The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) is Colombia’s last true insurgency and one of Latin America’s most powerful criminal organizations. Due to its expansion and strengthening in Venezuela in recent years, it has established itself as a binational guerrilla group.

Initially, the ELN was a nationalist movement influenced by the Cuban revolution, focused on kidnapping, extortion, and attacking oil infrastructure. Although it avoided involvement in drug trafficking for decades after its founding, it has become deeply involved in the international drug trade.

The ELN is made up of more than 6,000 members, including networks of militants infiltrating the civilian population. That force is distributed between Colombia and Venezuela, but its objectives in each country are different. Traditionally in Colombia, the ELN has been dedicated to confronting the state in an armed revolution and battling other criminal groups. But in Venezuela, it acts more like a paramilitary force supporting the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Despite these criminal interests on both sides of the border, the ELN’s top commanders continue to pursue a political agenda, engaging in numerous rounds of peace negotiations with the Colombian government over several decades. 

History

The ELN guerrilla movement began in the 1960s, when Colombia was recovering from a bloody period of political violence, and when various social and intellectual movements were influenced by the Cold War and the Cuban Revolution.

The most radical segments of these movements came together in July 1964 to form the heart of the guerrilla group. A small armed insurgency began training in San Vicente de Chucurí, a town in eastern Colombia, less than 400 kilometers from the border with Venezuela.

On January 7, 1965, the group carried out its first major attack: the invasion of Simacota, a small municipality in the Colombian department of Santander. There they officially announced their creation under the leadership of Fabio Vásquez Castaño.

From the beginning, the ELN was a highly ideological organization, combining Marxist-Leninist doctrine with liberation theology: a Catholic religious movement inspired by struggles against inequality in Latin America. Some of the ELN’s initial members had direct ties to the Catholic Church.

But the group suffered a series of military defeats after the attack on Simacota that left it on the verge of annihilation. A military offensive in 1973, known as “Operation Anorí,” wiped out much of the group and weakened its command structure. This forced the guerrillas to withdraw to the border with Venezuela to rearm. It also encouraged the group to participate in its first peace talks with the Colombian government, starting in 1975. 

After Operation Anorí, Manuel Pérez, alias “El Cura,” together with Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” took control of the ELN. Both led the expansion of the group into the departments of Casanare and Boyacá, near the border with Venezuela, and Nariño and Putumayo, in southern Colombia.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the ELN funded itself through kidnappings, extortion, and attacks on oil infrastructure. By the 1980s, the group officially constituted the Domingo Laín Front, which extorted multinational companies drilling oil wells in the department of Arauca.

The ELN also began to use Venezuela as a refuge from the operations of the Colombian authorities, which turned the border state of Apure into the favorite rear guard of the guerrillas.

During the 1990s, the ELN’s reputation for violence grew, even as it participated in unsuccessful peace negotiations in 1994 and 1998. 

In 1995, the group drew the ire of the Venezuelan government after it killed eight marines in Apure. In 1999, the ELN kidnapped 190 people from a church in western Colombia, in what remains the largest kidnapping in the country’s history. The group also seized a commercial plane, forced it to land in a remote area in the south of Bolívar, and kidnapped its passengers.

These events put the ELN at the center of Colombia’s conflict and made them a target for other illegal armed groups. Increasing pressure from Colombian security forces, coupled with attacks by the paramilitary organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), as well as its antagonistic relationship with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) forced the ELN to abandon some territories in Colombia and increase its presence in Venezuela. There, the ELN found a willing host in then-President Hugo Chávez in 1999, who was openly friendly with the ELN and the FARC.

The increasing pressure on the group led the ELN’s commanders to rethink their financial, military, and political strategies in various parts of Colombia. Several ELN fronts ventured into new criminal economies, such as drug trafficking and illegal mining, which would become crucial sources of income for the guerrilla group.

Although the ELN initially resisted becoming directly involved with drug trafficking, the transformation of the Colombian armed conflict and the weakening of the guerrillas led various fronts to become involved in coca growing.

Certain ELN structures collected taxes from peasants and drug traffickers, while others became involved in international drug production and trafficking, especially on the border between the Colombian department of Norte de Santander and the Venezuelan state of Zulia.

