Like the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group traces its origins back to 1964. A small group of Marxists inspired by the Cuban revolution founded it on July 4 of that year in La Fortuna, San Vicente de Chucurí municipality, in Colombia’s northeastern department of Santander. The ELN carried out its first armed action in January 1965, in the neighboring municipality of Simacota.
Unlike the FARC, whose leadership started out peasant-based and close to Colombia’s Soviet-aligned Communist Party, the ELN was founded chiefly by radical students who had trained in post-revolutionary Cuba. The Castro government had brought 18 Colombian students to study there in 1963, where they received military training as the “José Antonio Galán Pro-Liberation Brigade.” That unit’s leader, Fabio Vásquez Castaño, directed the ELN’s formal founding a year later. Vásquez and the ELN’s other founders chose rural Santander department as their starting place in emulation of the Castro rebellion’s strategy in Cuba. This meant starting a small presence, or “foco,” in an ungoverned area (an analogue to Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains), then expanding militarily and politically until strong enough to topple the government.
The ELN appeared to have early momentum. Camilo Torres, a charismatic leftist priest whose sermons and speeches made him a celebrity in Colombia, joined the group in 1965. In the first of many military setbacks, though, Torres was killed in February 1966, in combat with Colombia’s Army in San Vicente de Chucurí.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, it became evident that the ELN was not going to take power quickly like the Castro brothers did in Cuba. The guerrillas made little military progress, and their ideologically rigid maximum leader, Vásquez, carried out internal purges that led to the execution of many fighters. During this period, the ELN became increasingly influenced by liberation theology, the leftist Catholic doctrine espoused by Camilo Torres. In 1969, three priests from Spain joined the ELN and rose to the upper ranks: Manuel Pérez Martínez, José Antonio Jiménez, and Domingo Laín.
In 1973, a military offensive, “Operation Anorí,” dealt a crushing defeat to the ELN, killing much of the group’s top leadership. Fabio Vásquez, fearing retribution from surviving guerrillas, fled to Cuba, where he quietly spent the rest of his life—he died in Havana in December 2019. One of the Spanish priests, Manuel Pérez, went on to be the ELN’s paramount leader until his death in 1998. Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” came to be the group’s top military leader. Rodríguez, a native of San Vicente de Chucurí who joined in 1965, at age 14, continues to be the ELN’s nominal leader today.
The 20 years between the Anorí defeat and the mid-1990s were a period of slow growth for the ELN. Its surviving remnants established important presences in marginal parts of the country: the east of Antioquia department and south of Bolívar department near the Magdalena River; parts of highland Cauca and Nariño in the southwest; the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department near the Venezuela border; and, further south and east along that border, the department of Arauca. In all of these regions, rather than expanding geographically, the ELN put down deep roots, focusing on political organization.
The early-1980s discovery of oil in Arauca changed the ELN’s trajectory. It received millions of dollars by extorting oil exploration and related services, especially the construction of the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline leading from Arauca, through Catatumbo and the Magdalena Medio region, to the Caribbean coast. Strong demands for nationalization of, and redistribution of wealth from, extractive industries became a central tenet of the ELN’s ideology, alongside solidarity with Cuba and liberation theology. Its position on extractive industries brought some affinity between the ELN and radical oil workers’ unions, especially around the oil-refining city of Barrancabermeja, Santander, in the Magdalena Medio region not far from southern Bolívar and the site of the ELN’s founding.
During this period, as discussed below, the ELN drew much of its income from collecting extortion payments in the regions where its influence was strongest. The ELN of this era generally avoided drug trafficking, which it viewed as a symptom of capitalist excess. In some areas, like southern Bolívar, it became involved in illicit precious-metals mining. While the M-19 guerrilla group (which demobilized in 1990) pioneered the practice of raising funds by kidnapping civilians for ransom, the ELN was quick to adopt it as well.
