National Liberation Army (ELN)

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National Liberation Army (ELN)

LEADERS: Fabio Vásquez Castaño; Felipe Torres



The National Liberation Army (ELN, its Spanish acronym for Ejército de Liberación Nacional), was founded between 1963 and 1965 by Marxist urban intellectuals inspired by Fidel Castro's success in Cuba. The group views themselves as the champion of the poor and also seeks to end foreign influence in Colombia. Priests from the Catholic Church, following the ideas of "liberation theology"—which argues that the church needs to play a major role in promoting human rights and social justice—joined with the group in the latter part of the 1960s. The group's ideology became a mixture of Marxist and Christianity, with a mission to overthrow the existing national government and create a popular, leftist government that gave more power to the people.

The National Liberation Army uses kidnapping, ransoming, and extortion of oil executives as its primary method for funding. Other activities include attacking the infrastructure, armed conflict, and bombings. At times, the group has joined with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), a fellow insurgent group in Colombia that also uses violence to attain its goals. At other times, the two groups clash, leading to a two-front battle.


It is estimated that more than 200,000 people have been killed in Colombia since 1964, when the National Liberation Army began what it called a "civil war" in Colombia. The group, founded by a liberal university student named Fabio Vásquez Castaño, was formed as a Marxist organization. In the wake of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution, a coalition of university students, urban workers, and disenchanted peasants—Movimiento de Obreros, Estudiantes, y Campesinos (MOEC, or Movement for Workers, Students, and Peasants)—formed in Bogota as an initial response to the Cuban Revolution. The group organized labor strikes, protests, and other political actions designed to force the national government to pay attention to their cause.

Vásquez, a member of MOEC, went on to form the National Liberation Army, whose goal was to use Marxist approaches in creating a government structure that would combat Colombia's poverty, governmental corruption, and unequal political participation and access to the political process. After receiving training in Havana from Fidel Castro, Vásquez returned to Colombia and began his "people's war."

In 1966, he was joined by Father Camilo Torres, a Catholic priest who believed in the principle of "liberation theology," the belief that the Catholic Church and its priests needed to play a public role in politics where necessary, if it leads to social justice, better protection of human rights, and better outcomes for the poor and disenfranchised. Within a short time, the ELN blended Christian ideas into its philosophy; devout peasants and urban workers were generally more open to the group's message when it appeared to be approved by priests and the Catholic Church. By combining the Marxist goal of a communist revolution like Fidel Castro's with Christian teachings about improving the lives of the poor and stemming human rights abuses, the group stands out from other leftist organizations that do not include Catholic priests among their members.

ELN has two distinct types of work: military/political insurgency, and social work in reaching out to the peasants, urban workers, and the poor. In 1965, after organizing members of ELN into a military unit, they experienced their first instance of armed conflict in the town of Simacota. Declaring themselves the victors, ELN issued the "Simacota Manifesto," which outlined the National Liberation Army's mission, ideals, and plans for Colombia. By starting a Cuban-style revolution, the leaders determined that they needed the support of large numbers of farmers in the countryside and the rural poor.

For the first eight to ten years of ELN's operations, the focus was on armed conflict, disrupting power supplies, targeted bombings, protesting against government officials, and gaining supporters to provide supplies, funding, and support throughout rural areas. The group received funding and training from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and El Salvador. Father Torres was killed in one of the first armed conflicts; in 1970, Father Manuel Pérez Martinez, a defrocked Spanish priest, became the group's political and philosophical leader. Under his leadership, the group grew from some 100 members to more than 3,000. He continued to lead the group until his death in 1998. Pérez kept ELN from engaging in narco-trafficking on moral grounds; some experts believe that this refusal to engage in the drug trade held back ELN's growth compared to FARC, although after his death, ELN was reported to have become engaged in some aspects of the drug trade.

By the early 1970s, the Colombia government began cracking down on insurgent groups like ELN and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a larger leftist organization in Colombia that began operations at roughly the same time that ELN formed. The military succeeded in preventing these groups from establishing a stronghold in urban areas, but the groups did gain influence in the countryside. Reports of inhumane prison conditions and torture of captured FARC and ELN insurgents received widespread press coverage in the late 1960s and early 1970s but did not stop the Colombian military from their efforts to eliminate these leftist groups.

At the same time that the national government instituted these crackdown policies, the National Liberation Army began to use kidnappings as a political tool. By kidnapping oil company executives and holding them for ransom, ELN acquired needed funds while gaining press attention for their actions. Over time, the National Liberation Army targeted foreign oil company executives, as part of a campaign against foreign investment and influence in Colombia. From 1973–1974, the Colombian military carried out the "Anorí operation," during which the ELN was nearly eliminated. President Alfonso López Michelsen tried to broker a peace agreement with the National Liberation Army leaders; this gave the group time to escape and regroup to rebuild the organization.



