LatinNews Daily - 09 June 2022

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COLOMBIA: ELN leader killed in military operation

On 8 June, Colombia’s Defence Minister Diego Molano Aponte announced that Wilfredo Vásquez Castrillón (‘Pirry’), a member of the national leadership of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the leader of its Darío Ramírez Castro front, had been killed in a military operation in Bolívar department.

Analysis:

Pirry’s killing marks another high-profile victory against guerrilla groups for President Iván Duque’s outgoing administration. It follows the military’s killing of two leading ELN commanders in the western department of Chocó last September, and a string of casualties in the upper ranks of dissident factions of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc), which appear to have been the result of fighting between rival guerrilla groups. However, history has shown that both the ELN and the Farc dissidents are highly resilient to the killing or capture of their commanders, and there is a growing consensus in Colombia that the next government will need to resume abandoned peace negotiations with the ELN.

  • Molano said that Pirry had been killed in an army operation in Morales municipality, in the northern department of Bolívar, on 4 June. Molano added that two other guerrillas were killed in the operation, and that six others were captured, including Violeta Arango Ramírez, who was wanted in relation to a bomb attack at a Bogotá shopping centre in 2017 that left three people dead and 10 wounded.
  • Molano said that Pirry’s death marked the end of a “36-year criminal history” in which he was accused of carrying out terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and attacks on Colombia’s oil and energy infrastructure. He described Pirry as the ELN’s leader in northern Colombia.
  • Presenting a tally of the outgoing Duque administration’s actions against the ELN, Molano said that since 2018 the government had overseen the capture of 2,247 members of the guerrilla group and the killing of a further 120. He said that another 1,005 ELN guerrillas had demobilised and were in the process of reintegrating into society.
  • The two candidates facing off against each other in the 19 June second round of the presidential elections – Gustavo Petro of the left-wing Pacto Histórico coalition, and the populist Rodolfo Hernández, of the Liga de Gobernantes Anticorrupción – have both said that they would support negotiations for a peace agreement with the ELN. In 2019 Duque abandoned negotiations with the ELN that were launched by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), following an ELN bombing in Bogotá that killed 21 police cadets.
  • A potential agreement with the ELN carries personal weight for Hernández, who has blamed the guerrilla group for the kidnapping and suspected murder of his daughter, Juliana Hernández, in 2004. Hernández has said that he refused to pay his daughter’s ransom as it would put his family at further risk. However, the ELN yesterday released a statement denying kidnapping Hernández’s daughter, and suggesting that the ransom had been demanded by criminals pretending to be the ELN.
  • Petro has long supported ceasefire negotiations with the ELN, portraying these as an integral part of his plans to bolster security in rural Colombia by also strengthening the 2016 peace agreement with the Farc.

Looking Ahead: Pirry’s death allows President Duque, who leaves office on 7 August, to claim credit for what may be his government’s final major blow against the ELN. However, the ELN has proved resilient to the killing of key commanders in the past. For example, the killing of the ELN’s leader and second-in-command in Chocó in September 2021 appears to have had little long-term impact on the group’s strength along the Pacific coast.

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