National Liberation Army (Colombia)

FormedJuly 4, 1964
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackJanuary 7, 1965: The ELN seized Simacota, a small town in Santander. Following the attack, founder Fabio Vasquéz Castaño along with Victor Medina Moron read the ELN’s proclamation and announced their existence as a group. (unknown killed, unknown wounded) [1]
Last AttackJuly 3, 2011: The ELN set off two explosions in Bogotá, one in the financial district and one in the industrial area. (unknown killed, 8+ wounded). [2]
UpdatedAugust 17, 2015

Narrative Summary

The National Liberation Army (ELN) is Colombia’s second largest leftist guerrilla group, formed in 1964 following the decade of Colombian civil war, from 1948-1958, known as La Violencia. The Cuban Revolution and Che Guevarra inspired students, Catholic radicals, and leftist intellectuals, led by brothers Fabio and Manuel Vásquez Castaño, to form the ELN to fight for a popular democracy in Colombia. [3] [4] The ELN’s founding members, former members of a Cuban scholarship program known as the Brigada Pro Liberación Nacional, felt the Colombian majority was excluded by the state, and they sought to take over the government and replace it with one that was more representative. [5] [6] [7]

 In July 1964, the guerrilla group started training in the Province of Santander. Six months later, in January of 1965, ELN members took over a small village in Santander and officially announced themselves as the ELN. The ELN spent the following years organizing and gathering recruits, primarily priests from the Catholic Church. The ELN’s steady growth was halted in 1973 when a government military offensive almost eliminated the group in its entirety; 135 of the 200 members, including founders Fabio and Manuel Vásquez Castaño, were killed. [8] [9] The ELN’s near destruction became a pivotal moment for the group in which Manuel Perez and Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, known as “Gabino,” took over leadership.

 While the ELN had previously shied away from kidnapping for ideological reasons, under Gabino and Perez’s new leadership, it started kidnapping politicians and wealthy landowners for revenue in order to rebuild the group. In 1975 and 1976, the ELN’s main activities were bank robbing, kidnapping and assassinating military members. [10] [11] By the 1980s, ELN members had become expert kidnappers: kidnapping from boats, vehicles, and airplanes. Unlike the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC), a similar guerrilla group in Colombia, the ELN avoided the drug trade and focused on furthering its political goals. [12] In the 1990s, the ELN started targeting and extorting the employees of many oil companies operating in its area of control. In 1998 alone, the ELN earned $84 million from ransoms and $225 million from extortion of oil company employees. [13] At this time, the ELN also changed its policy and entered the drug trade. It started taxing coca and marijuana growers, especially in the Bolivar Province, where the ELN had established its headquarters. [14] In 1999, the ELN reached its peak with between 4,000 and 5,000 members and about 15,000 supporters. [15] [16]

 The 2000s marked the beginning of the group’s decline. The effects of internal conflict and the rise of paramilitary forces, such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and Death to Kidnappers (MAS), which directly targeted leftist guerrilla groups throughout the 1990s, resulted in the ELN losing large amounts of territory, including their former home base, in the Bolivar Province. [17] In 2001, the ELN started peace talks with the Colombian government but the talks quickly failed. Some argue that President Pastrana was more interested in negotiating with the FARC than with the ELN and that this preference may have led to the failure of the 2001 peace talks. [18] The ELN engaged in peace talks with the Uribe administration in 2002, 2004, and 2005; all of these peace talks, hosted in both México and Cuba, also failed. [19] By 2009, the ELN showed signs of internal fragmentation; units started disobeying leaders’ orders and allying with drug traffickers for financial security. [20] 

 Beginning in 2009, reports of the ELN referred to the group as a weakened and forgotten force. [21] In 2012, the ELN was not invited to the peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government. Analysts speculate that the Colombian government denied the ELN admission to the peace talks because the government no longer views the ELN as a threat. [22] Angered by its exclusion, the ELN immediately responded by killing police officers and blowing up pipelines in 2012. In 2013, the ELN continued to increase attacks and declared war on oil companies. Finally, in June 2014, the Colombian government restarted exploratory talks with the ELN; in September 2015, the ELN is expected to begin formal peace talks with the government. [23] [24]

