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Monday, 7 January, 2002, 13:46 GMT
Colombia's rebel kidnappers
ELN fighter
The ELN today boasts about 3,500 members
By Jeremy McDermott in Colombia

Inspired by the Cuban revolution, a group of Colombians went to Havana to receive training in insurgent warfare, returning to Colombia in 1964.

Under the leadership of Fabio Vasquez Castano, they founded the National Liberation Army (ELN).


The ELN split their efforts between military and social work

The movement attracted many Catholic priests who adhered to Liberation Theology, starting in 1966 with a handsome young crusading priest from a prominent family, Father Camilo Torres.

He was killed in his first action with the guerrilla group, but several other priests followed in his footsteps. Among them was Spaniard Manuel Perez, who led the movement from the 1970s until his death in 1998.

He was succeeded by the present leader, Nicolas Rodriguez, alias "Gabino", a tenacious guerrilla fighter and lady's man who joined the movement as a teenager.

Kidnappers

Hard hit by the army in 1973, the ELN recovered when it discovered two lucrative sources of income: kidnapping and extorting money from the oil industry.

It reached the height of its power in the late 1990s with some 5,000 fighters.

Now hammered by right-wing paramilitary and the Colombian armed forces, its moral is suffering and its numbers have dropped to around 3,500.

ELN fighters
ELN numbers have dropped over the last decade

Unlike the FARC, (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), who adopted a strict hierarchy and concentrated on building up their military power, the ELN members split their efforts between military and social work.

The ELN did not move into the drugs trade in the same way as their more powerful cousins, in part due to the moral objections of the former priest Perez.

This is another explanation for their failure to enjoy the same explosive military growth as the FARC.

Mass abductions

The ELN rebels are the biggest kidnappers in Colombia and took over 800 hostages for ransom during 2001.

They also hit the headlines with a series of mass kidnapping operations starting in April 1999, during which they hijacked a domestic airliner, forced it to land on a deserted jungle airstrip and kidnapped the passengers and crew.

The ELN have shown a will to make peace

This was swiftly followed by the abduction of an entire church congregation during a service in the city of Cali. Guerrillas burst into the church and herded 150 worshippers and the priest into waiting trucks.

Unable to match the military might of the FARC and take on the security forces directly, the ELN has focused on hitting infrastructure targets such as the oil industry and the country's electricity grid.

The ELN has shown a will to make peace since June 1998, when rebel leaders met with Colombian civilian representatives in Germany.

There they laid out proposals for a peace process based on the creation of a National Convention designed to forge a new state incorporating all elements of Colombian society.

But the government of President Andres Pastrana preferred to concentrate on the larger FARC and is only now trying to engage in serious peace talks with the group.

See also:

22 Dec 01 | Americas
Colombia resumes rebel dialogue
17 Dec 01 | Americas
Colombia rebels in Christmas truce
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