Why Latin America’s oldest insurgent communist army is growing

Originally published 9th April 2019, this article is republished from the Morning Star Newspaper – the online Morning Star edition can be found HERE

Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) is Latin America’s oldest insurgent movement.

When founded in 1964, the ELN was, strategically and tactically speaking, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, which proved that a determined and well-organised political-military movement, could bring a solidly US-backed dictatorship to its knees.

While some have written that the ELN grew out of Colombia’s student movement — in reality, it emerged out of a worker-student-peasant alliance.

This alliance included peasant veterans of “La Violencia” (the violence) of 1948-58, where Liberal and Conservative party elites, alongside the Catholic church and powerful landowners, incited and coerced economically dependent peasants to go to war with each other in order to expand the wealth and power of dominant classes.

In return for risking their lives, the dominant classes that had facilitated La Violencia offered basic services and favours to the peasants — a form of exploitative relationship known as “clientelism.”

Out of the violent disorder came communist-led “self-defence” zones — some of the few areas that were free from the spreading violence of the countryside — these territories, organised on socialist principles, provided the rural social foundations for the ELN and the FARC (Colombia’s other but now demobilised insurgent group).

To resolve the inter-class tensions that had led to La Violencia, the Conservative and Liberal Party elites signed a pact that constitutionally shared political power between them. By definition, this agreement, which mainly sought to overcome the antagonisms between Colombia’s nationally oriented and internationally oriented capitalists, politically excluded working-class and peasant social forces.

Colombia essentially became a dictatorship governed by servants of the capitalist class.

Such top-down political exclusion sparked resistance from the labour movement: not just from communists but also from socialists, social democrats, and progressive Catholics. It was in this context of social unrest that ELN was born.

One of ELN’s most famous revolutionaries was Camilo Torres — known popularly as the “guerilla priest” — who declared in 1964 that “if Jesus Christ was alive today, he too would be a guerilla fighter.”

Torres was an influential Catholic priest from a very wealthy and politically connected family in Colombia. He was killed in his first moments of combat, after trying to save the life of a wounded comrade, but other Catholic priests, also influenced by socially progressive interpretations of Christianity, followed in joining the ELN.

Manuel Perez, a Spanish priest, became the leader of the ELN in the 1970s, dying in 1998.

Still, Che Guevara remains the most celebrated socialist revolutionary inside the ELN.

Internally, the movement’s literature refers to an ethical norm named after the internationalist guerilla fighter — “the spirit for sacrifice” — an ideal which all ELN members are encouraged to live up to.

ELN’s manual on ethics, held by every political officer, insists that there is something as distinct as a “socialist morality” — one based on internationalism and leading by example.

Despite having some history with progressive versions of Catholicism — “liberation theology” — according to its literature carried by combatants, the ELN is broadly Marxist-Leninist and seeks to apply that doctrine creatively.

For this reason, ELN has an unusual political-military strategy in the history of Latin American guerilla movements. Based on the peculiarity of Colombia’s political and economic conditions, the ELN rejects sectarianism and views itself as but one part of a broader movement of social forces fighting for social justice.

Unlike other insurgent groups that have sought to take state power by defeating the armed forces in offensive operations, Colombia’s civil formations are indispensable to ELN’s strategy.

In contrast to the Farc, ELN has focused more on working with localised grassroots structures, such as trade unions, peasant associations and community movements.

ELN’s is a dynamic form of strategy that draws on various social bases of support, including armed units, to organise spaces of socialist resistance.

Underlying such an approach is the distinction that, unique for Latin American insurgent movements, ELN is a political federation, a union of partially self-governing political and/or military fronts — each of which can serve as the vanguard depending on the correlation of class forces in any given period.

Under such a logic of organising, ELN incorporates civilian structures, as well as armed units into its ranks.

ELN’s leadership is elected at a national congress every few years, although at least two guerilla commanders sit permanently on the “central command” — except for the National Congress, that is the ELN’s highest decision-making body.

Regarding the armed wing, ELN members commit to be guerillas, in general, temporarily. After spending around three years as armed combatants in the countryside and mountains and having become increasingly politicised through such armed struggle, combatants then leave these armed units — at which point they work for the ideas of socialism inside civilian communities.

