By: Joseph Cain, Analyst, Latin America Section
Analytical Question: Will the ELN grow in power in 2019?
The Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) has increased bombing operations against state-owned pipelines in Colombia, amid major oil sanctions placed on the Venezuelan government by the United States. This increase in attacks reinforces our assessment, with high confidence, that the ELN is growing in power.
Since the ELN’s inception in 1964, the guerilla organization has waged a continuous war against the Colombian government. Initially, the group was based on Marxist-Leninist ideology, paired with Catholic Liberation theology. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, the ELN shifted its ideological approach to allow for kidnapping, extortion, and narcotics trafficking to become viable forms of revenue1. This shift in tactics and ideology led to increased conflict with the government, which continues to the present day, with the ELN commonly carrying out attacks on military personnel, kidnapping government officials, and attacking key government infrastructure —specifically oil pipelines. The 2016 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) peace accords also played a major role in shaping the trajectory of the ELN, by creating a power vacuum that the ELN has since filled. President Ivan Duque of Colombia assumed his current role in 2018, campaigning on a tougher approach against groups like the ELN with a strong endorsement from former President Álvaro Uribe, known for his hardline approach against the guerillas2. In the past year, while regularly conducting attacks on oil pipelines, the ELN has also stepped up its operations in areas outside of its normal operating sphere. The group carried out a massive attack in the capital of Bogota, which left 21 students at a police academy dead3.
In recent weeks, the ELN has ramped up attacks on pipelines belonging to Ecopetrol —Colombia’s state-owned petroleum company. The most recent of these took place in the department of Arauca on March 1, 2019, targeting the Cano-Limon pipeline4. The 479-mile-long oil pipeline has experienced ten attacks by the ELN in 2019 —seven in Arauca and three in Norte de Santander5. This attack was most likely carried out by elements in the ELN’s eastern bloc, which is controlled by Gustavo Anibal Giraldo Quinchía, alias “Pablito”6. These attacks have historical precedence but have likely increased because of sanctions placed by the US on the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA, which previously was shipping upwards of 500,000 barrels per day to the US7. Colombia is among the countries that have stepped up to meet the US demand for oil and fill the void created by sanctions. In recent months, Colombia has been experiencing its highest levels of oil production since May of 2016, with 898,965 barrels of oil produced in January, primarily by Ecopetrol, in which the government holds 88 percent of the shares8.
The ELN has made it known that its current objective is to fight against the disproportionate wealth created by what it sees as the exploitation of Colombia’s natural resources. It argues that the oil revenue is enjoyed only by the political elites and multinational companies, leaving little for the Colombian people. In response, the ELN has carried out an intense bombing campaign to disrupt the flow and production of oil in Colombia. The ELN is primarily concentrating on its home turf in the oil-rich northeast sector of Colombia, along the Venezuelan border, in which the ELN is estimated to operate in 12 of its states. This area provides ELN members with a safety net to escape via Venezuela9. Therefore, as the demand for Colombian oil rises due to the US-imposed sanctions on Venezuela, the rate of attacks on oil infrastructure looks likely to rise. Ecopetrol had a net profit of $3.72 billion in 2018 and is projected to invest upwards of $4 billion in 2019 on various projects, mainly in Colombia10. Paired with the level of ownership the Colombian government has in the company, such investments will continue to be a major target of ELN operations. These attacks also highlight a potential lack of ability by the Colombian government to provide security for critical infrastructure in areas that are perceived as strongholds of the ELN, in turn hurting the government’s standing in those areas.
These recent developments have reinforced our confidence that it is highly likely that the ELN is growing in power. The reports utilized in this product come from internationally renowned news agencies, as well as top national sources, aiding to the confidence level of this statement. The statement remains the same because the ELN is ramping up its operations and the Colombian government has evidently not been able to curtail this behavior.
1InSight Crime. “ELN Profile” InSight Crime, 10 Jan. 2019.
2Casey, Nicholas, and Susan Abad. “Ivan Duque, a Young Populist, Is Elected Colombia’s President“, The New York Times, 18 June 2018.
3Held, Amy, and Ian Stewart. “Deadly Blast at Bogota Police Academy Stokes Fears of Return to Colombia’s Dark Past.”, NPR, 17 Jan. 2019.
4Reuters. “Colombia’s Cano Limon Pipeline Bombed for Tenth Time in 2019”, NASDAQ, 5 Mar. 2019.
5Castellanos, Maria Aljeandra Rodriguez. “Atacan Con Explosivos El Oleducto Caño Limón Coveñas, En Arauca.¨, El Tiempo, 1 Mar. 2019.
6Cassman, Daniel. “National Liberation Army (Colombia)” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford, 17 Aug. 2015.
7Reuters. “Factbox: US Sanctions on Venezuela’s Oil Industry“, Thomson Reuters, 30 Jan. 2019.
8Kassai, Lucia, and Ezra Fieser. “US Sanctions on Venezuela are a Blessing to Colombian Oil“, Bloomberg, 27 Feb. 2019.
9Venezuela Investigative Unit. “ELN Present in Half of Venezuela“, InSight Crime, 3 Nov. 2018.
10Reuters. “Ecopetrol to Pay Colombia $2.64 Billion in Profits from 2018, Dividends“, NASDAQ, 27 Feb. 2019.