Increasing attacks in Colombia’s northeast highlight ELN growth

ELN ColombiaBy: Joseph Cain, Analyst, Europe and Americas Section
Analytical Question: Will the ELN grow in power in 2019?

The Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) carried out numerous low-scale operations against primarily government targets in the past week, showcasing the relative freedom the ELN has to operate in certain regions of Colombia. Since the ELN continues to carry out operations relatively uninhibited, our assessment is reinforced, with high confidence, that the organization is growing in power in 2019.

In the past year, the ELN has increased operations throughout Colombia and expanded its influence into 13 of the 23 states of neighboring Venezuela1. The most significant operation carried out by the ELN was the car bomb attack on January 17, 2019, against the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogota, which left 22 people dead and 60 injured2. At the time of the attack, a delegation of ELN’s leaders was in Havana for peace talks with the Colombian government. However, the attacks prompted President Ivan Duque’s government to cease peace negotiations indefinitely and reactivate Interpol red notices on members of the ELN leadership, but the Cuban government has refused to hand over the members citing 2017 protocols for the peace talks3. In response, the ELN has continued attacks on oil infrastructure within Colombia and minor attacks on military and security personnel in the region.

In the past week, the ELN carried 11 different low-scale attacks in Colombia, targeting police officers, military personnel, and infrastructure4. The Colombian departments affected by these attacks include Arauca and Norte de Santander —traditional strongholds of the ELN along the border with Venezuela in the northeast. It is also important to note that the reports state that it is likely the ELN did not carry out all these attacks by itself, but rather in conjunction with other organizations like the dissident former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Methods such as car bombings near key government buildings were utilized, leading to escalating violence leaving multiple security personnel injured and one civilian dead5. On the Colombian government’s side, a joint operation between the police and military culminated with the capture of the leader of the “Jaime Toño Obando” front of the ELN. This front is suspected of being the perpetrator of the fifth attack on the Ecopetrol operated Transandino oil pipeline located in the southwestern department of Nariño. The leader’s name is Jose Rodriguez Yela, alias Boquinche. He had been operating in the southwestern region of the country for the past ten years with an expertise in the use of explosive materials6.

These operations were carried out in a deliberate and syncopated manner that highlights the sophistication and cohesion of those ELN sects operating mostly in the northeast sector of Colombia. The northeast sector of Colombia also holds major regional strategic importance as it shares a border with Venezuela. This region is also a historic stronghold of the ELN and if any outside force were to invade Venezuela they would likely face stiff opposition in that region. The ELN has been strong in this territory since 1964 and has extensive experience in guerilla warfare tactics that would likely disrupt conventional military forces. Further, Israel Ramírez Pineda, a commander in the ELN, stated on February 2, 2019, that if the US undertook a ground invasion of Venezuela, the ELN would fight to repel the attack7. The increasing cooperation between the ELN and FARC dissidents is also of great interest. The Duque administration stated that it wanted to change portions of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) law to allow for quicker extraditions of FARC members to the US and harder terms for demobilized members8. Therefore increased attacks alongside the ELN could be a means of retaliation for the FARC. The capture of the ELN leader also shows that the government is capable of providing some retaliation for ELN attacks. However, there have now been over 20 attacks on oil infrastructure in Colombia in 2019.

The developments of the past week have reinforced our confidence that it is highly likely that the ELN is growing in power in 2019. The reports utilized in this product come from internationally renowned news agencies as well as top national sources, adding to the confidence level of this statement. We persist with the same statement because the ELN is showing further sophistication and boldness in its operational capabilities, a factor that is closely paired with the apparent ineffectiveness of the Colombian government to deter such actions.

References Cited

1Stewart, Phil. “As Venezuela Crisis Deepens, U.S. Sharpens Focus On Colombia Rebel Threat” Reuters. March 19, 2019. Accessed March 28, 2019.

2Dayton, Ross. “The ELN’s Attack on the National Police Academy in Bogotá and Its Implications” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. March 04, 2019. Accessed March 28, 2019.

 3Reuters. “Colombia’s ELN Rebel Leaders Say They Will Not Leave Cuba” Reuters. January 31, 2019. Accessed March 28, 2019. .

4Méndez, Alicia. “De 11 Ataques Ocurridos En 2 Días, Más De La Mitad Son En CaucaEl Tiempo. March 28, 2019.

5Méndez, Alicia. “De 11 Ataques Ocurridos En 2 Días, Más De La Mitad Son En CaucaEl Tiempo. March 28, 2019.

6Méndez, Alicia. “Capturado Guerrillero Que Habría Atacado Oleoducto TransandinoEl Tiempo. March 25, 2019. Accessed March 28, 2019.

7Charles, Mathew. “ELN Interview: Colombian Marxist Guerrillas ‘will Fight’ US Troops If They Invade VenezuelaThe Telegraph. February 02, 2019.

8Murphy, Helen. “Colombian Duque’s Bid to Change Peace Deal Rattles Sabers, but War Unlikely” Reuters. March 17, 2019.