The ELN participated in another round of unsuccessful peace talks with the Colombian government between 2005 and 2007, which broke down due to disagreements between both sides and the weakening relationship of the Colombian government with Venezuela, who was acting as facilitator.

Between 2005 and 2010, a confrontation between the ELN’s Eastern War Front and the FARC heavily affected both groups. By the end, the guerrillas signed a peace treaty, and the ELN strengthened its position along the border with Venezuela. 

In 2014, the ELN resumed peace negotiations with the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos. The talks ran parallel to a peace process with the FARC (2012-2016) that ultimately led to the FARC’s demobilization in early 2017. The ELN peace talks continued briefly under Santo’s successor, Iván Duque, but they collapsed in 2019 after the guerrillas attacked a police academy in the capital, Bogotá.

With much of the FARC demobilized, the ELN was positioned to fill the territorial vacuums left by its former rival. The ELN increased its involvement in criminal economies in Colombia and in Venezuela, aided by the lenient attitude of Chávez’s successor as president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.

The ELN consolidated its presence along the border between Colombia and Venezuela, controlling clandestine crossings used for contraband and migrant smuggling. The ELN also deepend its involvement in illegal mining, with the blessing of military and political sectors loyal to Maduro. 

As Venezuela began to play an increasingly central role for the Colombian insurgency, senior commanders decided to move to the neighboring country.

The ELN began to operate as a binational guerrilla group. In Colombia, it remains focused on seizing territory, fighting the government, and building political bases, all in the name of its traditional revolution. In Venezuela, the ELN’s ideological sympathies and strategic alliances with the Chavista government have led it to function as a paramilitary group, coordinating operations with security forces, interfering in electoral events, and helping the government control key areas.

In 2022, a strengthened ELN resumed peace talks with the new Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, with Venezuela acting as a guarantor. The peace dialogues have undergone significant ups and downs, but in May 2024, the sides agreed to the first point of their peace agenda, marking the furthest progress of any of the peace dialogues the ELN has had. 

Leadership

The ELN has a confederate structure, in which its war fronts maintain a certain operational and financial independence. The group’s political decision-making rests with a body called the Central Command (Comando Central – COCE), made up of five commanders. Below them is the National Directorate (Dirección Nacional – DINAL), a body made up of 23 representatives elected by the eight war fronts, which, in turn, are led by a commander, a political leader, and a military leader.

Currently, Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio García,” is the commander-in-chief of the group. He is accompanied in the COCE by Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” the political commander and chief negotiator; Rafael Sierra, alias “Ramiro Vargas,” the commander in charge of international affairs; Jaime Galvis Rivera, alias “Ariel,” the financial commander; and Pablito, who oversees relations between the COCE and the war fronts.

The Manuel Pérez Martínez Northeastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Nororiental Manuel Pérez Martínez – FGNO) has influence in the department of Norte de Santander, Colombia, and in the state of Zulia, in Venezuela. It is currently led by Leonel Salazar Roa, alias “Gonzalo Satélite.”

The Northern War Front (Frente de Guerra Norte – FGN), with influence in the departments of La Guajira, Cesar, Magdalena and Atlántico in Colombia, and Zulia and Táchira in Venezuela, is currently led by alias “El Poeta.”

The Manuel Vásquez Castaño Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental Manuel Vásquez Castaño – FGO) has influence in the Colombian departments of Arauca, Boyacá, Vichada and Casanare and in the Venezuelan states of Apure, Táchira, and Amazonas. Pablito was the commander of the front until 2016 and remains one of its most important representatives.

The Jesús Darío Ramírez Castro War Front (Frente de Guerra Jesús Darío Ramírez Castro – FGJDR) has influence in the department of Antioquia in Colombia and in the south of Bolívar, in Venezuela. The front was commanded by Gustavo Wilfredo Vásquez Castrillón, alias “Pirry,” until his death in early 2022.

The Omar Gómez Western War Front (Frente de Guerra Occidental Omar Gómez – FGO) has influence in Colombia’s departments of Chocó and Risaralda. It was led by Ogli Ángel Padilla Romero, alias “Fabián,” until his death in 2021, and is currently led by Enilce Oviedo Sierra, alias “Martha” or “La Abuela.”