Leadership

The ELN’s highest level of leadership is the Central Command (COCE), currently comprised of Gabino, Pablo Beltrán and Ramiro Vargas. The COCE oversees all ELN operations: political, military, financial, and international. Below the COCE is the National Directorate; its 23 members serve as the point men between the COCE and the ELN’s Fronts. [25] [26]

  1. "Pablito," also known as Carlos Marin Guarin, legal name Gustavo Anibal Giraldo Quinchía (Unknown to Present): In 2000, Pablito became commander of the ELN’s Front of East War. He headed his ELN operations in Apure, Venezuela until 2008 when he was captured by Colombian authorities, while using the alias Carlos Marín Guarín. In 2009, Pablito escaped from prison in Arauca, Venezuela, with the help of other ELN guerrillas. Pablito is head of the ELN’s Eastern Bloc and is a member of the National Directorate.[27]
  2. "Antonio Garcia," legal name Eliécer Erlinto de Jesus Chamorro (Unknown to Present): Antonio Garcia joined the ELN in the mid 1970s and became a member of the ELN’s Central Command in the 1980s. Following El Cura’s death in 1998, Antonio Garcia became the ELN’s military commander. His responsibilities include military strategy and weaponry. Garcia is also one of the ELN’s negotiators and his arrest warrant was nullified in 2006 to allow him to participate in peace talks with the government.[28]
  3. Pablo Beltrán, legal name Israel Ramírez Pinead (Unknown to Present): Beltrán appears to be a spokesperson for the ELN; in interview appearances, he frequently outlines the ELN’s mission, goals and beliefs.The Colombian government recognized Beltrán as a representative member of the ELN in 2007, which gave him freedom of movement to join the negotiating team and the peace talks in Cuba. Beltrán is a member of the ELN’s Central Command and is third in command.[29]
  4. Ramiro Vargas, legal name Rafael Sierra Granados (Unknown to Present): Ramiro Vargas was involved in the exploratory talks with the Colombian government in 2002. In 2006, President Uribe nullified Vargas’ arrest warrant, recognizing him as a spokesperson for the ELN as part of the peace process. Vargas is a member of the Central Command.[30]
  5. Victor Medina Moron (1964 to 1967): Before founding the ELN, Medina was a leader of Santander’s Communist Party. Medina believed that before delving into combat, it was important for the ELN to develop a sound political foundation. This led to conflict between Vásquez Castaño and Medina; following which Vásquez Castaño and his brother murdered Medina in 1967 for disagreeing with their approach.[31]
  6. Jaime Arenas (1964 to 1968): Jaime Arenas was a founding member of the ELN but distanced himself from the group in 1968. Arenas intended to publish a book exposing the ELN’s internal purges, militarism and sectarianism. ELN leaders allegedly murdered Arenas in Bogota shortly after they learned of his intentions.[32]
  7. Fabio Vásquez Castaño (1964 to 1973): Fabio Vásquez Castaño was a founding member of the ELN. During the 1965 seizure of Simacota, he read the ELN’s proclamation, pronouncing the group and outlining its goals. Vásquez Castaño pushed for the ELN to be very active militarily; he thought that political and ideological training would inhibit military advancement. Vásquez Castaño and his brother died in the 1973 Colombian military offensive.[33]
  8. "Father Torres," also known as Father Camilo Torres Restrepo (January 7, 1966 to February 15, 1966): Father Torres was a Roman Catholic Priest who studied the ELN from its inception and was taken with their goals and purpose. Father Torres affiliated himself with the ELN January 7, 1966, met with the group in Santander, and was given arms soon after. On February 15,1966 Father Torres died in his first combat and became a martyr for the ELN.[34]
  9. "Gabino," legal name Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (1973 to Present): Gabino joined the ELN in 1964 when he was 14 and fought in the group’s first attack in 1965. In 1973, Gabino joined the Central Command and took joint leadership of the ELN alongside El Cura Pérez. Today, Gabino is the current commander in chief and member of the Central Command; there is a $2.5 million bounty on his head. [35]
  10. "El Cura Pérez," also known as Father Manuel Pérez Martínez, "Poliarcho" (1973 to 1998): Cura Pérez joined the ELN in 1969. In 1973, Cura Pérez took leadership of the ELN with Gabino. He died in February 1998 from Hepatitis.[36]
  11. Francisco Galán (1991 to 2008): Galán has been a political spokesperson for the ELN since 1991 but has been imprisoned for much of that time. He was released temporarily in 2000, with Felipe Torres, to discuss with President Pastrana’s negotiators the prospect of peace between the ELN and the Colombian government. In 2005, president Álvaro Uribe released Galán from prison for three months to participate in peace negotiations. In April 2008, the ELN renounced Galán’s status as spokesperson and member of the negotiating team because his actions, in negotiations with the Colombian government, were not representative of the ELN’s.[37]

