Weekly Report - 18 November 2021 (WR-21-46)

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COLOMBIA: Army surge in Norte de Santander

On 17 November two local leaders of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrilla group were captured in a joint army and police operation in Teorama, Norte de Santander department. The news comes as the government has ordered a military ‘surge’ in the conflictive department on the border with Venezuela. The results so far are mixed.

The authorities said they had captured Eider Fernando Pino (alias ‘Perico’) and Diego Fabián Carrascal (alias ‘Dago’) who now face a long list of charges including kidnapping, extortion, and criminal conspiracy. The two were reportedly part of an ELN operation to raise funds by extorting local businesses in the Catatumbo region.

The police also highlight the recent capture of Ramiro Antonio Pallares (alias ‘Pichón’) who they believe was responsible for shooting down a helicopter in 2019. Norte de Santander remains one of the most conflictive departments in the country, with a range of non-state armed groups in operation, including the ELN, dissident units of the disbanded Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) guerrilla group, and drug trafficking organisations (DTOs).

In two notorious attacks in June a military base was bombed in Cúcuta, and snipers fired on a helicopter carrying President Iván Duque. Responsibility for both attacks was claimed by a Farc dissident commander. The department has also seen activity by the Clan del Golfo DTO, whose leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga (alias ‘Otoniel’) was captured last month [WR-21-43].

The government appears to be going on the offensive, creating a new 14,000 strong military force to fight against the insurgent groups. As part of a reorganisation, a new ‘specific command’ for Norte de Santander (CENOR) has been created, bringing together four separate units to allow more rapid deployment and intelligence sharing. 

Armed forces commander General Luis Fernando Navarro told Reuters news agency that a “confluence of factors” was causing violence in the department. A porous border and weak law enforcement in Venezuela allowed ELN and Farc guerrillas to strike in Colombia and then flee across the border back into Venezuela. He estimated that half the ELN forces and 30% of the Farc dissidents active in Norte de Santander operate out of Venezuela, where they are protected from Colombian army bombing raids. Some analysts believe that these groups attack high-profile targets as part of a strategy to draw the authorities away from drug production areas and clandestine air strips.

While violence remains high it is not yet clear if the army surge will deliver results. Homicides in the department totalled 576 last year, up by 7% on 2019. According to the defence ministry 16 soldiers have died so far this year in 30 attacks in Norte de Santander, and 19 members of illegal armed groups have also been killed.

Civil society groups say 22 human rights activists have been murdered since 2020 and some 6,500 people have been displaced by fighting. But drug production does not seem to have been seriously disrupted. United Nations data shows that Catatumbo’s cocaine production capacity has risen to 312 tonnes per annum, a quarter of Colombia’s total output. Eradication of illegal coca crops has fallen to 30km2 this year, down from 95km2 in 2020. Seizures of cocaine have increased to 24.8 tonnes this year, but this may simply reflect greater production rather than improved detection.


One of the main criticisms of the government’s troop surge is that it is a militarised response which is being given a higher priority than social and economic initiatives that could reduce dependence on the illicit drugs economy. Activists such as Wilfredo Cañizares of Fundación Progresar argue that there should be greater emphasis on anti-poverty measures and the substitution of legal crops for coca. He says that “it has been proven that it’s a failure to insist on militarising territory as the only answer”.

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