It’s no picnic having a failed state on your border. As Rwanda found out in the ’90s when the perpetrators of its genocide set up camp across the border in the vast, ungoverned jungles of Congo, security threats quickly become unmanageable if your foe has a safe harbor just across a lightly patrolled border. And while the scale of violence in the northern tip of South America is much less, the basic dynamic looks distressingly similar.
Take a moment to consider Colombia’s Ejército de Liberación Nacional, known as the ELN. Insofar as American commentators think about the ELN (which, in fairness, isn’t very far at all), they tended to view it as the unruly little cousin of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. The ELN was considered a murderous gang technically adhering to old-school Marxist ideology but, in practice, much more devoted to running drugs than to overthrowing the bourgeoisie.
That perception is out of date. Over the past few years, the ELN guerrilla has grown massively in wealth and power. And it has done so largely by turning Venezuela’s collapse to its advantage.
You may remember that Colombia signed a historic peace deal with the FARC, earning then-President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. The ELN did not take part in that deal. In fact, the end of the war with the FARC paradoxically strengthened the ELN, which is now the biggest Colombian terrorist group around. It now has an estimated 2,500 fighters, and Colombian intelligence believes nearly half of them are now in Venezuela. It has reportedly come to an understanding with renegade “dissident FARC” groups that refused to join the peace agreement to divvy up drug routes through Venezuela.
In Venezuela’s collapse, the ELN has found endless opportunities, setting up bases throughout rural Venezuela. The guerrilla group is now the de facto governing authority in a growing portion of the country. While there has certainly been some friction, and at least one deadly skirmish, between the ELN and the Venezuelan military, the two more often cooperate with one another than fight each other. In fact, the Colombian military believes the Venezuelan armed forces are now actively training the ELN to use sophisticated weaponry.
Particularly in the remote jungle mining regions of Venezuela’s Bolívar and Amazonas states, the Venezuelan military seems happy to outsource the job of imposing a brutal kind of order over the territory to ELN guerrillas. Venezuela’s economic tailspin has left thousands of young Venezuelans hungry and desperate for any chance to make a living, creating rich recruiting grounds for the guerrillas. That same hunger has pushed thousands of Venezuelans out of the cities and toward the frontier mining regions the ELN controls, bringing a much-needed pool of labor to exploit.
The result is a seriously strengthened ELN that, today, has more fighters, more income, more weapons and more territory under its control than ever before. Some analysts are now describing it as a “Colombo-Venezuelan rebel army.”
It’s easy to see why this is so alarming from Bogotá's point of view. Its peace talks with the ELN collapsed early last year after a string of ELN bombs left seven members of the security forces dead across the country. In January, the ELN claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack outside a police academy in Bogotá that left 21 people dead, an event that shocked Colombia to the core and brought back memories of the darkest times in the long war with the FARC.
What’s clear is that, far from receding, the ELN threat is growing. A group that seemed on its last legs just a few years ago has engineered an unlikely turnaround on the back of Venezuela’s implosion and FARC’s retreat. And Colombia’s peace and stability — the singular achievement of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America over the last generation — is profoundly threatened.
Policymakers in Washington are just starting to realize what their counterparts in Bogotá have known for some time now: Venezuela’s crisis will be regionalized, and Colombia is going to be hit first, and hardest.
The challenge isn’t just about the millions of desperate Venezuelan refugees heading west toward the Colombian border (with more than a million settling in the country) in search of work, medical services, a meal. It’s also about thousands of Colombian fighters heading east to Venezuela in search of ungoverned spaces to control and exploit.
Whether you sit in Washington or in Bogotá, the ELN’s growing power inside Venezuela is not the kind of problem you can ignore indefinitely.