Ideology & Goals

The ELN began as a movement of students and Catholics, predominately radical priests, inspired by the Cuban Revolution. [38] [39] These individuals believed they represented the majority of Colombians: individuals with economic, political, and social grievances due to exclusion by the state. [40] Originally, the group believed that kidnapping was anti-revolutionary and ELN leader Priest Manuel Perez vehemently opposed entering the drug trade for ideological reasons. Additionally, the group believed its role was to combat foreign influence in Colombia and initially aimed to institute a popular democracy in place of the Colombian government, a republic. [41]

 Today, the ELN is involved in more criminal activities and appears less ideologically driven. [42] Under “Pablito,” a current leader within the group, the ELN has been involved with kidnappings, the drug trade, and extortion. [43] [44]

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

[61] [62] [63]  [64] [65]

Resources

In the ELN’s formative years, Cuba provided the group with weapons and financial support. [66] In the 1970s, the ELN relied on kidnapping for revenue to rebuild after its near destruction by the Colombian military in 1973. Additionally, the ELN relied on protection payments and ransoms for income. In the 1980s, the ELN took millions of dollars from German oil contractors through extortion and kidnapping threats. [67] [68] The ELN increased kidnappings in the 1980s and its kidnapping practice continues to this day; in 2012, the ELN publicly refused to stop kidnapping. [69] In the 1990s, the ELN also began extorting oil company employees; together, kidnapping and extortion became the ELN’s primary source of revenue—bringing in $225 million in 1998 alone. [70] In addition, the ELN started taxing coca and marijuana farmers, especially in the Bolivar Province where it had territorial control, in the 1990s. [71] Many units of the ELN reportedly independently established relationships with drug trafficking gangs in order to survive economically. [72]

 In an interview, ELN member Antonio Garcia said the ELN finances its endeavors four ways: donations, produce, voluntary contributions and taxation. [73] ELN members, who are mostly working, wage-earning people, provide donations. Produce comes from professional guerrillas engaged in community activities such as growing crops to sell. Voluntary contributions come from those who are not members of the ELN but share the ELN’s ideas. Lastly, the ELN uses ‘taxation,’ the process of taxing wealthy persons or individuals and ‘Economic Retention,’ should they refuse to pay the tax, as sources of income. [74] The Economic Retention policy is widely known to be kidnapping of wealthy individuals. The ELN denies involvement in the drug trade.    