Fabio Vásquez Castaño, a Colombia rebel trained by Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, is the founder of the National Liberation Army. Vásquez was a university student with middle-class, liberal roots when he became part of a fidelista (follower of Fidel Castro) movement. Vásquez' father had been killed by Conservative party militias. In the early 1960s, a group called Movement for Workers, Students, and Peasants (MOEC) formed in Bogota, the first of such fide-lista organizations. Vásquez and others went on from MOEC to form the National Liberation Army.

Over the next twenty-five years, the National Liberation Army became well known for the kidnapping of oil executives and other wealthy foreign nationals. In 1998, it is estimated that ELN raised more than $84 million from ransoms and $255 million from extortion alone.

Clashes with FARC have been a major source of conflict for ELN as well. FARC and ELN, while championing similar beliefs and goals, are structured very differently and follow different lines of communist thought (FARC aligns with Soviet theory, while ELN aligns with Cuban theory). FARC's membership far exceeds that of ELN (estimates give FARC as many as 18,000 members), and these conflicts have significantly hurt the National Liberation Army as well as civilian supporters of each group, who are often targeted by the opposing organization. In 1999, the Colombian government gave FARC control over a section of the country but refused to do so for ELN. In response, the National Liberation Army stepped up attacks on the oil pipelines owned by foreign companies, a step that U.S. President George W. Bush later condemned, requesting that Colombian military forces be used to protect the pipelines.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new form of insurgent group emerged in direct response to FARC and ELN: a right-wing paramilitary militia movement. Referred to as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC, an acronym for their Spanish name Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), the group numbers approximately 8,000, and is growing steadily. Organized in loose vigilante groups initially, this reaction movement developed in response to fears from national and foreign corporations and the elites. These vigilante groups formed to protect land-owners and often drug-traffickers, and grew as a result of their support. By the 1980s, the Colombian government viewed these groups as a viable response to FARC and ELN and began supplying the vigilante groups with arms. By 1989, however, the paramilitary militias had become increasingly aggressive and faced accusations of attacking civilian villages without provocation. The Colombian government outlawed the groups, but they continued to receive unofficial financial support, training from retired military members and increased membership from former military soldiers.

In 1997, one of the strongest groups, under the leadership of Carlos Castano, formed to create the AUC officially—until this time, the groups had operated as a very decentralized whole. AUC has been accused of destroying entire villages solely because they were suspected supporters of FARC or ELN. Approximately 3,500 civilians die in Colombia each year as a result of FARC, ELN, AUC, and Colombian military actions. In recent years, FARC and ELN combined are considered to be responsible for 15% of those deaths; experts believe AUC is responsible for 75%.

Since 1997, ELN and FARC have been listed as terrorist organizations on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations roster from the U.S. Department of State. On October 15, 2001, the United States listed the National Liberation Army as a serious terrorist threat, claiming that the area of Colombia controlled by ELN and FARC was a training ground for terrorists.


The National Liberation Army began what it called a "civil war" in Colombia.
Father Camilo Torres, a Catholic priest who believed in the principle of "liberation theology," joins ELN.
The Colombian government gave FARC control over a section of the country, but refused to do so for ELN.


The National Liberation Army's original goal was a popular democracy that would permit more involvement in the political process for the average Colombian. Over time, that goal shifted to the creation of a Marxist state, one with equality for poor and rich alike, with income and land redistribution part of the economic plan. In recent years, as ELN's power has waned, the organization has stated that they wish to create a "popular democracy" that permits the rural poor a greater say in national and local government.

In 2000, ELN was allegedly responsible for more than 750 kidnappings throughout Colombia. Most of the targets are foreign employees of large corporations, whom the group holds for large ransom payments. One common tactic is the creation of a roadblock on roads where wealthier citizens and foreign nationals are known to travel. ELN causes traffic jams frequently, as it accesses computer databases on the persons stopped in cars. A background check is run on each person; if they are determined to be insufficiently wealthy, the person is permitted to pass. Those who have enough to make a kidnapping worthwhile, in the eyes of the insurgent, are captured on the spot and held for ransom.

The National Liberation Army conducts frequent assaults on oil production infrastructure and has inflicted major damage on pipe-lines. In addition, the group bombs electrical lines, to protest the privatization of utilities. Between these two actions, the ELN's message is made clear: foreign corporate interests and privatization of energy needed by Colombian citizens are both unacceptable in the ELN's eyes.

The National Liberation Army often employs extortion and bombings as tools against U.S. corporations and other foreign businesses, especially the petroleum industry. In the year 2001 alone, pipeline bombings cost corporations more than $500 million. Since the 1980s, FARC and the National Liberation Army have bombed oil pipelines a combined total of more than 850 times. Colombia is the third largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, behind Israel and Egypt, and the insurgents frequently target U.S. companies. Since Perez' death, the group has been reported to force coca and opium poppy cultivators to pay protection money and to attack the government's efforts to eradicate these crops.