At the same time, however, these “civilian members” are then liable to be called back up to the armed units if the military conflict intensifies. Hence, there is an interdependence involving civilian and armed activity. Both fields of work seek to benefit from the other.

Traditionally, ELN has relied largely on extortion — referred to as “revolutionary taxes” — to fund its armed operations. This primarily involves a “taxation” on wealthy businesses, and where capitalists have refused to pay, their imprisonment for “tax evasion” — what is understood generally to be “kidnapping.”

Detainees are usually released after a ransom is paid — regarded as a “fine” for tax evasion by the ELN. This regular income supply permits ELN members to commit full-time to political struggle.

While ELN previously opposed the drug trade for decades on political grounds, it appears that in recent times the group’s leadership has authorised the taxation of coca-growing (for the production of cocaine), in addition to other commodities, at least in the territories of some guerilla fronts. This will inevitably help ELN finance its political struggle.

Still, ELN is far from a wealthy movement. Weapons from the 1960s are occasionally being used, food for guerillas is scarce, and armed units typically depend on collecting military equipment from combat with the Colombian armed forces.

It is still considered the ultimate offence for a guerilla fighter to lose their weapon, even in the most precarious of circumstances.

Since the introduction of “Plan Colombia” — a US-sponsored counter-insurgency initiative which upgraded and restructured Colombia’s armed forces, notably air-power, ELN has struggled from a military point of view.

The group’s interaction with civilians in towns and villages has been frustrated.

A medium-level commander in ELN admitted, because of advancements in the Colombian military’s air force capabilities, while a decade or so ago ELN guerilla fighters could spend weeks in the same camp, today they were compelled to move after a couple of days.

The Colombian government has made recruiting millions of civilian informants, each being paid every time they provide information on guerilla activity, a priority. It only takes a single willing individual to potentially give up the location of a guerilla camp using an anonymous phone call.

The military tries to recruit civilians from working-class and peasant backgrounds and transport them to ELN territories to report on rebel activity and their supporters. These types of tactics have frustrated ELN’s ability to organise openly.

Even so, ELN has expanded in recent years, taking over territory previously governed by Farc rebels.

They are also benefiting from the reality that the peace accord signed with Farc has not succeeded in decreasing the widespread killings of social activists, especially trade unionists.

With no shortage of peasants wanting to join the guerilla movement, combined with ELN’s connections to strategically chosen urban and rural communities, there is little chance of the Colombian state defeating ELN militarily.

Why has Colombia’s government ended peace talks with Marxist rebels ELN?

eln_-_web13Originally published 11th March 2019, this article is republished from the Morning Star Newspaper – the online Morning Star edition can be found HERE

SINCE 2017, Colombia’s government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) have been publicly engaged in peace talks to end 54 years of armed conflict.

But following the inauguration of right-wing president Ivan Duque in August 2018, a man who vowed to end peace talks during his presidential campaign, Colombia’s new government has since canceled negotiations and called for the arrest of ELN’s negotiating team.

This reactivation of an Interpol notice ignores security protocols mutually agreed to by the negotiating parties, which promised the safe return of ELN’s political leadership to their units in Colombia in the event of the collapse of peace talks.

This demand also created a diplomatic dilemma for Cuba’s government – the facilitator of Colombia’s peace negotiations – although Cuba has declared that it will abide by the prearranged protocols.

Peace negotiations were canceled after the ELN claimed responsibility for a bombing against the country’s largest training academy used for the National Police, killing 20 police officers and injuring dozens more. While ELN’s negotiating team in Cuba claimed that this attack was coordinated without their knowledge, they admitted that it was organised by a local ELN guerilla front.

The ELN said that after agreeing to a unilateral ceasefire over the Christmas and New Year period, the security forces expanded into rebel-held territories and killed many of its members and supporters – acts of aggression that have not been reported by Colombia’s corporate media.

ELN claims that as the National Police and its training academies are employed for counter-insurgency purposes, the bombing was aimed at a legitimate military target. In a statement released officially, it further declared that it is “very disproportionate that, while the government is attacking us, it then states that we cannot respond [militarily]…”

The offensive has been exploited by Colombia’s right-wing as a pretext to dismantle peace talks. Still, despite his emphasis on a military rather than a negotiated solution to the armed conflict, President Duque has so far failed to gain the political support for waging all-out war indefinitely.

