National Liberation Army (Colombia)
The National Liberation Army (Spanish: Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) is a revolutionary guerrilla army who have fought in the Colombian Civil War since it began in 1964. The ELN advocate a composite Communist ideology of Marxism and Liberation Theology; they conduct military operations throughout the national territory of Colombia; in 2010, the Colombian government calculated the ELN forces to be approximately 5,000 guerrillas. In the forty-eight-year Colombian Civil War, the National Liberation Army of Colombia is the lesser known of two Communist guerrilla armies who operate in Colombia; the other guerrilla army is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC–EP) who are Marxist–Leninist in their approach to the national liberation of Colombia.
The National Liberation Army of Colombia (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) was founded in 1964, by Fabio Vásquez Castaño and other Colombian rebels trained in Communist Cuba; upon the Vásquez Castaño death, the ELN was headed by a series of Roman Catholic priests, exponents of Liberation Theology. Most notable was the Priest Camilo Torres Restrepo (1929–66), a well-known university professor (egalitarian and Marxist) who was openly critical of the grossly unequal distribution of income among the social classes of Colombia. His attraction to the radical ideas of Liberation Theology led to joining the ELN, a guerrilla army intent upon effecting the revolutionary praxis of liberation theology among the poor people of Colombia. In the event, Father Camilo was killed in his first combat as an ELN guerrilla; and so became the exemplar ELN soldier, to be emulated by ELN guerrillas and by other liberation-theology priests from the lower ranks of the Roman Catholic priesthood.
n the 1970s, after suffering military defeat and internal crises, the ELN was commanded by the Spanish priest Father Manuel Pérez Martínez (1943–98) alias El Cura Pérez (The Priest Pérez), who shared joint-leadership with leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino”. From the late 1970s, The Priest Pérez presided over the National Liberation Army as one of its most recognized figures, until he died of hepatitis B in 1998. Father Manuel Pérez was instrumental to establishing the ideology of the ELN, a composite of Cuban revolutionary theory and liberation theology that proposes the establishment in Colombia of a Christian and communist régime to resolve the socio-economic problems of chronic political corruption, poverty and the political exclusion of most Colombians from the government of their country.
The ELN guerrillas survived the heavy combats of the Colombian Army’s Operation Anorí (1973–74), and then reconstituted their forces, with partial assistance from the Colombian Government of President Alfonso López Michelsen (1974–78), who allowed the ELN to break from and escape encirclement by the Colombian National Army. President López Michelsen helped the ELN in the hope of initiating peace negotiations with them in order to end the civil warfare. In the event, the National Liberation Army of Colombia resumed financing its military operations by means of kidnap for ransom and the extortion of money from Colombian and foreign petroleum companies, and by taxation of the private, Illegal drug trade of Colombia. One such hostage was the American tourist Glen Heggstad, who was on a motorcyle holiday of South America, when, in November 2001, the ELN captured him as he travelled from Bogotá to Medellín; he was held hostage for one month. After release by the ELN, Heggstad published Two Wheels Through Terror: Diary of a South American Motorcycle Odyssey (2004), an account of his travels and ELN-kidnap experience in South America; in 2007, the Heggstad “guerrilla-captive” story was re-told in an episode of the “Locked Up Abroad” television programme.
The ELN did not participate in the peace negotiations conducted between the Colombian government of President Andrés Pastrana Arango (1998–2002) and the FARC; yet did participate in an exploratory conference about possibly participating in peace negotiations. A Colombian government initiative towards granting the ELN a demilitarized zone in the southern region of the Bolívar Department was thwarted by right-wing political pressure from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) whose paramilitary mercenaries conduct anti-guerrilla operations in that part of the Bolívar Department.