In addition, on April 10, 2002, a communiqué from the group stated that: "From this moment, all property or goods of these [petroleum] companies will be military targets of our organization and whoever works for them is doing so at their own risk." Kidnappings increased, both from the National Liberation Army and from AUC. AUC began kidnapping oil company employees and executives, claiming their targets were ELN sympathizers. In response, oil companies experienced employee strikes and protests concerning the abductions and killings.

Negotiations with the national government opened up when Mexican President Vicente Fox offered Mexico's services as a mediator in May 2004. Experts contend that ELN has three options at this point: to surrender or lose outright, to blend with FARC, or to negotiate with the national government. ELN's experience with the kidnappings of European and Israeli ecotourists in 2003 led to a loss of European tolerance for ELN; the Colombian government's ability to negotiate a safe return of the hostages signaled to Europe that ELN was weaker than FARC.

On June 2, 2004, the Colombian government let the National Liberation Army's current leader, Francisco Galán, out of prison for one day, to meet with the Colombian Vice President and to address Congress with his group's demands. In the end, the demands—a cessation of all hostilities and the release of all ELN prisoners—were not met, but the negotiation gesture has led to an opening for future mediation and discussion.


In an article published by Colombia Report, a private publication dedicated to Colombian events, author Garry Leech commented on the U.S. Department of State's actions that placed ELN and FARC on a terrorist organization list, but put AUC on a lesser list: "… the inclusion of the AUC finally acknowledges what human rights organizations and even the State Department's own annual human rights reports have stated for years: the AUC is responsible for the majority of civilian massacres and human rights abuses in Colombia. The AUC was also included in the report for its involvement in kidnapping and the drug trade.

"These are the same activities that have repeatedly landed the FARC and the ELN on the FTO list, which forbids providing funds or material support to FTO groups, denies their members visas to enter the United States, and requires U.S. financial institutions to block the funds of FTO organizations and their members. And yet, despite their engagement in the same terrorist activities, the AUC's inclusion on the secondary list means these State Department sanctions do not apply to the organization or its members."

The political left, in the United States, has argued against the increasing role of the U.S. military in Colombia, stating that the "war on drugs" and the use of U.S. resources to protect oil interests are unacceptable.


In 2005, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe signed an order granting limited immunity to right-wing AUC insurgents—but the order does not grant the same rights to members of the ELN and FARC, a fact that has generated considerable protest among leftists worldwide. Critics charge that President Uribe, a close U.S ally, is using the agreement to increase foreign aid and investment. They also charge that the AUC is, in many instances, the only buffer between the government and ELN or FARC, and by disengaging the AUC, he opens the door for an increase in leftist political violence.

In recent years, the ELN has suffered losses in fighting against AUC and is considered to be a far weaker force than FARC. FARC has entered into various negotiations with the Colombian national government, negotiations that ELN has chosen not to join. The National Liberation Army continues to stage kidnappings. On July 24, 2004, they kidnapped Misael Vacca Ramírez, the Catholic Bishop of Yopal. The group claimed that they would send a message with his release but when the bishop was handed over just three days later, ELN did not make a public statement.

National Liberation Army (ELN)


The ELN is a Colombian Marxist insurgent group formed in 1965 by urban intellectuals inspired by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It is primarily rural-based, although it possesses several urban units. In May 2004, Colombian President Uribe proposed a renewal of peace talks but by the end of the year talks had not commenced.


Kidnapping, hijacking, bombing, and extortion. Minimal conventional military capability. Annually conducts hundreds of kidnappings for ransom, often targeting foreign employees of large corporations, especially in the petroleum industry. Derives some revenue from taxation of the illegal narcotics industry. Frequently assaults energy infrastructure and has inflicted major damage on pipelines and the electric distribution network.


Approximately 3,000 armed combatants and an unknown number of active supporters.


Mostly in rural and mountainous areas of northern, northeastern, and southwestern Colombia, and Venezuelan border regions.


Cuba provides some medical care and political consultation. Venezuela continues to provide a hospitable environment.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.



Murillo, Mario Alfonso, and Jesus Rey Avirama. Colombia and the United States : War, Terrorism, and Destabilization. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Pearce, Jenny. Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy, and War New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Safford, Frank, and Marco Palacios. Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society. England: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Web sites

Amnesty International. "Colombia, A Laboratory of War: Repression and Violence in Arauca." 〈〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Amnesty International. "Colombia: Report 2005." 〈〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Colombia Report. "Good Terrorists, Bad Terrorists: How Washington Decides Who's Who." 〈〉 (accessed Octo 21, 2005).

Foreign Policy Research Institute. "E-Notes: Terrorism in Colombia." 〈〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Human Rights Watch. "War without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law." 〈〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Human Rights Watch. "Colombia and the "War." on Terror: Rhetoric and Reality." 〈〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).


Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)

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National Liberation Army (ELN)

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National Liberation Army (ELN)