External Influences

During the ELN’s early years, Cuba supported the group financially and provided weaponry in addition to ideological influence. [75]

 During the peace talks in the mid-2000s, the ELN received support and assistance from former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In 2008, the ELN thanked the Venezuelan government for its recognizing and legitimizing the ELN’s political motivations. [76]    

Geographical Locations

The ELN claims to operate in areas of Colombia that are stateless, with no government attention or assistance. The ELN had its headquarters in the Bolivar province until 2000 when the AUC seized ELN territory. [77] [78] The group is most present in the Northeast region of Colombia and not present in the Eastern Planes of the Amazonian region. The ELN reportedly has operations in nine out of thirty-two of Colombia’s provinces, claims to operate in all three major mountain ranges in the country, and has 43 fronts in rural areas, 10 in urban areas, and 22 that are mobile. [79]

Targets & Tactics

During its early years, the ELN was not involved in much illegal activity for ideological reasons. Following the group’s near destruction in 1973, the ELN shifted tactics and began robbing banks, assassinating military personnel, and kidnapping for ransom. By the 1980s, the ELN had become expert kidnappers. Kidnapping and extortion accounted for the majority of the group’s revenue. Then in the late 1980s and 1990s, the ELN joined the drug trade. [80]

 In the 2000s, the ELN used kidnapping, extortion, bombings, assassinations and hijacking to achieve its objectives. [81] [82] The ELN primarily targeted oil company employees for their wealth, and as part of the ELN’s attack on multinationals. [83] [84] In 2013, the ELN declared war on oil companies for allegedly ‘plundering the country’s natural resources.’ In 2014, the ELN engaged in preliminary peace talks with the Colombian government but refused to stop kidnapping. [85] [86] The ELN continues to use its tactics, kidnapping, bombing, assassination, and hijacking, today. As of July 2015, the ELN has been attacking infrastructure of local towns including oil pipelines, which then shut down water pumps. [87]

Political Activities

The ELN drafted an agreement for a National Convention with the government in 1998. It intended for a National Convention to be a venue for popular participation and collective effort to restructure the country and its institutions for greater social justice. [88] Development of the National Convention was halted by the death of ELN leader Manuel Perez;.its development started again in 2000 in the hopes of creating an inclusive democratic arena to find a national consensus on the issues facing Colombia. [89] The ELN hoped the National Convention would take place in Venezuela and address human rights, economic policy, drug trafficking, political participation, natural resources, and the armed forces. [90]

 When the National Convention failed, the ELN recognized and supported the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), a joint political party of the Independent Democratic Pole and the Democratic Alternative established in 2005, in opposition to the right wing Colombian government. Three years after the PDA was established, internal conflict and polarity negatively affected the party’s growth. The party is not a viable opposition to the current administration. [91]

 In a communiqué released by the ELN’s Central Command in 2006, the ELN proposed a Special Truth Commission, a government coalition to which paramilitaries could record and report crimes in the country such as drug trafficking. [92]

 In the failed 2008 peace negotiations, the ELN's goal was transformation into a political party. [93] In the 2015 peace negotiations, the group aims to cooperate with the Colombian government and the government’s conditions, including ending the 50 year conflict and disarming. [94]

