Gustavo Anibal Giraldo, a.k.a. “Pablito” is one of the ELN‘s most radical leaders with a reputation of a hardened fighter with a bloody criminal record.
Pablito’s is regarded as a hard-liner by many and such is his influence within the ELN, he represents a major obstacle in any possible peace negotiation between Colombia’s government and the Marxist guerrilla organization.
In October of last year, Interpol issued a red circular against the rebel leader who is now suspected of having been involved in the bombing of a police academy in Bogota that killed 21 people in January of this year.
In 1997, he joined the “Domingo Lain Front” of the ELN.
After the capture of the leader of this unit, Pablito assumed command and through kidnappings, extortion and indiscriminate killings, he established the group as one of the most important within the structure of the ELN.
The targeting of oil pipelines in particular brought much needed funds into the guerrilla organization as Pablito forced multinational companies to pay over millions of dollars.
US authorities have sought his extradition as they believe him to be responsible for the kidnapping American helicopter mechanic Matthew Burchell while riding in a taxi to his home in Yopal, Casanare on May 13, 1999.
In September 2014, there was a hearing in the Court of the District of Columbia to declare him a fugitive with the case relating to the kidnapping of two Los Angeles Times journalists on January 21, 2003.
The US is also seeking his arrest for alleged crimes relating to drug trafficking.
In 2000, Pablito became commander of the ELN’s Eastern Front, as well as a member of the group’s central command, the National Directorate. He served as a liaison between the COCE and ELN’s subversive fronts.
Pablito became a pivotal figure in the ELN through the Eastern War Front, leading a territorial war against rival rebel group the FARC, which resulted in more than 150 deaths for the now-demobilized guerrillas.
As his influence grew across the provinces of Arauca, Boyaca and Casanare (a region known as ABC), the commander assumed control of several drug trafficking routes, according to authorities.
In the meantime, he strengthened connections in neighboring Venezuela and is reported to have a camp, farms and a base from where to manages operations.
Capture and escape
Pablito was arrested near Bogota in January 2008 when he was picked up by Colombian authorities while using a fake identity.
The capture resulted from four arrest warrants against him for crimes relating to rebellion and terrorism, alleged involvement in orchestrating the attack on a Venezuelan military base in 1995 in which eight infants were killed as well as conducting the murder of a former Bishop of Arauca in 1992.
His arrest was described as one of the biggest blows to the ELN, as Pablito was one of the most active members and maintained the ELN’s presence in Arauca, one of the emblematic areas of the rebel group on the Venezuelan border.
“This was the most belligerent leader within the ELN, he was like ‘Negro Acacio’ and ‘Mono Jojoy’ [of the FARC] together,” the then minister, and former president, Juan Manuel Santos said at the time.
Alas, Pablito only remained behind bars for a feeble nine months before breaking free with the help of his comrades. In 2009, Pablito escaped from prison in Arauca in a spectacular rescue mission carried out by fellow ELN guerrillas.
After his prison-break, he resumed his power in the Eastern war front, had more armed men and maintained a presence in the ABC region.
Since then, authorities in Colombia have put a $600,000 price on the head of the commander.
Central Command and peace negotiations
In 2015, Pablito was elected to the top political body of the ELN, the Central Command (COCE) as the organization sought to involve one of its most influential commanders into the circle of peace negotiations with the government.
Former Prosecutor General Jaime Bernal, who mediated initial peace discussions with the ELN said the presence of Pablito in COCE would be key in any negotiation process, as the guerrilla has a long and varied history among the ranks and members of the guerrillas.
Pablito however has remained one of the most critical opponents of the peace talks with the government, maintaining a hard-line status while continuing to orchestrate guerrilla attacks.