In 1994, a moderate ELN faction active in the Caribbean, the Socialist Renovation Current (CRS), negotiated its demobilization with the Colombian government. CRS leader León Valencia is now a much cited columnist and analyst, and director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think tank.
The mid-1990s to the mid-2000s were a time of setbacks for the ELN. The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group carried out intensely brutal offensives in areas of ELN influence, deliberately targeting civilian populations believed to be the guerillas’ “social base” with massacres and forced displacement in southern Bolívar, Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio, Valle del Cauca, and Catatumbo. Except for Catatumbo, the ELN presence never fully recovered in those regions.
Manuel Pérez, the priest-leader, died of hepatitis in 1998 in rural Santander. Leadership passed to Nicolás Rodríguez alias Gabino. That year, the ELN earned widespread condemnation for a pipeline bombing in Segovia municipality, Antioquia that ended up destroying the entire village of Machuca, killing between 70 and 80 people, including many children. In 2000 and 2001, paramilitary resistance to a troop pullout from a zone in the Magdalena Medio region prevented the start of peace talks that the ELN and government had agreed to hold in that zone. In 1999 and 2000, the ELN carried out some spectacular mass kidnappings in and around Cali; local elites responded by inviting the AUC paramilitaries to form a violent new unit, the Bloque Calima, in that part of the country. In 2002 and 2005-6, the government of Álvaro Uribe carried out the “Orion” and “Libertad II” military offensives that expelled ELN militias from Medellín’s marginal neighborhoods (with help from paramilitary groups) and then from much of eastern Antioquia Department.
In the mid-2000s, a much-reduced ELN saw its dominion of Arauca challenged by the FARC. Between about 2006 and 2010, the two guerrilla groups fought a war whose true death toll is unknown, though conservative estimates begin at around 1,100.
Today, the ELN appears to be more oriented toward entrenching itself and “resisting” in a few regions, rather than expanding territory or taking over the state—a goal that the group itself appears to realize is out of reach. According to Luis Eduardo Celis, one of Colombia’s principal experts on the ELN, in mid-2006 the top leadership, recognizing their military weakness, concluded that a government takeover wasn’t viable and redefined the ELN as “a project of armed resistance.” This meant putting more emphasis on political activity. That said, after the FARC’s 2017 demobilization the ELN did come to occupy a few areas that the FARC left behind, especially near the Venezuelan border, and is widely alleged to have increased recruiting and dramatically expanded its presence inside Venezuela.
Since March 2018, the ELN and a small, regional guerrilla remnant deeply involved in narcotrafficking, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), have fought an on-again, off-again series of battles in the Catatumbo region. The two groups had coexisted in that zone for decades, but the push to occupy former FARC territories, and leadership changes following the military’s killing of the EPL’s longtime leader, caused that truce to fall apart. As of 2020, the ELN appears to have “won,” with the EPL regarded as weaker and combat between the two groups becoming less frequent.
ELN units also contest territorial dominance with neo-paramilitary organized crime groups like the Gulf Clan, or with FARC dissident groups, in Chocó, eastern Antioquia, Cauca, and occasionally Nariño. In Arauca, the ELN appears to be observing a non-aggression pact with a rapidly growing FARC dissident presence.
Overall, the Bogotá-based think tank CERAC, which maintains a database of political violence, has detected a decrease in ELN attacks since the November 2016 signing of the FARC peace accord. The Ideas for Peace Foundation database finds a similar downward trend.
Luis Eduardo Celis told Medellín’s El Colombiano in January 2020 that, though the ELN was militarily stronger in the 1990s, it is stronger today in terms of territorial presence, visibility in new zones, number of combatants, and military initiative.
