ELN rebel group makes a comeback in Colombia
Colombia's ELN rebel group, often forgotten, is on the rise thanks to a belated involvement in the drug trade and alliances with both the FARC and new narco-paramilitary groups.
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On June 15, police in Popayan, the capital of the violence-struck province of Cauca, stopped a Mazda 323 at a routine checkpoint and found the car was filled with explosives, El Colombiano newspaper reported. The driver admitted he was part of the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN), but the police were unable to adequately clear the area around the car bomb. It exploded, killing one person and injuring another 16. Authorities stated that the bomb’s target was the center of Popayan. Eight days later, in the Norte de Santander province along the Venezuelan border, ELN rebels clashed with the army, leaving three soldiers and four guerrillas dead.
In the early 1990s, the ELN reached its apex with a force close to 8,000 rebel soldiers and at least three times as many logistical and political supporters. After a steep and rapid decline in the late 1990s, the ELN became largely irrelevant. 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.
IN PICTURES: Colombia's FARC rebels
Admiral Edgar Cely, the commander-in-chief of the Colombian Armed Forces, has put ELN numbers at 2,000, up from 1,500 in 2006. He said that the Popayan car bomb was retaliation for the eradication of drug crops in their area of operations in Cauca. While it is unclear how detonating a car bomb in an urban area would affect drug eradication efforts, it is clear that the ELN are deeply involved in the drug trade in the southern states of Cauca and neighboring Nariño.
The ELN, thanks in part to leadership from former Catholic priests, had historically shunned drug trafficking money as anti-revolutionary. But in the last decade that resistance has been eroded, and now rebel units in the states of Antioquia, Arauca, south of Bolivar, Cauca, Choco, Nariño and Norte de Santander have become involved, in one way or another, in the drug trade. This has allowed the group, which has traditionally relied on extortion and kidnapping as sources of finance, to increase its revenue streams.
Another reason that the ELN has been able to strengthen itself is that the fratricidal war with rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) appears to be over. This began at the end of 2005, although there had been occasional clashes beforehand. Fighting was bitterest in the states of Cauca and Arauca, along the Venezuelan border.
In December 2009, the ELN’s Central Command (known as the COCE) and the FARC’s seven-man ruling body, known as the Secretariat, announced an alliance and ceasefire across the country. This took immediate effect and held everywhere except Arauca where fighting between the two groups continued until September 2010, when the COCE and Secretariat were able to finally impose discipline on their units in this strategic frontier department.
This ceasefire between the two rebel groups is moving towards an alliance in some parts of the country, and has freed them up to redirect resources previously dedicated to fighting each other toward fighting the security forces, as is evident in the increased frequency of fighting between the government and both these groups in 2010 and 2011.