Major Attacks

  1. January 7, 1965: The ELN seized Simacota, a small town in Santander. Following the attack, founder Fabio Vasquéz Castaño along with Victor Medina Moron read the ELN’s proclamation and announced their existence as a group. (unknown killed, unknown wounded).[95]
  2. October 1998: The ELN’s Jose Antonio Galan Front blew up a pipeline in the Department of Antioquia. (84 killed, 30 wounded).[96]
  3. April 1999: The ELN hijacked an Avianca flight and forced it to land in a remote area of Colombia. The ELN then took all 43 passengers and crew hostage. Some were released immediately upon landing, but 35 persons were held hostage for over one year. (0 killed, unknown wounded).[97]
  4. May 1999: The ELN kidnapped 143-186 persons from a church. Eighty-four were released soon after, and five shortly after that. By September 10, 1999, the ELN had released all remaining hostages. This was, at the time, and remains, the largest kidnapping incident in Colombian history. (0 killed, unknown wounded).[98]
  5. October 2009: Three armed ELN members attacked the Arauca prison and freed leader Carlos Marin Guarin, “Pablito.” (1 killed, 1 wounded).[99]
  6. June 15, 2011: An ELN member drove a car filled with explosives into Popayan in the province of Cauca. The bomb exploded before police could clear the surrounding area. (1 killed, 16 wounded).[100]
  7. June 15, 2011: An ELN member drove a car filled with explosives into Popayan in the province of Cauca. The bomb exploded before police could clear the surrounding area. (1 killed, 16 wounded).[101]
  8. 2013: In the Summer of 2013, the ELN kidnapped a Canadian mining official, Gernot Wober, and held him for ransom. The ELN then released Wober to the Colombian government in exchange for entering preliminary peace negotiations. (0 killed, 0 wounded).[102]
  9. January 2014: The ELN blew up four crude oil holding pools in North Santander. The fires created by the explosion forced residents to flee their homes. (unknown killed, unknown wounded).[103]
  10. June 2014: In June and July of 2014, the ELN successfully attacked 10 different energy infrastructures, including wells, pipelines and mines in Colombia. In addition to this being part of the ELN’s war on oil companies, these attacks were speculated to be an effort by the ELN to gain the Colombian government’s attention and a role in ongoing peace negotiations. (unknown killed, unknown wounded).[104]
  11. December 2014: The ELN kidnapped a Colombian mayor, Fredy Palacios, while he and 16 others were on a boat. The ELN claimed that the mayor was “stealing money from the municipal budget” and would be released following an organized corruption trial. Palacios was released in March 2015. (0 killed, unknown wounded).[105]
  12. July 3, 2015: The ELN set off two explosions in Bogota, one in the financial district and one in the industrial area. (unknown killed, 8+ wounded).[106]

Relationships with Other Groups

The ELN has had mixed relationships with several groups. The ELN has been both rivals and allies with M-19 (The April 19 Movement), the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and the EPL (The People’s Liberation Army). The ELN is under the umbrella organization Simon Bolivar Guerrilla Coordinating Board (CGSB), which originally included the M-19, the EPL, the ELN, and the FARC. [107] The CGSB was an ELN initiative, created in 1987, following the ELN’s refusal to join peace talks of 1984. [108] By 1991, the FARC and the ELN were the last remaining members of the CGSB since all of the other groups had demobilized and signed peace agreements with the Colombian government.

 Since 2008, the ELN has frequently cooperated with the FARC. In May 2008, the ELN sent a letter to the FARC’s Secretariat, the group’s seven highest leaders, expressing its interest in cooperating. The ELN’s decision to reach out to the FARC was prompted by the ELN’s choice to continue fighting amidst a hiatus in the 2008 peace talks. The ELN was motivated to partner with the FARC because it believes they have common enemies: the state and paramilitaries. [109] When the 2012 peace talks began and excluded the ELN, the FARC’s chief commander, Timochenko, released a statement on the FARC’s website in May 2015 calling for the ELN to be brought into the negotiations. Timonchenko said it was “necessary and urgent for the government and for the Colombian people.” [110]    

Community Relationships

In the 1990s and the early 2000s, the ELN stressed the value of community involvement. The first set of negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government started in 1991, and in 1998, the ELN pushed for a National Convention, a venue for popular participation to tackle social issues. The ELN met with members of civil society to sign an agreement focusing on humanitarian issues. [111]

 While the ELN was pushing for civil involvement, Colombians protested against the persistent violence in their country caused by guerrilla groups, including the ELN. In 1999, over 13 million Colombians marched in the No Más protests in 15 cities calling for peace and demanding a cease-fire between rebel groups and the Colombian government, an illustration of the Colombian people’s dissatisfaction with guerrilla violence. [112]

 Support for President Álvaro Uribe throughout his presidency, from 2002-2010, was an additional indication of Colombia’s negative sentiments about guerrilla activity in the country. Uribe’s crackdown on leftist guerrillas in Colombia increased his approval rating to 82%, symbolizing the Colombian public’s disapproval of guerrilla activity, including the ELN. [113]    


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