On March 28, 2020 the ELN declared a unilateral ceasefire for the month of April, in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Structure and Geographical Presence
Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think tank, citing “the most recent estimate from the security forces,” reports that the ELN had 4,000 members in 2018, a growth of about 1,000 since 2017. The Foundation adds, “since this guerrilla group isn’t exclusively military, it is estimated that it could have between 4,000 and 5,000 militia members”—part-time guerrillas or civilian members of support networks. The practice of estimating the ELN’s size is inexact; the Ideas for Peace Foundation acknowledged in January 2020 that “recent [military] intelligence estimates are closer to 2,500 members.” For its part, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation estimated in August 2019 that “the ELN today counts with a bit more than 3,000 combatants.” At its height around the year 2000, the ELN was estimated to have 4,500, a number that dropped by half over the ensuing decade.
A five-member Central Command, or COCE, directs the ELN activities. Most of its membership has been on the COCE for decades. They are:
- Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias Gabino, the commander in chief.
- Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” a political leader and the chief negotiator during the last, unsuccessful round of peace talks with the government.
- Rafael Sierra Granados, alias “Ramiro Vargas,” who coordinates ELN international relations.
- Eliécer Chamorro Acosta, alias “Antonio García”; a military leader considered a hardline ideologue.
- Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” who entered the COCE in 2015, commands the ELN’s largest “war front,” and serves as a liaison between the COCE and other war fronts. Pablito may today be the most powerful of all ELN leaders.
At least two COCE members—Gabino and Pablo Beltrán—are currently in Cuba, as a result of a peace process, discussed below, that broke down in early 2019.
The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation documents ELN presence in 136 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). These are clustered in six regions of the country: Arauca, Catatumbo, Magdalena Medio, Chocó, Cauca, and Nariño.
Each of these regions has a “war front” coordinating guerrilla activities. These units tend to operate with broad autonomy and little coordination.
- The ELN’s Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental, or FGO) operates in and around Arauca, including a large presence on the Venezuelan side of the border. It is the largest of the ELN’s fronts, by some accounts making up more than half of all of the group’s fighters. The FGO includes the powerful Domingo Laín Front, founded in Arauca in 1979, and the “Heroes and Martyrs” front, considered expert in explosives. The FGO’s commander is Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias Pablito, the youngest and newest member of the ELN’s Central Command.
- The Northeastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Nororiental) operates in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department, parts of Cesar department, and on the Venezuelan side of the border.
- The Western War Front (Frente de Guerra Occidental) operates in and around Chocó department. It is the most recently created ELN front, founded sometime after 2000. Its commander, alias “Fabián,” is believed to be close to Pablito of the FGO.
- The Southwestern War Front (Frente de Guerra Suroccidental), commanded by alias “Cucho” or “Antonio,” operates in parts of Cauca and Nariño.
- The Darío Ramírez Castro War Front operates in and around the Magdalena Medio region, a zone of ELN influence since shortly after its founding. It is believed to be the weakest of the ELN’s regional fronts.
- The Urban War Front (Frente de Guerra Urbano) operates in cities, but appears to be only semi-active.
Today, much of the ELN’s Eastern and Northeastern War Fronts are believed to be operating inside Venezuela. In late 2019, the commander of Colombia’s armed forces, Gen. Luis Fernando Navarro, estimated that the ELN has about 2,400 armed members (a low number that we assume excludes militias and support networks), and that 1,100 of them are in Venezuela. This includes members of the ELN’s top leadership like Pablito and probably Antonio García.
“Everything in Venezuela’s Alto Apure region is controlled by the Domingo Laín [Front, part of the FGO], part of Zulia too,” an unnamed social leader told El Espectador in September 2019. The organized crime research organization InsightCrime finds at least some ELN presence in at least 12 of Venezuela’s 24 states (Táchira, Zulia, Apure, Trujillo, Anzoátegui, Lara, Falcón, Amazonas, Barinas, Portuguesa, Guárico, and Bolívar), particularly the so-called “mining arc” in the country’s south. The Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes alleges that the ELN is carrying out political indoctrination and recruitment in some of the country’s schools, and operates radio stations with Venezuelan government permission.
