Friday, July 11, 2014

Fifty Years of the ELN

Looking for a rest? ELN fighters on the march. 
In July, 1964, a group of young Colombian leftist intellectuals fresh from studies in Havana, Cuba,
A pipeline blown by an ELN bomb.
founded the ELN guerrillas. During the half-century since, Cuba's revolution has entered its senescence and its patron the Soviet Union has disappeared, but the ELN has struggled on with its revolutionary attacks and manifestoes. The ELN recently 'celebrated' its 50th birthday by bombing an oil pipeline and an oil workers camp, planting 50 land mines and killing four policemen in Arauca Department.

The ELN, or National Liberation Army, will soon follow Colombia's larger guerrilla group, the FARC, into peace negotiations with the government and, by bombing and murdering, the ELN wants to assert that it still matters.

It's a strange way to throw a birthday party. But the ELN guerrillas, despite their idealistic roots and rhetoric, seem to have devolved into destructiveness and cynical self-justification.

The ELN's most famous member, guerrilla-priest
Camilo Torres painted on the wall of the
Universidad Nacional's library in Bogotá.
The ELN has always had a somewhat softer image than their big brothers, the FARC. That's in part because, being smaller, the group has committed fewer atrocities. And because the group's leaders have included several Catholic priests, who have given the ELN an image of idealism and maintained a distance from narcotrafficking - altho not always much of a distance. In recent years, the ELN has reportedly joined the FARC in protecting drug crops and taxing drug shipments, altho may not traffic cocaine and heroin itself. In contrast to the FARC, the ELN has traditionally made much of its money by extorting foreign oil companies, and kidnapping their workers and blowing up their pipelines if they didn't pay up.

I once interviewed a woman who had been a member of an ELN unit, which marched thru the countryside collecting ransom payments and extortion money. One time, in a rural region, they learned of a traveling salesman offering plumbing supplies. The ELN commander observed that the region didn't have running water, and concluded that the man must be a spy. The guerrillas captured and murdered him.

The woman had participated in one of the ELN factions' many demobilizations and lived in Bogotá.
What kind of rifle would Christ carry?
A Christ-like Camilo Torres
painted by Oscar Rostgaard, 1969.
Her commander, who had also demobilized, drove around in an armored SUV with two government-supplied bodyguards because he was considered a possible assassination target. He and other ex-guerrillas were supposed to be carrying out an agricultural development project, but it sounded as tho it was failing. He had fathered a child by the woman guerrilla, but she accused him of abandoning and betraying her - which made me doubt his idealism.

The ELN's most famous member, and one of its most idealistic, was Camilo Torres, a Catholic priest who was also chaplain of the National University. A follower of the Liberation Theology movement, in 1966 Torres gave up on society and joined the ELN. He was killed in his first battle, becoming one of the Colombian Left's many martyrs.

I wonder what the idealistic Torres would think about the ELN''s 50th-year anniversary communique, which lamented the 'high costs of these 50 years of effort in human lives of many of our companions,' but ignores the ELN's innumerable civilian victims.

The time for the ELN's violence and ideology have come and gone. Fifty years are enough.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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