The group is primarily active in Catatumbo, a virtually lawless region on the border with Venezuela that has become one of the main coca growing and cocaine export regions in the country.
The group was formed by young EPL mid-level commander “Megateo” in 1991 in defiance of a peace deal closed between the government of then-President Cesar Gaviria and a number of guerrilla groups.
Members of Megateo’s Libardo Mora Toro front remained in arms and loyal to their leader for almost 35 years until his death in October 2015.
The EPL’s current leader allegedly is “Pacora,” Megateo’s former second-in-command. He reportedly leads at least 200 subordinates.
“Pepe” is the alleged political leader of the group while “Roberto” is the group’s financial chief.
While the group consistently refers to itself as the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the government dubbed them “Los Pelusos” in 2016.
At the same time, the government declared them Class A Organized Armed groups together with the ELN guerrilla group and paramilitary groups Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), Bloque Meta and Libertadores de Vichada.
This denomination allows the security forces to carry out aerial bombardments commonly not allowed against alleged criminals.
Catatumbo, the area where the EPL’s rule in effect is law, is disputed by a number of armed groups engaged in drug trafficking. The region is one of the ELN’s home turfs with presence of Cali-based drug cartel “Los Rastrojos” and the AGC.
While the ELN and the EPL have jointly controlled much of the coca cultivation and cocaine production in the area, the drug trafficking routes to Venezuela are allegedly managed by the EPL, the AGC and the Rastrojos.
All these groups are said to have ties to Venezuelan and Mexican drug trafficking organizations that traffic the cocaine to consumption markets in the United States and Europe.
Unlike the authorities, the EPL can count on relative support from the impoverished civilian population, many of whom depend on the underdeveloped region’s illicit economy.
Catatumbo has long been neglected and virtually abandoned by the state, while the EPL has reportedly used its drugs revenue to provide school supplies and Christmas presents to the local children and provisions to the elderly.
According to the authorities, this allows the group to count on civilians as informants in case the police or military carry out operations against the group. It is possibly why Megateo was able to stay alive for so many decades.
Following the demobilization of the FARC after a November 2016 peace deal, the EPL reportedly has actively been trying to recruit dissident FARC guerrillas to join the group, while expanding its territory from Catatumbo to the nearby Cesar province that used to be strictly controlled by the FARC.
This had led to tensions with the ELN and even led to a war between the two groups that began in April 2018.