamed up with Colombia’s FARC, the country’s largest guerrilla army, as well as with drug-trafficking organizations, to carry out attacks and fill its war chest. These alliances may be giving the much-debilitated ELN a second wind.
“After a steep and rapid decline in the late 1990s, the ELN became largely irrelevant,” said Jeremy McDermott, co-director of Insight Crime, a Colombian think tank. “But a sudden rise in estimated rebel troop levels, as well as a spike in military actions related to their new-found financial sources, is starting to turn this perception around.”
Other analysts insist the ELN remains on the cusp of disappearing and has been forced into these new alliances as a matter of survival. They claim the ELN is essentially being swallowed up by the FARC while its involvement in drug trafficking — an activity that the rebel army had originally repudiated — further damages its reputation.
“Politically and militarily, the ELN is insignificant,” said Otty Patiño, a founding member of the M-19 guerrilla group that disarmed in 1990. “Within the Colombian population, the ELN has no meaning while its involvement in drug trafficking has been morally degrading to the movement.”
ELN rooted in ‘liberation theology’
The ELN was founded in 1964 by university students inspired by the Cuban revolution and Roman Catholic priests who espoused liberation theology, the radical church doctrine that the poor have the right to rise up against their oppressors.
Like the FARC and the M-19, the ELN was among an alphabet soup of guerrilla movements that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s in response to Colombia’s poverty and what was then an exclusionary political system that froze out leftists.
But rather than joining forces to form a single, potent insurgency that might have threatened the Bogotá government, these rebel armies constantly bickered over ideology and strategy and spent much of their time fighting one another.
The ELN initially struggled and was nearly wiped out in 1974 by a Colombian army operation that reduced the guerrilla group to just a few dozen fighters. One of the survivors was Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias Gabino, the ELN’s maximum leader who is now 71.
But the ELN regrouped amid Colombia’s oil boom in the 1980s. Petroleum companies were forced to hand over huge sums in extortion payments to the ELN in exchange for being allowed to explore for oil and operate in areas where the guerrillas held sway. Failure to pay often resulted in the bombings of pipelines and other oil infrastructure.
ELN relies on violent crime, drug trafficking
The ELN is largely a self-financed group through the proceeds of kidnapping, extortion and, now, drug trafficking. Due to its religious roots and its desire to forge a cleaner identity that the FARC, the ELN at first shunned drug trafficking as “detrimental to humanity.” Yet the ELN justified kidnapping civilians for ransom and soon became experts in the crime.
In 1999, for example, the ELN hijacked a domestic Avianca Airlines flight, forced it down on a clandestine landing strip in northern Colombia and kidnapped the passengers and crew. That same year ELN commandos also abducted an entire church congregation of 186 people in the city of Cali in what remains Colombia’s single largest mass kidnapping.
But over the past decade, the ELN has been ravaged by the Colombian armed forces as well as by paramilitary death squads that targeted the group’s civilian collaborators. In addition, a fratricidal war broke out with the FARC which tried to take over ELN strongholds in Aruaca, Santander and other departments.
In recent years, said Bogota political analyst Alvaro Jiménez, the ELN “has been hibernating and dedicated to survival.”
Staving off total elimination has meant sleeping with enemies. Since 2007, for example, the ELN has teamed up with several so-called “bandas criminales” – or criminal gangs – which are the drug-trafficking offshoots of paramilitary groups that disarmed in the mid-2000s.
The ELN has formed an alliance with a group called the Rastrojos in southwest Cauca department, according to Insight Crime. In return for selling coca base, a rough form of cocaine, to the Rastrojos, guarding drug laboratories and escorting drug shipments to the Pacific coast, the ELN has received cash, weapons, ammunition and communications equipment. This alliance has allowed the ELN to beat back FARC advances in Cauca.
ELN-FARC alliance leads to increase in terrorist attacks
In December 2009, the ELN and the FARC announced an alliance and nationwide ceasefire between the two rebel groups, although fighting continued for several months due to the inability of guerrilla leaders to impose discipline, authorities said.
McDermott said the truce has let the groups dedicate more resources toward fighting government troops, which helps explain an increase in rebel attacks over the past two years.
“The two guerrilla groups complement each other,” McDermott said. “The FARC is better at military strategy, capacity-building, and implementation of these components in the battlefield. The ELN is better at political infiltration and the construction of networks of collaborators in rural and urban settings.”
Last year, the Colombian military estimated that the number of ELN fighters had jumped from 1,500 to 2,000, though some analysts view these figures as inflated. And due to the alliance with the FARC, it’s become harder to determine the number of members in the ELN.
Peace talks in the near future?
But even as it retools, the ELN has been sending feelers to the Colombian government about peace talks. In fact, the ELN has met for several rounds of talks with the Colombian government but the most recent effort in Havana ended in failure in 2007.
Some analysts suggest that should the ELN eventually disarm through a peace process, the group could go on to form a left-wing political party as did the M-19 rebels after they demobilized in 1990. Former M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro took the oath of office in January as mayor of Bogotá, a post which has often been a launching pad for the presidency.
“The triumph of Petro in Bogotá is a sign that it’s possible through the democratic process for the left to achieve power,” said Daniel Garcia-Peña, a former Colombian government peace commissioner.
Bogotá political analyst Luis Eduardo Celis said that top ELN commanders no longer support the armed struggle but are unwilling to take part in a peace process if it means total surrender. For his part, President Juan Manuel Santos said last month that the starting point for new talks must be a ceasefire and the release of all ELN-held hostages.
“Colombian society doesn’t want a peace process with the ELN because people believe there is nothing to negotiate,” said analyst Jiménez. For the majority of Colombians, he said, “peace talks make little sense if the ELN has been defeated.”
The FARC have badly damaged their country..They practically have an army, made up of men who were kidnapped as children...They have murdered thousands of innocent citizens. They have treated their kidnapping victims savagely, they are basically a large group of men dedicated to drug trafficking, they have no popular support, nor do they have international sympathy. They have no other option except to lay down their arms... And they don't do it because the drug cartel is run by the FARC high command. I'd like to have a more in-depth knowledge of the actual financing of the guerrilla, since it seems like they all feed from the same source, who is the actual enemy of the Colombians; the government feeds from the transnationals, the paramilitary feeds from the transnationals and so does the guerrilla, how odd......................