Jan 22

The department (province) of Arauca, Colombia, has been a principal destination of U.S. military aid. U.S. equipment and trainers have spent much time in this oil-producing region, which shares a border with Venezuela, since 2003. That year, the Bush administration launched a program to help the Colombian army defend an oil pipeline that the FARC and ELN guerrillas frequently bombed.

Arauca had been one of the ELN’s key strongholds, with the group profiting handsomely from extorting the region’s oil wealth, since the 1980s. Starting in the early 2000s, but especially after 2005, the much larger FARC launched an offensive to supplant the ELN, making the region the scene of intense fighting. Both sides engaged in frequent combat and campaigns of murder and intimidation of each other’s perceived supporters. The death toll of this intra-guerrilla fighting exceeds 300 since 2005, and is probably far higher.

Most had assumed that the U.S.-aided Colombian Army units in Arauca had little to do with the slaughter. Either they were unable to penetrate the remote areas where combat was occurring, or they decided that it was not worth risking soldiers’ lives to halt fighting between two groups of sworn enemies. Whatever the reason, observers believed that the Colombian Army was standing idly by.

This perception is sadly wrong, according to a cover story published Sunday in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. It turns out that the Colombian Army did choose sides in this bloody battle: some officers were actually working with elements of the ELN to attack the FARC.

Despite being far weaker than the FARC, the ELN has had much military success against the larger group in Arauca. It appears to have fended off the FARC offensive and strengthened its presence, with perhaps 400 members now in the department. In December, the ELN ambushed a police patrol near Fortul, Arauca, killing eight.

Did U.S.-aided military units play a role in the ELN’s revival in Arauca? Semana seems to think so.

For several years, various high officials of the Colombian Army decided that the best and most effective way to deal with the war in that region of Colombia was to precisely follow the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Some military officials unhesitatingly allied themselves with ELN guerrillas in order to confront and defeat the FARC. What began in 2006 as a military operation turned into mutual cooperation between the ELN and the military. This benefited the ELN, as in little time these guerrillas have been able to recuperate part of their military and political capacity in Arauca.

SEMANA obtained dozens of conversations that were intercepted by the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, between an Army major in Arauca – who calls himself “Jairo” – and “Ernesto,” a commander from the Marta Elena Barón column of the Domingo Laín Front of the ELN. The conversations are part of an investigation that the Fiscalía made against the official, an investigation which Army members say “didn’t result in anything.” The recordings are simply chilling and show a very dark facet about how the war was waged in Arauca.

In the intercepted communications, in which they call each other “Brother,” Major “Jairo” and guerrilla “Ernesto” discuss:

  • The locations of Army troops, which “Jairo” reveals to the ELN.
  • Pulling the Army out of specific areas so that ELN guerrillas can freely patrol. One of the areas the military vacates, incidentally, is Santo Domingo, site of a notorious 1998 Colombian Air Force bombing that killed 18 civilians.
  • Arranging for the ELN to kill a group of alleged FARC militants, but not too many of them – “We can’t allow it to appear as a massacre because that would be a problem.”
  • The ELN alerting the Army to the location of FARC members so that the army can kill them, because “I know that you need to show results because they are pressuring you.
  • The Army promising to deliver grenades to the ELN.

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is now investigating these allegations. The U.S. government would do well to follow this investigation closely. According to El Tiempo, Major “Jairo” was attached to the 5th Mobile Brigade, a Colombian Army unit that has received very generous amounts of U.S. assistance since 2003. There is strong reason to believe that members of this U.S.-supported unit were working closely with an illegal armed group on the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. And in this bizarre case, that group is not even the paramilitaries – it is the leftist, Marxist, purportedly anti-state ELN.

Sunday’s revelations have received little attention in Washington, as would be expected during Inauguration week. But they raise a very important question. Did the United States end up indirectly supporting the ELN’s revival in Arauca?