Partying with ELN Rebels
Visiting Jurado – Colombia
As I prepare for my next trip to Colombia, I can’t help but think of the last time I visited the frontier town of Jurado in Colombia, close to the Panama border. It was June 2021, and I had visited the small town to begin building a network that would assist me in my plan for an expedition to cross the Darien Gap. I knew that if I was ever going to be successful, I needed a base of operation where I could reliably call upon contacts to help.
It had taken a long time to reach the town, firstly in a small 6-seater aeroplane that nearly rattled the teeth out of my head, and then two small boats, known locally as Lanchas. It was hot and humid, with temperatures often exceeding 30 degrees.
I found myself in a local bar and struck up a conversation with a man I recognised from the boat that had finally brought me into Jurado. He regaled me with tales of his career as a captain of one of the two boats that ply the pacific coast from Bahia Solano. While he did tell me his name, I will not divulge it here for security reasons. Having visited and written about my trips to Colombia on several occasions, I have a Colombian readership. I will not put anyone at risk by naming names for reasons I’m about to explain.
Encountering the ELN
Anyway, we enjoyed several rounds of Corona, with the captain insisting we drink the smaller bottles because he claimed "mas sabor" that they had more flavour. He introduced me to several ladies, and we chatted about the town of Jurado, the captain’s work, and my plans for crossing the Darién Gap. He amused me by telling me that in addition to his work as a captain, he did voiceovers on loudspeakers for shops and general announcements because it paid particularly well.
After enjoying the captain’s good company for a while, he leaned in conspiratorially. He pointed out a man in a colourful shirt, surrounded by 6-7 other men, all drinking heavily and having a great time. He whispered to me that this was "un jefe del ELN." The man was a leader of an ELN unit, and around him were his men. Essentially, this was the equivalent of a regular military unit on leave. Beside them, on the seats and benches, laid their weapons, assault rifles for the most part, even while soldiers patrolled throughout the town. After pointing out the group of heavy-drinking men, the captain warned me not to talk about or to them and just enjoy the beer and company.
The History of the ELN
If you are unfamiliar with the ELN, let me fill you in. The ELN formed in the 1960s, in a time of struggle known at La Violencia. Many religious and student-led movements gained strength in Colombia, and several of these groups drew inspiration from Marxism and Leninism with liberation theology. The movement quickly turned to violence, taking the small village of Siacota in 1965.
During the 1980s, the equally questionable government powers stated, ELN became specialists in kidnapping, creating an income stream from ransoming their victims. Additionally, as oil companies moved into the area, the ELN began generating income from oil theft and extorting the oil companies. With the focus of shareing wealth to the less fortunate citizens of Colombia in the much more poorer and neglected areas of the state.
ELN has a long history of freedom fighting and movement which had spread to sometimes kidnapping, bombing. They had became the largest guerrilla faction in Colombia after the FARC agreed to a peace treaty with the Colombian government in 2016. With the collapse of FARC, the ELN seized the opportunity to expand its grip. It now supposedly operates in 16 out of 32 Colombian departments, according to data indepaz and insightcrime.
The ELN members celebrated long and loud in the bar that night, and although I did not directly drink with them, the atmosphere in the bar was electric. These were men that partied hard. Given their potential for violence, it’s safe to say that there was an edge to their presence in the bar that night, and I can’t claim to have been as relaxed as I would like.
Why are the ELN tolerated?
The following day, I spoke with a local I had began to know well I quietly asked him why the ELN members were not arrested, given that their guerrilla activities were deemed terrorist actions. The reply was simple and practical. While there is a military base with around 50 personnel in Jurado, a fully armed unit would take 3 days to arrive, given the town’s remote location. At the same time, the ELN had enough resources in the vicinity to launch an assault on any target in just 5 hours. Additionally, the locals of Jurado have as little faith in the army unit as they did in the ELN. The ELN units are well funded, though an array of illegal operations. Additionally, corruption ranges throughout the government, from top to bottom, and in many businesses. For the people of Jurado, they are caught between a rock and a hard place, and it’s simply easiest to keep out of the conflict.
It is also worth to note that these guerilla factions are in places sometimes the only law and order people in rural region of Colombia have ever known. With groups such as the ELN are also a support framework for rural people where they have be known to help in large scale disaster and are often there before government aid. The primary focus stated by the ELN as an organisation is political with the promise of freedom and equality to all of Colombia, as a large number of members of the ELN have and still live within the poor and improvished regions such as Choco, Cauca and Arauca.
Most recently within the news the colombian security forces have been proven to cause more harm than good, with the huge scandal of false positives which simply translates to people killed often peasent farmers in rural municipialities made out to be Guerilla fighters from the several faction operateing within Colombia. For a person looking from the outside in myself and you reading this to seem as if the government of Colombia are working against the guerilla. In fact they are and have provided funding to paramilitary forces historically to act against the ELN and FARC groups.
Given the power exerted by the ELN exercise in the region, I always keep the names of my contacts out of my articles. While it’s unlikely that anyone from that organisation will read my articles, I will not be responsible for dropping someone’s name and causing them to be accosted by the ELN or any other known forces. Such is the power of these groups in numerous regions, that apart from the captain, no one else wanted to go into detail about ELN activities in the area for fear that they would become a target to some form of aggression.