In a series of three articles posted to its website and to that of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, the Colombian think-tank CorporaciÃ³n Nuevo Arco Iris (which unfortunately translates as “New Rainbow Corporation”) provides a brief but excellent overview of the state of Colombia’s conflict at the end of 2008.
The picture is complex, but very troubling on balance. They reveal U.S. officials’ portrayal of Colombia as an “international model” of successful state building to be premature at best – if not completely misguided.
Here is an English translation (thanks to CIP Intern Anthony Dest) of the third of these articles, which focuses on the state of the ELN. The smaller of Colombia’s two guerrilla groups remains weak, as it has for most of the past ten years. But according to analysts at Nuevo Arco Iris – a group founded in the mid-1990s by a group of demobilized ELN dissidents – the guerrilla organization continues to survive and to pose a threat.
This guerrilla group eludes government forces. It appears to be a strategy aimed at preserving what little it has left: to sustain itself and to hide.
Militarily, in 2008 the ELN carried out what could be called a passive resistance. It lost personnel in a few regions such as Antioquia, BoyacÃ¡ and Santander, but in others such as NariÃ±o, it increased in power for two reasons: alliances with emerging criminal groups, and because the Armed Forces have concentrated more on pursuing the FARC (a strategy that has given the ELN some breathing room).
The study by CorporaciÃ³n Nuevo Arco Iris claims that, despite its position of retreat, the ELN continues to kidnap. Kidnapping continues to be one of the ELN’s primary sources of financing, in addition to narcotics trafficking in some regions.
Here are the principal findings:
- Historically, the ELN has had an enormously decentralized and autonomous structure in which the organization followed dissimilar regional dynamics. It is divided territorialy into independent “war fronts,” in turn subdivided into fronts. The COCE [the ELN's 'Central Command'] continues to maintain control over the organization and keep it cohesive despite great difficulties.
- The “Arauca, BoyacÃ¡ and Casanare Corridor” group failed to consolidate itself. The project aimed to unite the Domingo LaÃn Front of the Northeastern War Front with the other groups from the region, along with two groups from the Central War Front that were very weak. However, the LaÃn is in a state of stark decline and currently has very little ability to attack the CaÃ±o LimÃ³n-CoveÃ±as oil pipeline. There is a similar situation in Casanare, where the ELN suffers from a very weak structure.
- The group from Magdalena Medio, which operates in Santander and part of BoyacÃ¡, didn’t increase in power either. The ELN was dismantled and lost its traditional bases of power in San Vicente del ChucurÃ and Barrancabermeja. The Manuel Gustavo ChacÃ³n Front in Norte de Santander and part of the YariguÃes Front [around Barrancabermeja], which is made up of no more than 20 combatants according to official information, continue to survive.
- The group on the Venezuelan border, in the south of Cesar and in Norte de Santander, has been subject to paramilitary attacks and pressure by the Armed Forces. However, in the last two years the ELN has recovered a presence and increased its attacks and recruitment activities, as a result of increased narcotics trafficking in Catatumbo and La Gabarra, where coca crops flourish.
- The Northwestern Group, originally intended to operate in Antioquia and parts of ChocÃ³ and CÃ³rdoba, was the ELN’s most ambitious project. After notable growth, the original front, the JosÃ© Antonio GalÃ¡n, consolidated its bases. However, the paramilitary groups took control over the region, and at the end of 2008, the 10 ELN fronts in the region fused into three. Among the combined groups is the emblematic compaÃ±Ãa HÃ©roes de AnorÃ with the Carlos Alirio Buitrago Front.
- The ELN’s Industrial Group of Eastern Antioquia, a region characterized by the cement and hydroelectric industries and a complicated infrastructure of energy towers, was hit very hard. Only the three original companies survived; among them was the Carlos Alirio Buitrago Front, which currently doesn’t have more than 50 combatants.
- Since 2000, the ELN has carried out fewer attacks and its military capabilities have been in constant decline. The stage of passive resistance began in 2005 as a result of the intensification of the government’s offensive.
- As of the end of 2008, the ELN maintains its defensive tactics.