Editorial, EL COLOMBIANO, January 5, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
With an enormous presence in Venezuela, and with control of numerous illegal businesses, the ELN has turned into one of the most dangerous criminal organizations, and into a threat that this country has not yet begun to understand.
On the same day that Colombia learned of the powerful violent events in Arauca, where more than 20 people lost their lives, Venezuelan journalists reported that in the towns of Barrancas del Orinoco there had been gun battles that left more than ten dead. Do both events have something in common? Yes they do; the common factor is the ELN.
You would think right away that there’s nothing new here, and that the presence of the ELN in the border area between Colombia and Venezuela is a situation we’ve known about for years. That’s true, if it weren’t for the fact that Barrancas del Orinoco is not on the border and is not near the border. That Venezuelan population is more than a thousand kilometers from the border with our country and, nevertheless, the presence and the operations of the ELN are extensive and well known there. In the reported events, the Colombian criminal organization had fought in the streets against members of a mafiosa organization known as Sindicato Barrancas, with which the ELN is disputing control of mining businesses in the area that is near the Orinoco delta, where there are abundant mineral deposits.
Already in 2018 a report by the investigation center Insight Crime noted that the presence of the ELN had been detected in twelve states in Venezuela. That means in more than half of Venezuela, much farther than their traditional presence on the other side of the border in Arauca and Norte de Santander. Places as far away as the state of Anzoátegui and the border with Guyana were already considered areas of ELN influence, where they were running illegal businesses as diverse as drug trafficking, illegal mining, and even distribution of the “Clap”, markets that the Venezuelan government turned over to people selectively.
After the events that painted the beginning of the year with violence in the municipalities of Araucan Piedemonte (Tame, Fortul, and Saravena), President Duque and the Minister of Defense announced actions for the control of the territory, principally by sending two Army battalions to the border.
What can we say about those announcements? In the first place, every action directed toward protecting the civilian population is welcome. That should be the priority: the civilians in these areas are trapped in the middle of the confrontations between the criminal organizations, in this case the ELN. Without quick action, we could end up with a humanitarian catastrophe. So any military presence is welcome when it’s necessary to protect the people.
But it’s important that that doesn’t just remain an announcement, and that these battalions don’t arrive just to leave after a few days. The effort to establish territorial control has to be constant and complete. And it has to include a factor that up to now appears to be lacking: knowing and understanding the ELN better, to be able to combat them effectively.
This criminal organization, founded in the seventies by intellectuals in love with the Cuban revolution, has passed through a number of cycles of rise and fall. They were almost dismantled by the Armed Forces in the eighties; later they came back, because of the money they got through extortions from the oil companies in Arauca. Later on they were left behind after a kind of tough competition with the FARC, but in recent years, they have been able to occupy territories left by that organization, and they have dug into the lucrative criminal businesses, many of them sheltered by the Venezuelan dictatorship.
Their organization is diffuse and hard to understand. In regions like the Araucan Piedemonte they are acting most of all through militias that are highly skilled at infiltration and very spread out, which makes it harder to find them and fight them. It’s possible that the military capabilities that were developed in fighting the FARC are not as useful in fighting the ELN. The task of knowing and understanding the ELN in order to fight them is arduous and will have to be done on the fly, because their criminal activities will give no respite. But it has to be done, if we hope to put a end to it some day.