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Jun 6, 2008 | 21:35 GMT

5 mins read

Colombia: A Militant Merger?

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) reportedly has proposed a union or truce with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This is not the first time the groups have entertained the idea of cooperating, but the ELN's offer comes at a unique moment for the FARC, which has lost half of its main leaders through death or desertion.
The Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) has reportedly sent a note to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) proposing a union, following the death of FARC leader and ideological guru Manuel Marulanda, Colombian newspaper Emol reported June 6. The note reportedly was delivered directly to the secretariat of seven leaders of the FARC. It is not clear if the purpose of the note is to suggest a union between the two groups or merely a cease-fire of sorts. Although the report did not specify exactly what a merger between the ELN and the FARC would look like, it indicated that at the very least, the two could negotiate a truce on disputed territories. This is not the first time the two groups have flirted with linking up. The ELN and the FARC have alternately proposed previous treaties that never came to fruition. This time, however, things might be different. With more than half of its main leaders, including Marulanda, either dying or leaving the movement, the FARC is at a unique juncture. The FARC and the ELN share similar leftist revolutionary ideological roots, but the ELN has taken a step back from its revolutionary goals in the last decade by pursuing negotiations with the government and joining in the drug trade. The ELN is a relatively small organization, with membership currently estimated at 2,200 to 3,000. The ELN was a latecomer to the drug trafficking business, entering the trade sometime after the death of ideological leader Manuel Pérez in 1998. For years, the group relied on kidnapping and extortion to make money. Major ELN operations are concentrated in the north and west of the country. The ELN has been through eight rounds of negotiations with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez's government to settle the ongoing violence since May 2004, but the latest round of talks stalled in October 2007 as the group failed to live up to an agreement to halt its kidnapping operations. Although the frequency of ELN attacks has declined as the group has continued to negotiate, the group was held responsible for 22 separate attacks against civilian targets in 2007 that led to nine deaths and the kidnapping of 19 people, including the mayor of Bagado, a city to the southwest of Medellin. Most of the incidents in 2007 were located in Narino province. The FARC maintains its leftist ideological stance, which stretches back to the group's inception in the 1960s, when it was the armed wing of the Colombian Communist party. Over time, the FARC became the country's largest paramilitary organization. Although the FARC attempted to negotiate with the Colombian government in the late 1990s, its relationship with the Uribe government has been more than strained. According to estimates by the U.S. Southern Command, the FARC currently boasts somewhere around 9,000 members, down from an estimated 16,000 members in the late 1990s, as ongoing battles between the government and the FARC have led to numerous casualties. The FARC allegedly was responsible for 272 attacks in 2007 that led to 283 deaths and 110 kidnappings. The Colombian government has taken out several FARC leaders in its operations. In addition to Marulanda, who reportedly died of a heart attack, the FARC has lost (through death or surrender) several other key leaders, including Eldaneyis "Karina" Mosquera, Gustavo Rueda Diaz, Ivan Rios and Raul Reyes since March. The fall of these leaders has led to widespread reports that the FARC is entirely demoralized and ready to fall, thanks to Uribe's U.S.-backed war on the paramilitary group. However, with 9,000 members, a strong hierarchical system and substantial financial resources, reports of structural collapse within the FARC seem overblown. Marulanda himself has already been replaced by communist hardliner Guillermo Leon Saenz (a.k.a. Alfonso Cano). The U.S. government has estimated that as of 2006 the FARC controlled around 50 percent of the world's cocaine trade. Given the sheer profitability of the drug trade, STRATFOR finds it unlikely that the group is anywhere near the brink of dissolution. Even if the FARC's numbers have declined and there have been high-level leadership eliminations, the incentives are vast for the remaining members to maintain control of coca production, processing and transport as a business. The changes in FARC leadership are, however, a development that gives context to the ELN's truce offer. With the FARC facing increasing government pressure and faltering leadership, and the ELN experiencing stalled negotiations with the government, the ELN's offer to the FARC comes essentially as a business proposal. If the two groups can, at the very least, swear off attacking each other, they strengthen their positions in relation to the government. For the ELN, the possibility of linking up with the FARC's massive cocaine industry is an opportunity to get more deeply involved in the lucrative drug trade. For the FARC, such an agreement would yield more territory and less fighting with the ELN. This would allow the two organizations to get down to the business at hand — cocaine production and distribution. It is not clear how such an alliance would affect government attempts at negotiations with the FARC. Since such an alliance would almost certainly end any hope left in the government's stalled talks with the ELN, it seems unlikely that it would help the FARC move any closer to a negotiated settlement with the government.

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