Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, the ELN (National Liberation Army), was originally formed as a Marxist-Leninist/Liberation Theology movement. Today however, the group as currently constituted bears little resemblance to its founding ideology.
By the early 1960s, Colombia was in a precarious position. Reeling from the decade-long bloody, sectarian struggle known as La Violencia and inspired by the 1959 Cuban revolution, student and religious movements were taking place across Colombia. Like many Latin American countries, there was an earnest desire to reform society upon a more socially equitable foundation.
The guerrilla group began as Colombia’s version of Cuba’s 26th of July Movement. In fact, Fabio Vasquez Castaño, the founder of the ELN, was trained by Fidel Castro.
The Second Vatican Council in 1962 represented the Catholic Church’s response to the gross inequality pervading Latin America. The Church, under Pope John XXIII, proposed to fight poverty by addressing its supposed source — sin — specifically, institutionalized sin. By exploring the link between Christian theology and political activism, particularly by viewing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed, the major tenet of Liberation Theology took root.
It was in this vein, combining the audaciousness of Che and Fidel with the theology espoused at the Second Vatican Council, that the ELN arrived on the scene. In July 1964, the small insurgency began training in San Vicente de Chucuri in the department of Santander. Six months later on January 7, 1965, the rebels overran Simacota, a small village in Santander, officially announcing their presence.
In 1966, priest Camilo Torres Restrepo, a well-known university professor and vocal critic of Colombia’s unequal society, joined the ELN and was killed in his first battle. Thus martyrized, Torres became the exemplar ELN soldier emulated by guerrillas and other liberation theologists throughout Latin America.
Inspired by Torres, the Spanish priest, Father Manuel Perez MartinezjoinedtheELN in 1969 and became one of its most recognizable figures and later, its co-leader along with Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, alias “Gabino.” Perez was instrumental in establishing the ideology of the ELN which proposed to establish a Christian and communist regime that would resolve the socioeconomic problems of chronic political corruption, poverty and the political exclusion of most Colombians.
Operation Anori, a 1973 military offensive led by the Colombian military, left an estimated 135 of the ELN’s 200 members dead and marked a paradigm-shifting moment for the rebel group as Perez and Gabino took over leadership roles in the aftermath. In hopes of initiating peace talks with the rebels, Colombian President Alfonso Lopez Michelsen allowed the ELN to escape the army’s clutches, therefore giving the rebels time and space to rebuild and refinance. It was in this recuperation phase that the ELN began employing methods it had once condemned, principally kidnapping and dabbling in the lucrative Colombian drug trade.
The oil-rich Eastern Plains of Colombia presented the ELN with another target for exploitation. In addition to kidnapping civilians for ransom, the group began targeting multinational oil companies, specifically British Petroleum and Occidental Petroleum, kidnapping its workers and bombing the company’s pipelines. The ELN’s presence is still most prominently found in Colombia’s oil-rich regions.
The ELN reached its zenith in the mid-1990s with an army of close to 5,000 soldiers. With Perez’s death in 1998, the armed group’s military actions grew bolder. In 1999, disguised as military personnel, the ELN kidnapped 186 people from a Cali church in what is still the largest single kidnapping in Colombian history. Later that year the ELN hijacked an Avianca flight and took the 43 passengers and crew hostage.
In the late-1990s however, the rebels lost steam. Internal squabbling and attacks from right-wing paramilitary groups and the Colombian army severely debilitated the guerrillas. In desperation, the ELN teamed up with the FARC guerrilla group to beat back the paramilitaries but their efforts were thwarted.
Peace negotiations in 2002 and 2004 between the rebel group and the administration of Alvaro Uribe failed and military pressure intensified. In response, the ELN allied itself with drug gangs such as the Rastrojos to remain in tact.
Despite the initial failures, Uribe and the ELN continued peace negotiations in secret, according to a WikiLeaks cable. The subsequent dialogues included “roadmaps” for the incoming administration on how to best pursue peace agreements.
The current peace talks between FARC and President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration could mean that a possible negotiation with the ELN is on the horizon as well.
Former senator Piedad Cordoba said that “possible contacts” between the ELN and the government have been established. There were rumors that the ELN would be present and participating at the peace talks in Norway, but the Colombian government has as yet, not made any public comment on the possibility.
Map compiled with data of NGO Indepaz