Duque and his party – the Democratic Centre – are an isolated minority in the National Congress and are struggling to unite the dominant classes behind their militaristic agenda, particularly in relation to the exporting sectors.

Many such capitalists and their business associations supported Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement with Farc, Colombia’s other (now demobilised) left-wing revolutionary group. The peace agreement permitted some of these capitalists the ability to access and exploit land and resources previously prohibited to them by leftist insurgents.

As former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced in 2015, “A Colombia in peace will attract more investments that will create more and better jobs.” What is more, cocaine production has skyrocketed since the signing of the peace accord with Farc because the insurgent groups’ demobilisation allowed narco-capitalists to take over territory once governed by leftist rebels.

The return to an openly militarist strategy by the Colombian state may not be necessary, however. Paramilitary forces, sponsored largely by landowners, are continuing to murder trade unionists, social leaders and human rights activists in significant numbers. Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2016 with Farc, at least 85 former Farc insurgents have been murdered.

Likewise, according to the campaign group Justice for Colombia, as of January 17 2019 “163 killings [of trade-unionists, social leaders and human rights activists] have been verified with 454 cases reported in total.” Several more trade-unionists have been killed since and they are being murdered on a regular basis.

Colombia still remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a social activist. This all occurs while US co-operation with Colombia’s government and armed forces grows.

In reality, ELN’s attack in the capital, Bogota, serves to conceal the underlying reasons for Duque’s desire to end peace talks. The ELN, unlike the former Farc, is more federally structured and incorporates social rights groups as well as trade unions into its organisation. The ELN contrasts with many other left-wing insurgent movements in Latin America in that it depends less on military activity and more on community grassroots structures.

For example, ELN has insisted from the outset that civilian entities should be integral to peace negotiations, while holding that the discussions should be conducted publicly. Negotiating with the ELN, as such, entails having to compromise with civil society, not merely a small political elite or a seven-man “secretariat” based in the jungles.

The ELN appears to fear another accord with Colombia’s government whereby the rebels disarm, but state terrorism continues to be employed against the socialist movement. The ELN and its political allies have sought to use the peace negotiations as an opportunity to change the conditions that give rise to civil war, calling the objective “peace with social justice.”

Yet Duque has ruled out socio-economic reforms demanded by Colombia’s social activists and dismisses the ELN as a “terrorist group” – regarding it as nothing more than a “criminal entity.”

Rather than reveal a willingness to compromise politically during the recent talks, Duque made ambitious demands on the ELN. He insisted that before talks can be allowed to progress, the ELN would have to cease its practices of “extortion” – what the organisation calls “revolutionary taxes.”

But if the ELN put into practice this demand, it would cut off its main source of funding. Having to feed thousands of combatants three meals a day, provide clothing and equipment for continuing the armed struggle, alongside having to cater to civilian needs and grievances, is an expensive political project. Subsequently, if the ELN agreed to halt its practices of “extortion”, it would quickly go bankrupt and would not be able to carry on fighting if attacked.

Ultimately, despite Duque’s rejection of negotiations, the ELN still has numerous bargaining chips. Pablo Beltran, one of ELN’s senior political leaders, recently declared that in the event of a possible US invasion from Colombia into Venezuela the ELN would defend Venezuela’s sovereignty and conduct guerilla operations against US troops.

Furthermore, the ELN depends on a reserve force numbering several thousand demobilised combatants – ELN combatants based in the mountains are normally permitted to demobilise as civilian “reservists” after a three-year period. These civilian members and supporters are then liable to be called back up to join the armed units if the conflict intensifies.

Additionally, the ELN has a significant base of support in strategic sectors of Colombia – for example, along the oil-rich border with Venezuela. With no lack of influence or of peasants wanting to join the movement, the ELN can continue to threaten the Colombian state and ruling class infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

President Iván Duque and Colombia’s ELN

Since 2017, Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist revolutionary group, have been engaged in discussions to end 54 years of war. So far, the government has been playing down the strength of the insurgent group while hoping to negotiate its surrender in return for its protection as a legal political entity. On the other hand, the ELN has been demanding that the government implement social reforms as part of its negotiating platform, particularly focused on resolving the conditions that have given rise to the conflict. However, in June, a right-wing candidate won Colombia’s 2018 presidential elections and promises to treat the ELN as mere criminals rather than as a political entity with legitimate grievances and demands. This blog post argues that the new president would do well to change his political posture and recognise ELN’s increasing strength and strong bargaining position to achieve a peace deal.