Some fronts do not have a clear commander, such as the Carlos Alberto Troches Zuleta Southwestern War Front (Frente de Guerra Sur Oriental – FGSO), with influence in the departments of Nariño and Cauca, and the Central War Front (Frente de Guerra Central – FGC), with influence in the departments of Tolima, Risaralda and Antioquia.

The Camilo Torres Restrepo National Urban War Front (Frente de Guerra Urbano Nacional – FGUN), could have cells in the main cities of Colombia, such as Medellín, Barranquilla, Bogotá, and Cali. However, its actions have been less noteworthy than those of the other fronts. The alleged commander of the FGUN is Jaime Galvis Rivera, alias “Ariel” or “Lorenzo Alcantruz.”

Geography

The ELN operates in at least 231 municipalities across 19 departments in Colombia and in eight of Venezuela’s 24 states.

In Colombia, their main strongholds are in the departments of Chocó, Norte de Santander, and Arauca.

To a lesser extent, but with strategic positions, the ELN is also present in the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, and Vichada. These departments are key for their coca crops, cocaine production, and cross-border corridors to Ecuador and Venezuela.

On the border with Venezuela, the main war fronts are the Northeast and the East, which have used their strength in the region to increase their presence within Venezuela.

The Venezuelan states where the ELN has the greatest presence are Zulia, Táchira, Apure, and Amazonas. In these areas, the guerrillas settled in border municipalities that allow them to control criminal economies and guarantee mobility between Colombia and Venezuela.

The ELN has also extended its presence to states in central and eastern Venezuela, such as Bolívar, Anzoátegui, and Guárico.

Allies and Enemies

The ELN has faced a wide range of enemies, from paramilitary groups to insurgencies.

One of the main enemies of the ELN in Colombia have been the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC). In Antioquia and Chocó, the two groups have been engaged in a territorial dispute since 2018 for the control of drug trafficking and illegal mining areas, with the AGC making significant gains into traditionally ELN dominated areas of the departments. 

In Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Nariño, the ELN competes with various structures of FARC dissidents belonging to the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC) for control over coca production, drug trafficking routes, mining revenues, among other important illicit economies. 

To battle the better armed and more numerous EMC fronts, the ELN has forged a makeshift alliance with a separate group of FARC dissidents, the Second Marquetalia in the southwestern departments.     

Along the Colombia-Venezuela border, between Arauca and Apure, the ELN has faced off against the 10th Front of the ex-FARC mafia, who are aligned with the EMC. 

In 2019, it was reported that both groups had made non-aggression agreements in the departments of Arauca, Boyacá, and Casanare. However, in 2022, the 10th Front and the ELN’s Domingo Laín Front began to clash in Arauca and Apure, in a conflict that involved the Venezuelan security forces and the Second Marquetalia, which is strongest along the Venezuelan-Colombian border

Since 2018, the Second Marquetalia established agreements with the ELN on Venezuelan soil with the aim of defining territorial control, non-aggression pacts, and division of criminal income.

In Norte de Santander and Cesar, two Colombian departments located east of the border with Venezuela, the ELN displaced the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) to become one of the most powerful groups in those areas. In that same region, it has maintained a non-aggression agreement with the 33rd Front of the ex-FARC mafia.

In Venezuela, the ELN’s most important alliance has been with authorities and security forces, which have allowed it to act with a large degree of freedom and opportunity. This relationship is even more evident in the border states with Colombia, where the guerrillas often act in consort or with guidance from security forces or political figures.

Prospects

The ELN’s expansion into Venezuela has furthered its status as one of the main threats to security in Latin America.

Currently, the guerrillas are engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government. But the ELN’s federated structure has complicated the talks, with some war fronts defying orders from the COCE. The ELN’s resistance to giving up kidnapping – a perennial sticking point in previous negotiations – has also proven an obstacle. 

The ELN is at one of the strongest points in its history, giving it significant leverage in the ongoing talks. And even if the negotiations are fruitful, many ELN members refuse to hand over their weapons and continue their involvement in criminal activities.