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National Liberation Army (ELN)

Insurgency Overview

The Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), also known as the National Liberation Army, is a Colombian-based far-left guerrilla group. The group was founded in 1964 by Fabio and Manuel Vasquéz Castaño -- two brothers who prioritised the defence of those who they deemed were victims of economic, political, and other forms of oppression at the hands of the Colombian government (1). The group has been labeled as a terrorist organization not only by Colombia, but also by the United States, the European Union, Canada, and Venezuela's National Assembly (2). The ELN works as an armed resistance against the Colombian State as well as against multinational corporations (2). The ELN uses kidnapping, extortion, bombings, assassinations, and hijackings in order to combat the Colombian state (3).

History & Foundations

The ELN came to be on July 4th, 1964, after a dangerous period in Colombia's history, a period named “La Violencia”, where over 200,000 deaths occurred as a result of political violence (4). The ELN officially announced its formation on January 7th, 1965, after overrunning a village in Santander named Simacota (5). Many guerilla groups arose in the aftermath of La Violencia, but the ELN is the most powerful and one of the only remaining ones (5). The ELN reached almost 5,000 members in 1999, although membership has declined since 2000. However, the group has grown back to 3,000 members after Venezuelan refugees and ex-Farc Fighters joined the ELN (1).

The ELN’s peak was reached in 1999. Its membership was between 4,000 and 5,000 and accumulated around 15,000 supporters. As aforementioned, the ELN would see a decline in the 2000s as the ELN was becoming increasingly less organized as many internal and external conflicts would affect the group. Within the ELN, units began to disobey leader orders and some allied with drug traffickers for their own personal and financial security. US-backed offensives such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and Death to Kidnappers (MAS) targeted leftist groups including the ELN, which caused the group to lose large amounts of territory – especially in the Bolivar Province as well as their former home base (1).

The ELN has had a history of trouble with peace talks with the Colombian government. Since the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC (another far-left guerilla group), the ELN had all eyes on them and were the largest remaining armed group in Colombia (2). In 2018 the ELN and the Colombian government were in the initial stages of peace talks. Nonetheless, Ivan Duque (Colombia's president at the time), suspended the talks after the ELN refused to release hostages and detonated a car bomb in Bogota which killed 22 police cadets. On October 4, 2022, the Colombian government and the ELN signed an agreement to restart the negotiations which were suspended in 2018. More recently, the Colombian government has said that the ELN has been scaling back attacks against the Colombian military and releasing hostages, which has enabled the government to gain trust in the group’s willingness to negotiate. The new talks between both parties are scheduled to begin during the first week of November 2022 (6).

Political Objectives & Ideology

The ELN was originally built upon Marxist-Leninism and Catholic Liberation Theology. They opposed foreign influence in Colombia and aimed to create a republic in place of the Colombian government. The ELN now participates heavily in kidnappings as well as in drug trafficking, although they originally opposed those methods. This is because the ELN considered these approaches to be anti-revolutionary, as well as not corresponding with the group's ideological beliefs. The ELN focused heavily on combating the Colombian government but after peace deals with other guerrilla groups, the ELN is shifting their goals to demobilizing and reintegrating ex-combatants to achieve a new goal -- ending its conflict with the Colombian government (1).

Approach to Resistance

The ELN has used a wide variety of tactics, ranging from kidnappings, bombings, assassinations, extortions, hijackings, and attacks on economic infrastructure (such as bombing large oil pipelines) as forms of revenue and achieving their own objectives. However, the ELN has not always used these tactics. As highlighted earlier, the ELN's early days involved a strong condemnation against kidnappings. This all changed, however, after the group experienced almost complete disintegration in 1973 during a government offensive. One of the notable events of this offensive was an attack which left 135 out of the 200 members of the ELN dead (which was the total size of the group at the time), including its founders Fabio and Manuel Vásquez Castaño. New leaders Perez and Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista “Gabino” increased the use of previously-condemned kidnapping methods. Kidnapping became a large source of revenue for the ELN. Interestingly, the ELN also made large oil discoveries which led multinational companies into their regions. With these new large companies flocking in, oil theft and extortion aided in the rise of the ELN (5).

Localized ELN efforts in Chocó – which is Colombia's poorest province – have different approaches to resistance. The Anti-drug Fumigation Program works to fight against narcotics by using aircraft and other equipment to fumigate coca crops. However many have criticized this program for the health risks it often brings. Artisanal hand-made weapons are used to combat military aircrafts which fumigate the coca crops. The ELN has gained extensive support from locals because of their efforts to fight against these government aircrafts. Fumigation destroys many food crops that the locals depend on for survival and revenue, as well as brings disease and even death among children in the region. The ELN believes that this act is a form of direct violence against the people to benefit multinational companies in their acts of exploitation of natural resources, such as water and minerals (7).

International Relations & Regional Funding

The ELN does not only operate on Colombian soil -- Venezuela has also become an area of economic and political interest for the ELN. The ELN controls territory where illegal gold mining and drug trafficking is prevalent. Venezuela’s government under Maduro has allowed the ELN to have access to these areas without much interference from authorities (9). Alliances between the ELN and Venezuelan security forces have been criticized by citizens due to high rates of violence and displacement along Colombia’s province of Arauca and Venezuela's state of Apure. Former FARC fighters who rejected the peace deal in 2016 with the Colombian government have formed dissident groups, which are being actively fought against by joint operations uniting the ELN and the Venezuelan Security Forces. Although reports suggest that FARC dissidents and the ELN made an alliance in 2018 (10), this has changed due to territorial disputes, and both parties are no longer linked. The Venezuelan government, meanwhile, has repeatedly denied that it is harboring dissidents and the ELN (8).

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Mapping Militant Organizations. “National Liberation Army.” Stanford University. Last modified July 2019.

(2) - Al Jazeera English. “Who Are Colombia's ELN, the National Liberation Army?” YouTube. YouTube, August 1, 2019.

(3) “ELN INSURGENCY IN COLOMBIA 1966-PRESENT.” ON WAR. N.p. N.d. Web. 12 August 2015.

(4) - Turel, Adam. “Colombia's 'La Violencia' and How It Shaped the Country's Political System.” E-IR Info, February 2, 2014.

(5) - Dittmar, Victoria. “ELN.” InSight Crime, July 27, 2022.

(6) - Al Jazeera. “Colombia and ELN Rebels Agree to Restart Peace Talks.” Politics News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, October 5, 2022.

(7) - Fusion. YouTube, 2015.

(8) - Person, and Luis Jaime Acosta. “Venezuelan Security Forces Carry out Operations with ELN Rebels-HRW.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, March 28, 2022.

(9) - Unit, Venezuela Investigative. “Venezuela, Colombia, and the ELN at the Crossroads of Peace.” InSight Crime, October 7, 2022.

(10) - Kirby, Shannon. “FARC Dissidents and the ELN Turn Venezuela into Criminal Enclave.” InSight Crime, December 10, 2018.


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