Colombia’s incoming President, Iván Duque, primarily represents the landowning fraction of capital. He promises to modify the peace deal reached with the FARC in 2016 and offer negotiating conditions so strict to the National Liberation Army (ELN) that the latter will not agree to surrender their weapons. However, like Colombia’s government, the ELN has been preparing for more war, aware of the possibility that a peace agreement may not be reached. For years they have sought to expand on the battlefield so as to ensure a stronger hand at the negotiating table. While Colombia’s military, working with the Venezuelan Armed Forces, has killed several important commanders in ELN’s strongest Domingo Lain Front, this entity has taken strong advantage of the vacuum left by the FARC-EP and significantly expanded its operations and influence. Similarly, powerful ELN Fronts in both Nariño and Chocó have also developed their operations. In other words, Duque wants to force surrender to a political-military organisation that is gaining strength.

The tactic of using overwhelming militarily superiority effectively against ELN has also largely depended on the expectation that FARC dissidents will not be able to unite around a single banner. Now that FARC dissidents are working collectively, and have grown rapidly, numbering around 4000 combatants – only an estimated 3500-4000 less than FARC-EP at the inception of negotiations in 2013 – Colombia’s military can no longer expect to dominate the ELN militarily. They must focus on at least two highly organised political-military groups that are gaining momentum. Moreover, after many years of relative inactivity, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) is currently experiencing a resurgence in the East. Hence, unless Colombia’s government is willing to compromise politically and implement structural reforms to its neoliberal model, as is demanded by the ELN as part of negotiations, it looks likely that a peace accord will be off the cards for the next decade or so.

The ELN has been underestimated and misjudged by a large majority of ‘experts’. Too often they have been compared to FARC-EP or seen as a traditional insurgent organisation that is attempting to overthrow the Colombian state militarily. This is not the case. They have a unique political strategy. With new combatants generally committing around three years as a guerrilla combatant (rather than a lifetime) before they leave to work for social justice causes legally, ELN relies on a large reserve force that organises within moderate political movements and throughout communities. Indeed, unlike traditional insurgent groups, the ELN does not view itself as the so-called ‘vanguard of the revolutionary struggle’, but rather as one of many anti-capitalist movements and networks pressuring the state to change from its neoliberal political course. Put differently, the ELN does not worship the rifle. Thus, the group should not be evaluated simply on the basis of its military strength – which has grown since negotiations began. The government’s bargaining team ought to take this difference in strategy into account when negotiating with the group.

The international situation likewise is not favourable to the incoming Colombian President. The United States does not want to continue financing Colombia’s expensive military struggle against the rebels when it needs to be focused on more pressing matters relating to conflict around the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa. Importantly, military success against the rebels from 2002 to the Present has been overwhelmingly dependent on Plan Colombia, an international initiative sponsored predominantly by the United States to stop Colombia ‘going communist’ and to make the country receptive to international business. In fact, the United States exploited Colombia’s desperate situation with the rebels during the 1990s to open Colombia’s economy up and provoke its government to embrace economic policies favourable to U.S-based corporations, a fact that has tended to negatively affect Colombia’s local and landowning bourgeoisie. This means President Duque cannot afford to simply ignore the expectations of its hegemonic northern ‘partner’.

Duque’s negotiating position is made worse by Colombia’s slowing economy, the fact that European Union countries support compromise in peace negotiations, and because multinational corporations have largely shown themselves to be in support of a negotiated peace, even if at the expense of the local landowning class. Indeed, the only class that seems to be united in supporting Duque’s negotiating plans are Colombia’s powerful landowning elite, a social class that fears ELN’s expectation to implement land reform as part of any peace agreement.

Ultimately, what this post has shown is that, contrary to the claims of many other commentators, ELN has real bargaining power vis-a-vis Colombia’s government during negotiations. While ELN’s military position has grown recently, both the domestic and international situation is favourable to the organisation and its political strategy. This means that if incoming President Ivan Duque presses on with his current hardline demands – prison for ELN’s leadership and a refusal to accept any changes to Colombia’s political and economic structures – Colombia will face war with this organisation for at least another four years, probably many more.