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Essay Example on the Conflict Between the Columbian Government and the ELN Rebel Group

7 pages
1757 words
Harvey Mudd College
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Background and Current Context

Since the 1960s, Columbia has been embroiled in a protracted civil war that has left as many as a quarter of a million people dead and one million more displaced from their homes. The two main guerrilla groups involved in the conflict are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ENL). For this paper, only the conflict between the government and the ELN rebel group will be considered. ENL was formed in the early 1960s as a left-wing guerrilla group following a decade of civil unrest and political violence that began in 1948. After the peaceful resolution of the decade-long political crisis in 1958, several guerilla members began a rebellion against the government claiming that they had been sidelined in the power-sharing agreement (Beittel, 2015, 2). This rebellion was the most important early warning signal, which later degenerated into the armed struggle that has persisted for fifty years. The guerillas were mainly students, left-wing intellectuals and professionals, and Catholic radicals who hoped to replicate the Cuban communist revolution in Columbia. They named their group ELN in 1964, marking the official beginning of the five-decade conflict.

Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, ENL recruited hundreds of fighters and fought aggressively against the government and other radical groups for the control of the Columbian territory. However, the groups membership has been declining over the years and is currently estimated at 2000 active guerillas. Although ELN has been involved in several peace negotiations with the Columbian government, it continues to conduct military operations in many parts of the country (Beittel, 2015, 10). The groups influence is prominent along the Colombia/Venezuelan border where it controls hundreds of informal border crossings used to smuggle goods and traffic drugs across the two countries. The group continues to advocate its communist ideologies of liberation theology and Marxism.

Parties (Primary and Secondary)

The government of Columbia and ELN are the primary parties in this conflict. ELN is organized as an armed political group with several high-level decision making organs. The rebel group has long preferred armed resistance against the government over politics. Its forces have established bastions in Columbias northern, central and the Pacific coast regions where they are involved in various outlawed economic activities such as illegal mining, drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping of politicians and wealthy landowners, and drug trafficking (Beittel, 2015, 10). The organization also targets public infrastructure, such as the oil pipeline, water systems, and electricity systems. All these activities are carried out in the pretext of liberating the people of Columbia from the shackles of oligarchies and multinational corporations that are allegedly extracting and exploiting the countrys natural resources without benefiting the locals.

The governments aim in this conflict is to roll back the groups sustained influence and to decimate it completely eventually. When the group was formed in 1694, the government listed it as one of the proscribed rebel groups. Immediately, the government organized a series of short-lived counter-insurgency campaigns, which lasted until the 1970s (Beittel, 2015, 2). These efforts were aided by the government of the US, which provided military and financial aid to the Columbian army. The US support played a remarkable role in weakening ELN, especially in its illegal trade and drug trafficking businesses. Since 2010, the government has shown willingness to negotiate with the group for the determination of restoring peace.

The main secondary parties in the conflict have been the various paramilitary groups that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. These groups were formed by wealthy farmers and ranch owners, drug traffickers and organized criminal syndicates with the objective of protecting themselves and their properties against the extortionist plots and frequent kidnappings conducted by ELN. In 1997, several paramilitary groups joined forces to form an umbrella organization under the name United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). As the largest paramilitary group in Columbia, AUC became the most influential secondary party in the conflict between the government and ELN (Beittel, 2015, 11). Although AUC helped the government in the military struggle against ELN and FARC, the organization has been accused of collaborating with the two insurgent groups, especially in drug trafficking, civilian massacres, and the assassination of guerrilla supporters. AUC disbanded in 2006, but some of its splinter groups are actively involved in drug trafficking and kidnappings alongside ELN.


Each party in the conflict has taken an offensive position with the objective of defending their interests. The respective positions are incompatible, and this is the reason why it has been difficult to end the conflict despite a series of military operations and counter-operations. It can be noted that ENLs underlying interest in this conflict is to seize power by overthrowing the current democratic government and establishing a revolutionary government modeled on the political ideologies of communism (Beittel, 2015, 2). To achieve this objective, the group uses all sorts of illegal tactics, which include the bombing of strategic state infrastructure, kidnapping, hijackings, firearm attacks and assassinations. These tactics have made the groups aspirations to be directly incompatible with the defensive and offensive positions of the government. The governments underlying interets is to unite the country by eliminating all radical and rebel organizations and empowering the people economically.