Assessments of the ELN’s relationship with the Venezuelan government vary. “The ELN believes it will be the insurgency against an invasion of Venezuela, and it’s preparing for all-out war against Duque,” a Bogotá-based security expert with deep knowledge of the conflict told WOLA in 2019. While there is much affinity with the ELN, this expert speculated that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro may prefer to work with FARC dissidents, as the Chavista government likely has a longer relationship with historic FARC leaders, and because the ELN gained much of its territorial dominion near the Colombian border, during the 2000s, by attacking and killing Venezuelan security forces.
How the ELN Operates
The ELN operates quite differently from the FARC, which was rigidly hierarchical and kept most of its fighters far from population centers, usually in jungle bases and very remote villages. The ELN is much more loosely confederated, its units have a great deal of autonomy, and the group can take a long time to reach consensus on policies and strategies. It maintains more contact with populations, depending heavily on part-time members and militias. All of this makes the ELN both harder to negotiate with, and harder to confront militarily.
Rather than expand quickly across national territory, the ELN has grown deep roots in a few regions, intertwining with local government and civic organizations in areas were people tend to resent a government that has been absent or neglectful. In those regions, the Ideas for Peace Foundation observes,
The ELN operates with structures that have low visibility, but high capacity to destabilize. These factions are relevant to carry out intelligence and political work, they are immersed in the communities and specialize in different roles. Their flexibility and ability to adapt to changes allow them to respond to offensives by the government and other illegal armed groups.
The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation contended in August 2019 that the ELN has moved further in this direction during the government of Iván Duque, which has achieved “practically null results” against the group:
The explanation is an operational change. For example, the use of encampments isn’t so common now, they don’t wear uniforms, and they move in small groups without long weapons.
…ELN combatants put into practice the idea of a combatant-militant: “militant by day and combatant by night.” This puts the civilian population at risk, because in effect the ELN seeks to camouflage itself among the campesinos.
The guerrillas try to avoid open confrontations, as they are clear about the security forces’ military superiority. Instead, they emphasize short but high-impact blows (snipers, medium and high-capacity explosive devices, ambushes).
…While the FARC carried out approximately 2,300 armed actions each year, the ELN has reached a maximum of 400 actions. A large part of these have been sabotages of oil or security-force infrastructure, a few attacks and, to a lesser extent, combats or ambushes that show low capacity to destabilize the state.
Though ELN members do maintain military encampments and concentrations of forces in rural and wilderness areas, much of its membership is mixed in with the population and not readily identifiable as belonging to the group. This is a key reason why photos of armed, uniformed ELN members nearly always depict them wearing masks to hide their identities.
The ELN’s roots in its regions of influence extend to politics. Alfredo Guzmán, a former mayor of Tame municipality in Arauca, told El Tiempo in 2019, “It’s no secret here that anyone who wants to be a political candidate has to go talk to them [the ELN] to ask permission. And they’ll give it, but in exchange for concrete commitments, above all about [diverting proceeds from] contracting.” Adds the think tank CINEP, “Currently, and above all in the municipalities of the Alto Catatumbo, it’s still considered a requisite to have the ELN’s approval before launching an electoral campaign.”
This dynamic is not the same in Chocó, where the more recently arrived ELN has shallower roots and more antagonistic relationships with ethnic communities and social organizations. Historically, like the FARC, ELN guerrillas have not respected the autonomy of ethnic leaders or their identity and culture. The group is responsible for many threats and killings of Chocó social leaders, including Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders.
The ELN lacks the strict hierarchy and strong command and control that characterized the FARC, which tolerated little questioning of orders from the top. By contrast, analysts have called the ELN a sort of “armed NGO” because command and control is so loose. It makes political and some strategic decisions according to a consensus model, in which one leader’s disagreement can bring paralysis; this complicates negotiations that require such decision-making. ELN military units have loose directives more than specific orders; at times, top leaders don’t appear to have advance knowledge of bold military actions taken by its components. “Although the ELN has a Central Command and a national directorship,” CINEP observes, “these have never managed to integrate or fully homogenize each of its armed structures. This also explains the centrifugal forces within this guerrilla group and its collective action problems.”
