The National Liberation Army (ELN) carried out its first public action on January 7, 1965, when a small municipality in the department of Santander called Simacota was taken over by a small group of guerrillas who proclaimed their revolutionary ideology inspired by the Cuban revolution.
Some of them were part of the small contingent of Colombians who had lived the revolutionary experience in Cuba and from where they exported the idea that a guerrilla hotbed opportunistically conceived as a seed of insurrection could precipitate the very idea of revolution.
Thus, it was conceived that the corridor that included the city of Barrancabermeja and the municipality of San Vicente del Chucurí offered the ideal conditions for the formation of a guerrilla: presence of foreign capital, extractive essence due to the location of the industry oil, trade unionism and the university movement. these were items that were present in their original support bases.
However, the ideological impression of greater substance will develop with the arrival of the guerrillas, albeit for a very short time, given its tragic outcome, by the sociologist and Father Camilo Torres, at the end of 1965. He would be the defender of the overlap of Marxist postulates that the guerrillas raised with liberation theology, which would be so important for the development of their ideological body, especially throughout the 1970s.
Since its creation, the ELN has experienced major difficulties, a product of its operational weaknesses, of disenchantment with the authoritarian leadership of its main leader, Fabio Vásquez Castaño, and because the guerrillas are on the verge of disappearance, when in 1973 an operation took place. of the municipality of Anorí, leaving behind the loss of two thirds of its structure. For this reason, the guerrillas positioned themselves in peripheral enclaves, far from the pressure of the State, among which the departments of Arauca or Norte de Santander stand out.
Thus, in 1980, one of the main armed fronts of the ELN was created: “Domingo Laín”. Spearhead of the so-called Eastern War Front, it has experienced remarkable operational growth, both in men and resources, thanks to the discovery of oil in the region, around the Caño Limón – Coveñas pipeline. . A critical infrastructure that feeds the guerrillas with income, due to the activism on extractive capital present in the region.
So much so that since then the ELN has been the predominant actor, along with the FARC-EP, not only in Arauca, but in other departments such as Norte de Santander mentioned above. There, not only did the two guerrillas clash during the 1990s, but they also had to deal with the paramilitary project which took place from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s.
In addition to other scenarios with a traditional ELN presence, such as the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Chocó, Cauca or Nariño, in eastern Colombia, and in particular Arauca and Norte de Santander, it has become a real stronghold for the guerrillas.
Not only is there today’s most powerful ELN structure, but also one of the guerrilla’s most belligerent positions is before you: its commander Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, aka Pablito.
It is one of the voices that have drifted furthest from the negotiation attempts of the past decade. When it came to generating mechanisms of mutual trust and some nods that demonstrated the guerrilla’s willingness to negotiate, the Eastern War Front was doing its part. In other words, it turned out to be the most active and operational structure in terms of combat, armed actions and kidnappings.
This situation, in fact, showed only three elements which make impossible any possible peace negotiation. First, the functioning of the ELN, in addition to central authorities and hierarchies of command, operates in a decentralized manner, based on local interests and power relations. Second, the ELN has never been clear on its position or the scenario with which it has approached a space of dialogue such as that actually led by the FARC-EP.
Third, that there is a generational gap between a former political command located in Cuba today, and a new generation of leaders, younger and more belligerent, whose action on the “ground” is far from the perspective of the command. classic guerrilla warfare.
Today’s ELN has little to do with the ideological purity that once characterized it. Its higher level of violence, its proximity to the coca growing and gold mining industry, and its criminal background make it difficult to be seen as a politically motivated armed group that aspires to political transformation.
For years, its activism has been gaining ground, its areas of influence have grown considerably and the number of soldiers has increased from 1,800 in 2010 to more than 3,000 today, establishing itself as a hegemonic actor in certain contexts where FARC-EP have demobilized.
In addition, today – and for a long time – there is full evidence of the existence of ELN camps on the border with Venezuela. This indirectly means that the Chavista government has an ally in states like Táchira or Apure, which have a strong opposition component.
As a parastatal actor, eastern Colombia offers the ELN immeasurable benefits of extortion, smuggling and drug trafficking, which consolidates it as a guarantor of criminal activity in this area. scenario. There is even evidence that there are almost formal plots between the ELN and the Bolivarian National Guard or the national intelligence system.
Regardless of how true this is, it can be assumed that the guerrillas and the government may have a mutual benefit agenda that they should, at least rationally, try to maintain. This is true even in a hostile context in which there are other minor criminal groups and in which other structures such as the Farc-EP dissidence led by prominent guerrilla leaders “Iván Márquez” and “Jesús Santrich” , as well as tensions with the Venezuelan National Guard – remember that at the end of 2018, during a clash with the ELN, he had four victims to his credit.
In conclusion, the ELN is currently in a comfortable situation of territorial and operational readjustment and, in this regard, Venezuela constitutes an invaluable scenario. This, given the strategic advantages of withdrawing and obtaining resources it provides the guerrillas, which in turn discourages any negotiating structure.
In this way, and even if the Venezuelan government does not recognize the ELN as its ally, it finds potential support there, above all, and also, given its disagreements with the Colombian government of Iván Duque.
An executive which, it must be said, does not comply, delays and torpedo as much as possible the peace agreement with the FARC-EP and, on the other hand, is also worthy of a policy of confrontation in which it does not There is only one loser, which is usual: the civilian population.
Translation by Maria Isabel Santos Lima
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