Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Lessons of the EPL

An EPL fighter. (Photo: Semana)
When someone calling themselves the EPL issued a communique a few days ago expressing its interest in joining the FARC-government peace talks in Havana, many Colombia observers probably scratched their heads.

After all, Colombia is only supposed to have two guerrilla groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces
'Combating, we will win.' The EPL's logo.
of Colombia
, or FARC, who recently commemorated their 50th anniversary, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, which is in talks about peace talks. But the EPL, or Popular Liberation Army? Didn't they disappear years ago?

In fact, Colombia did once have an EPL guerrilla group, but whether it still does is controversial. And that story illustrates the troubles of negotiating with and demobilizing guerrilla groups.

The EPL was founded in 1967, and grew to have some 4,000 fighters. It specialized in extortion, kidnapping, cattle rustling and money laundering. In its formal philosophy, the EPL adhered to the ultra-Stalinist ideas of Albania's brutal communist dictator Enver Hoxha. In 1991, weakened by attacks from the military and right-wing paramilitaries, some 2,500 EPL fighters demobilized, handing over 850 rifles and founding a political party named Hope, Peace and Liberty, or EPL by its Spanish initials.

'Megateo' in front of an EPL banner.
But the EPL's troubles weren't over. It now became the target of both the left and right. The FARC, calling the demobilized EPL fighters traitors to the revolutionary cause, deliberately murdered several hundred of them. (Ironically, at the same time, members of the FARC-associated Patriotic Union party were being murdered by right-wing forces. The U.P. martyrs have been memorialized, the EPL victims forgotten.) Then, in 1993, EPL defiant leader Francisco Caraballo was captured by the military, and in 1996 one of the group's few remaining fronts turned itself in to the military, while another joined a paramilitary group, supposedly the guerrillas' sworn enemies.

After that, the EPL mostly evaporated, except for a few clashes with the military and the 2006 kidnapping of a businessman and politician's son by people claiming to be EPL members.

However, in 2013 Víctor Ramón Navarro, or Megateo, presented himself to reporters in Catatumbo as head of the EPL's Libardo Toro's front.

To United States and Colombian authorities, however, know Navarro basically as a drug trafficker, Semana magazing wearing gold rings encrusted with diamonds and emeralds.
Want an easy 9 billion pesos?
A wanted poster for 'Alias Megateo.'
for whom they offer millions of dollars in rewards. And his sincerity as a communist revolutionary was called into question when a photo appeared of him wearing a thick gold necklace and he showed up for an interview with

And reporters with Semana magazine also wondered about Navarro's guerrilla legits when his 50 fighting men appeared wearing new uniforms similar to the Colombian military's and carrying brand new Israeli-made Galil rifles. Who or what was sponsoring these people?

Now, the EPL guerrillas want to join the peace talks. But do they still exist, and are they really guerrillas, or a criminal band calling themselves guerrillas?

Some say that the trouble started back in 1991, when the EPL only partially demobilized. And that may have been in part due to the violent hostility from the FARC, who evidently didn't want to lose a guerrilla ally.

With the government-FARC peace negotiations advancing in Havana, the EPL's story illustrates the many ways which a peace deal can go wrong. Does the FARC's central command really control all of its units? Might some guerrilla fronts refuse the peace deal, or morph into violent criminal bands stripped of ideology? Could a guerrilla demobilization trigger another episode of murderous revenge taking?

Meanwhile, someone will have to decide whether the so-called EPL guerrillas deserve the amnesty offered to political groups which have resorted to violence, or should be fought and incarcerated as simple drug traffickers.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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