In the territories where it has greatest influence or control, the ELN has relied heavily on extortion, demanding payments from nearly all economic actors. Often, these actors are companies engaged in oil or other extractive industries. The ELN has also maintained a robust income stream by skimming from local government revenues, including those that come from oil production.
This has led to a complicated dynamic around the group’s frequent bombings of oil pipeline infrastructure, especially in Arauca. ELN members will attack the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, causing serious environmental damage, to pressure for continued extortion payments and to create income for local repair workers. They rarely attack the pipeline so severely that it cuts off the flow of oil completely, which would affect the group’s own revenues.
The ELN added ransom kidnappings to its income streams during the late 1970s or early 1980s. Between 1980 and 1989, according to Colombia’s Center for Historical Memory, the M-19 guerrillas kidnapped the most people (672), followed by the ELN with 574 and the FARC with 489. This practice accelerated vertiginously: citing government data, the International Crisis Group reported that between 1996 and 2001 alone, the ELN carried out 3,931 kidnappings that generated about US$11 million in ransom payments.
The ELN’s involvement in illicit precious-metals mining goes back to its early dominance of the gold-producing Serranía de San Lucas region of southern Bolívar department. In the years since the 2008 financial crisis brought an increase in global precious-metals prices, the ELN has expanded this environmentally devastating income stream, becoming deeply involved in illicit mining operations in Chocó and elsewhere in the Pacific region, and especially in Venezuela’s Arco Minero region.
The ELN was a late entrant in the drug trade, having resisted involvement in drug trafficking on ideological grounds. During its 2nd Congress in 1989, it prohibited its members’ involvement in the illicit business. However, the Ideas for Peace Foundation notes, “Since 2005, some fronts’ relationships with the illicit drug production and export business became increasingly evident. In 2006, the ELN’s absolute prohibition posture with respect to narcotrafficking changed, as its 4th Congress approved collection of taxes” from coca and cocaine producers.
Some units, like Pablito’s Eastern War Front in Arauca, continue to prohibit coca cultivation (perhaps mainly as a way to keep FARC dissidents weak in that region), though they may be charging traffickers seeking to move their product into Venezuela. Elsewhere, like in the Pacific and Catatumbo, ELN units are major participants in coca and cocaine production and transshipment.
The ELN’s Human Rights Record
In 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports, “The National Liberation Army (ELN) operated mainly in Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, Norte de Santander and Nariño, persistently breaching international humanitarian law.” This is not new: the ELN has a long record of committing war crimes and vicious attacks on non-combatants.
This includes thousands of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, and dozens of massacres: the killing of three or more non-combatants at a time. Paramilitary groups committed far more massacres than guerrillas, according to Colombia’s Center for Historical Memory: about 70 percent of the 1,667 massacres for which the Center was able to attribute responsibility between 1980 and 2012. Guerrilla groups, though, bear much responsibility, carrying out 343 of these massacres, or 21 percent. Of these, the ELN committed about 20 percent, or perhaps 70 massacres.
As noted above, the ELN participated heavily in ransom kidnappings of civilian non-combatants. The Center for Historical Memory estimated in 2013 that the ELN had kidnapped 7,108 people over the course of the conflict, second only to the FARC with 8,578 kidnappings.
The ELN has been a major recruiter of minors. Of 5,156 former child combatants who ended up in Colombia’s child and family welfare system between 1999 and 2013, the Center for Historical Memory reported that 766, or 15 percent, were recruited into the ELN. The ELN’s share has only increased since then. The Observatory for Protection of Child Rights and Welfare (OPROB), a confederation of human rights groups, counted 311 cases of child recruitment in five departments of Colombia between 2017 and 2019. Of these, the ELN accounted for 182, the majority.
