Colombia’s ELN Rebels Step Up Attacks As Peace Talks Continue in Cuba

By Dialogo
April 22, 2013

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Frozen out of peace talks underway in Cuba, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group has made headlines with high-profile kidnappings and attacks.
So far this year, the National Liberation Army [Ejercito de Liberación Nacional, or ELN] has abducted and released two German retirees. It has repeatedly blown up the vital Caño Limon pipeline that carries 70,000 barrels a day of crude oil for export, and continues to hold a Canadian citizen it kidnapped from a mining concern.
These acts, analysts say, are ELN’s way of pressuring the Colombian government into letting it take part in ongoing peace talks with the larger and stronger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC].
The group has repeatedly sought to join the negotiations, which began last November, but has been rebuffed by President Juan Manuel Santos. When uninvited ELN delegates arrived in Havana, they were immediately turned away.
In response, the ELN has increased its attacks against security forces and major infrastructure sites. According to a Bogotá-based conflict-monitoring agency, ELN has averaged about seven attacks per month since December, up from two per month the previous year.
“I believe they are actions to call attention to themselves, to give the idea that they still exist,” said Camilo González Posso, director of the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ) in Bogotá.
Despite their similarities, ELN and FARC take different paths
The ELN and FARC began fighting parallel wars against the state in the mid-1960s. Though both espoused Marxist ideologies, the FARC recruited mainly peasants and maintained a strict military structure, emulating Soviet revolutionaries. The ELN, by contrast, drew support from diverse groups: oil workers, university professors and most notably priests steeped in liberation theology, a militant Catholic movement.
Though the ELN nearly disappeared in the 1970s, it later recovered by drawing revenues through the extortion of oil companies around its operational base of Arauca, near Colombia’s border with Venezuela. It later financed its activities through drug trafficking, a practice its early leaders had denounced.
The group reached its peak in the mid-1990s with nearly 8,000 fighters. But analysts say it has since declined steadily to a disorganized force of 2,500 — as a result of increased pressure from Colombia’s armed forces and frequent battles with the 9,000-strong FARC for control of drug-trafficking territories.
“The ELN has come to lose its capacity for military action in the zones where they are found,” said Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogotá think tank. “They don’t have the ability to increase in a substantial manner their attacks against the armed forces and the citizens of Colombia.”
ELN leaders demand renegotiation of oil, mineral rights
Bogotá is betting it can afford to ignore a weakened ELN, which is why Santos and other Colombian officials are content to keep it sidelined during the closed-door peace negotiations with the FARC. Moreover, officials fear that ELN’s inclusion would complicate the five-point agenda that the government and FARC have established.
Leaders of the ELN demand a public discussion that includes mining and oil rights — issues not covered in the current talks. The ELN wants profits from these resources available to more citizens, while the FARC has long focused on agrarian reform.
The ELN “would want to renegotiate the terms of the energy contracts,” González said. “But that is something that would have a high cost politically for the government.”
The ELN has sought peace before, engaging in eight rounds of talks with the government between 2004 and 2007. The talks failed due to a lack of will on both sides to agree to a final peace plan.
“I believe the government should do with the ELN what they did not do with the FARC,” said Rangel, “and demand as a prerequisite to initiate conversations of peace that the ELN suspend all types of violent action.”
Analysts dispute government’s tactic of ignoring ELN
The government’s gambit to dismiss the ELN could be dangerous and costly, said González of INDEPAZ. “They are a small force, but they could sabotage what the government has earned with the FARC.”
González also warned that FARC guerrillas dissatisfied with the peace talks could decamp for the ELN, reinforcing it greatly. Other analysts disagreed, saying that it was rare for guerrillas to pass from one group to the other.
John Marulanda, a Bogotá-based security expert who advises multinational companies, said that ELN leaders such as commander Nicolas Rodríguez — better known as “Gabino” — have only two options: “stay in the mountains waiting for a bomb to land on them, or negotiate to be able to save face.”
ELN said to be reviving poppy cultivation
The trouble, he said, is that apart from its leaders, the ELN’s rank-and-file members resemble drug trafficking gangs more than an ideologically driven guerrilla force.
“This new generation of guerrillas, the ones that are at the base of the conflict,” Marulanda said, “are young men who don’t eat up the theories of Marxism.”
Politically, he said, the younger members don’t have clear ideals. “What they have clear is that they can have a nice gun, a nice truck or Humvee and they can get the best girls in these towns. That is similar to the members at the bases of the [drug] cartels.”
The ELN’s traditional strongholds on the borders of both Ecuador and Venezuela have proven to be valuable in the movement of cocaine. More recently, some of the group’s units have moved into established coca-growing regions on the Panamanian border and in the Colombian interior departments of Antioquia and Cauca.
“Some say they are also reviving the cultivation of poppy. These cultivations that they are reviving in Cauca are being cared for and managed by cells of the ELN,” said Marulanda. The new generation of ELN guerrillas maintains its old motto and marks — including its menacing red and black balaclavas — but little else, he said.
“The blowing up of pipelines, the car bombs, the kidnappings,” Marulanda said, “all this is so they can maintain their traditional image as a guerrilla group. But what they are is a criminal gang.”