A three-day attack on oil infrastructure staged to celebrate guerrilla group ELN’s 48th year of operations came to an end Friday.
In advance of the group’s July 4 anniversary, fliers announcing an “armed strike” — a Colombian term used to denote the enforced shutdown of businesses — circulated the eastern departments of Boyaca, Casanare, and Arauca, an oil-rich area with a strong ELN presence.
Crime reports from the three departments show that the ELN made good on its birthday plans — on Monday the group set fire to a vehicle outside a Casanares oil factory, reportedly part of a greater attack strategy that was thwarted by the army. In the same area later that night, ELN troops kidnapped a petroleum engineer, who was released Wednesday.
The guerrilla group launched a grenade and had skirmishes with police in other Casanares towns. They also managed to isolate parts of Boyaca with the mere threat of violence, as transportation companies suspended travel to certain towns.
ELN road blocks completely paralyzed major cities in Arauca, including the department’s capital of the same name that sits on the Venezuelan border. Local NGOs told online magazine Colombia Confidential that public transportation had ceased and most businesses had shuttered fearing guerrilla reprisal.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said a community leader in the area, who asked to not be identified. “We’ve heard from peasants here that the ELN is very close to the population, but we don’t know if they’ll raid. We’ve told our employees not to come to work. As a human rights group we worry that we could be targeted by any organization.”
According to Arauca Governor Facundo Castillo, there have been no civilian deaths or injuries, but he said ELN activities in the region exceeded those of an armed strike. “They’re terrorist acts,” he said in an interview with Terra newspaper Thursday. “They want to instill fear in the population.”
Of the three targeted departments, the ELN has the strongest presence in Arauca, where the group waged a bloody war with the FARC for control of the area between 2005 and 2010, resulting in some 1,300 deaths, Colombia Confidencial reported.
Arauca has been one of the most hotly contested and heavily militarized areas of the armed conflict in recent years as it contains 35 percent of Colombia’s oil infrastructure, and just one percent of the country’s population. The ELN’s primary focus in the area is waging attacks on the region’s rich oil and energy infrastructure, which provide a sizable amount of the group’s income.
On Thursday Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos increased the presence of armed troops in Arauca to 12,800. Santos had already sent 1,800 troops to the zone earlier this year, Terra newspaper said.
Army Commander General Alejandro Navas claimed the ELN, which reportedly has around 1,500 fighters in Arauca, had teamed up with the FARC for the strike despite the two groups’ contentious history in the area. “Illegal groups will not gain the upper hand in Arauca,” he said.
Students, Catholic radicals and left-wing intellectuals infatuated with the Cuban Revolution founded the ELN in 1964. It is now the country’s second-largest armed group after the FARC, with as many of 3,000 members.
On its website on July 4, the ELN sent out a message to the country’s “political prisoners,” saying it would continue to fight on their behalf. “Forty eight years later, we still choose to push until the end,” they wrote.