The Center for Historical Memory found that “the ELN is the armed group that has most implemented” the laying of landmines in the armed conflict, “to compensate for its military incapacity and as a form of territorial control.”
The ELN is a major perpetrator of attacks on civilian infrastructure. This includes the pipeline bombings mentioned above, including the 1998 Machuca attack that killed 70-80 people. The ELN carried out a wave of attacks on electricity pylons that left regions frequently in the dark during the early 2000s; such bombings continue, including a February 2020 incident on the outskirts of Medellín.
The ELN was historically not a principal group responsible for displacement of communities, due to its slow territorial expansion. Today, however, it is a major generator of displacement. Citing data from the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Ideas for Peace Foundation found a 132 percent increase in forced displacement events caused by the ELN in 2018 compared to 2017. ELN elements are causing displacement or confinement of Afro-descendant and indigenous territories around Chocó, and in the Barí indigenous territories of northern Catatumbo.
The ELN bears some responsibility for today’s increasing attacks on social leaders, human rights defenders, and demobilized FARC members. Of the 177 cases of killings of social leaders that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office claimed to have “clarified” as of August 2019, it attributed 14—or 8 percent—to the ELN. As of January 2020, The Prosecutor-General’s Special Investigative Unit was able to attribute responsibility for 93 murders of demobilized FARC members. Of these, the Unit blamed the ELN for 12.
At least once per year, the ELN calls “paros armados,” or armed stoppages, in which the group threatens all who seek to travel by road. This tactic tends to stop all transport in regions of strong ELN influence, though it has little impact elsewhere. The last armed stoppage took place on February 14-17, 2020.
The ELN has declared itself open to peace talks with the Colombian government, and has been involved in several dialogues. None of these has advanced on an agenda, even when one has been agreed. The group usually sets strong preconditions for beginning talks or entering into cessations of hostilities. It conceives of peace negotiations as a broad process involving civil society in a fundamental set of reforms to remake Colombia’s political and economic model. Colombia’s government is unwilling to entertain such a sweeping agenda, particularly with a group that is militarily incapable of taking power.
During the 1980s, when Presidents Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) and Virgilio Barco (1986-1990) launched negotiations with the FARC, the M-19, and other guerrilla groups, the ELN refused to take part.
In the early 1990s, the ELN participated alongside the FARC, in an association called the “Simon Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Board,” in negotiations with the government of President César Gaviria (1990-1994) in Caracas, Venezuela and Tlaxcala, Mexico. Both attempts failed.
Late in his administration (1994-1998), representatives of President Ernesto Samper signed a “pre-accord” with the ELN in Spain, to develop a negotiating agenda through a “National Convention” with civil society—a longtime ELN demand. By then, though, Samper’s term was nearly over.
In July 1998, shortly before Andrés Pastrana assumed the presidency (1998-2002), ELN leaders met with a broad range of Colombian civil society and business leaders in Mainz, Germany, committing them to ceasing pipeline bombings and kidnappings of minors and the elderly in exchange for hosting the National Convention. This accord was not fulfilled.
In 1998, Pastrana launched peace negotiations with the FARC, agreeing to hold the talks in five municipalities of strong FARC influence, from which he pulled out all security forces. The ELN demanded a similar pullout from three municipalities in the Magdalena Medio region. While Pastrana agreed to that, the ELN was not the only armed group present in those municipalities: the AUC paramilitary group had made strong inroads. Strong opposition from community members in 2000 and 2001, much of it likely coordinated with the AUC, prevented the troop pullout, and talks with the Pastrana government barely began and ended in 2002.
The ELN maintained conversations with the government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), including dialogues in Cuba. These ultimately failed as the ELN refused to accede to Uribe’s demand that the guerrillas cease fire and concentrate their forces in specific areas as a pre-condition for talks.