The incompatibility in the interests of the government and ELN has elements of both subjectivity and objectivity. By definition, objective incompatibility describes the extent to which the stated interests of the parties in a conflict are in disagreement (Wallensteen, 2011, 108). In other words, objective incompatibility encompasses the differences in the interests of ENL compared to those of the government. ENL describes itself as a legitimate political organization whose mission is to emancipate the people of Columbia from the oppressive antics of the majority few who controls vast interests in the countrys resources and power structures. This position is objectively incompatible with that of the government whose stated goal is to clear the country of organizations that seek to destabilize peace.

Subjective incompatibility, on the other hand, refers to how the interests of each party are viewed by the other. Despite ELNs claim that it is fighting for the economic emancipations of the people of Columbia, the government views the organization as a threat to the existence of a peaceful society in Columbia. On its part, the rebel group views the democratic government of Columbia as being illegitimate and has vowed to fight it. The apparent differences in how the two parties perceive each other and also in their description of the stated goals underlie the aspect of objective incompatibility (Wallensteen, 2011, 108). With either party taking strong defensive/offensive positions, the issue of incompatibility has deepened, making the conflict more pronounced. This has been the case since 2010, although recent efforts to engage in negotiations and peace talks seem to be bearing fruits.

Power Relations

ELNs power relations are primarily tied to its illegal economic activities through which it raises funds to support its activities. Since 1964, the organization has been deriving most of its funding from the extortion of middle-class civilians and businesses in the areas it controls, particularly in the northern parts of Columbia (Stokes & Chomsky, 2005, 73). ELN fighters routinely kidnap civilians (including children and older adults) and take them hostage in exchange for hefty ransoms. The organization is also known to target public officers, especially politicians who it kidnaps in exchange for ransom from the government. The organization also extorts funds from foreign petroleum companies operating in Columbia and also the numerous domestic businesses in the country.

Drug trafficking has been the predominant factor in ELNs power relations. The organization, together with the sister group FARC are known to have established the largest and most secured conduits for trafficking cocaine from Latin America to the US and other countries. As of 2010, Columbia supplied up to 90% of all the cocaine traded in the world. Most of this cocaine passes through the cartels directly controlled by ELN and FARC (Beittel, 2015, 11), 2011). Besides cocaine, ELN also produces, taxes and traffics other types of illicit narcotics such as heroin. The government estimate that the illegal drug business results in up to $3.5 billion as annual income for the group. With this amount of income, the group can purchase weapons, recruit combatants and coordinate its illegal activities.

ENL also relies on illegal mining of gold, diamond and other metals for additional income. In the regions where it maintains absolute control, it extracts petroleum and sells it either locally or to foreign countries (mainly Venezuela and Ecuador) for income. Besides, the organization taxes farmers (for both food crops and ash crops). These illegal taxes constitute a large proportion of ELN income and hence a major factor in the groups power relations (Beittel, 2015, 12). Lastly, the organization uses the threat of intimidation to maintain its power, especially in the rural places where it operates. This is achieved through massacring of civilians and assassinations of prominent personalities. Through these acts, the organization creates fear among the people, making it difficult for the groups combatants to be reported to the authorities.

The government of Columbia has employed various tactics to influence power relations in this conflict. At the core of the governments response is the use of the armed forces to deal with members of the group, which remains proscribed despite the ongoing peace talks. In addition to a straight confrontation with the ELN fighters, the military conducts covert operations to sabotage any planned activities of ENL. These covert operations are largely responsible for the governments victory over ELN and the latters relocation to remote areas in the mountainous regions (Stokes & Chomsky, 2005, 106). In addition to the military, the government engages other law enforcement agencies such as the police in the crackdown against ELN. Due to the transnational nature of ELNs activities and operations, the Columbian government has partnered with other foreign governments to cut off the group's major supply and trade routes. The governments of Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico and the United States have been strategic partners in Columbias fight against the rebel group. To a large extent, the government maintains more power over the armed group as a result of the military. The apparent disparities in power relations between the two parties are responsible for ELNs preference of guerilla tactics rather than direct armed combat with the government.


Following Columbias general elections of 2010, the new president declared continuation of aggressive policies to eradicate the country of any elements of leftwing rebel groups including ENL. In consequence, the dynamics of the conflicts have changed significantly as each party seeks to have the upper hand in any eventual peace process. In 2011, government forces dealt a huge blow to the group after arresting and killing tens of its supporters in various parts of...

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