Even as it negotiated peace with the FARC, the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) got farther in talks with the ELN than any of its predecessors, though in the end this turned out not to be very far. Conversations begin in 2012 in Caracas, and the process was made public in 2014, shortly before the second-round vote that re-elected Santos to a second term. The two sides agreed to a vaguely worded agenda for negotiations, and a framework with an international group of guarantor and accompanying governments. Talks proceeded in Ecuador until the early 2018 killing of three Ecuadorian journalists by a FARC dissident group in Nariño; they moved to Cuba. For 100 days in late 2017, as the demobilized FARC began to reintegrate into society, the ELN declared a unilateral cessation of hostilities, a period that residents of territories like Arauca and Catatumbo recall for its unprecedented tranquility. In July 2018, maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez alias Gabino traveled to Cuba for medical attention, and was added hastily to the guerrilla negotiating team led by Pablo Beltrán.
The Santos government left office in August 2018, succeeded by that of Iván Duque (2018-present), which has been more skeptical about negotiations with guerrillas. Duque demanded that the ELN cease kidnappings and release all of its captives as a pre-condition for re-starting talks in Cuba.
The Cuba talks were suspended, but not broken off, on January 17, 2019, when the ELN—in a plot hatched by fighters under the command of Pablito—set off a car bomb at the National Police Cadet School in Bogotá, killing 22 people including the perpetrator. President Duque canceled the peace talks and demanded that Cuba hand over the ELN negotiating team, including Gabino, for prosecution. However, the protocols for the peace talks, signed by the Santos government along with international accompanying governments, foresaw ELN negotiators’ safe re-entry into Colombia, perhaps via Venezuela, in the event of a breakdown in talks. Respecting those protocols, Cuba has not extradited the ELN negotiators despite a formal Colombian government request. The ELN team, including Gabino and Pablo Beltran, remains in Cuba.
Within the ELN leadership, there has been no consensus in favor of pursuing peace negotiations with the government. While Pablo Beltran and Gabino, the leaders stuck in Havana, tend to be in favor, military commanders whose units have gained power, like Pablito in Arauca and “Uriel” in Chocó, have kept their distance and carried out aggressive actions that undermined the negotiators. Among COCE members skeptical about talks, according to the Ideas for Peace Foundation and the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, is Antonio García, the longtime leader who was, in fact, the guerrillas’ chief negotiator during the first phase of talks with the Santos government. “Though it was he who signed the negotiations’ agenda,” notes PARES, García “represents the wing that is most warlike and least inclined toward dialogue, without regard to political calculation.”
To restart talks, the government insists that the ELN stop kidnapping, turn over all kidnap victims (or account for those who have died in captivity), and cease other “criminal actions” like laying landmines and recruiting minors. The ELN has set some strict conditions for suspending attacks on infrastructure, like the withdrawal of extractive industries from environmentally sensitive areas, the return of oil royalties to oil-producing regions, the nationalization of natural resources, a 50 percent cut in fuel prices, and a ban on fracking.
In January 2020, León Valencia of PARES struck an optimistic note about the possibility of new peace efforts. “There’s been a turn in the last two months. The government is opening a sort of little window to seek a negotiation. Those the ELN are also increasing their negotiation discourse, but neither side has much incentive.” Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, has said that some factions of the ELN have separately communicated a desire to negotiate. If accurate, these communications have not yet had public outcomes.
Current and former ELN members who were captured and spent time in prison have served a key intermediary role between the government and ELN. The most prominent of these gestores de paz (peace agents) have been Gerardo Antonio Bermúdez alias “Francisco Galán,” Carlos Velandia alias “Felipe Torres,” and Tulio Gilberto Astudillo alias “Juan Carlos Cuéllar.” Though Galán and Torres were members of the ELN’s Central Command before their capture, the ELN has since declared that neither is authorized to represent the group in communications with the government. Cuéllar, who remains “authorized” by the guerrillas, was re-arrested in Cali in late December 2019. In February 2020 Galán, too, was arrested for his alleged role in a 2000 mass kidnapping—a crime that took place while he and Torres were in prison. Galán was released in late March.