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Missing Spanish journalist in Norte de Santander department is likely to have been kidnapped by the ELN guerrilla group

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On May 23 Spanish newspaper El Mundo confirmed the disappearance of their correspondent Salud Hernández-Mora from the El Tarra region in Catatumbo Norte de Santander. El Tarro, which hugs the border with Venezuela, is at the heart of illegal cross border activities and is particularly difficult to access. It is known to be under the control of the national liberation army (ELN) guerrilla group, who finance their operations by extorting businesses in the region, carrying out kidnaps and illegally smuggling oil.

The journalist travelled to the area last week to report on coca cultivation and was last seen on Saturday May 21 in El Tarra. Spanish media sources claim that is suspected that she was taken by the ELN, though the group has yet to make a public announcement. A Spanish national, Hernández-Mora has been based in Colombia for nearly two decades and is well-known for her strong views against guerrilla groups and the ongoing peace process between the government and the FARC.

While negotiations in Havana between the government and the FARC are in the final stages, the ELN guerrilla group continues to pose a threat to peace in Colombia and is yet to enter into official peace talks with the government. This latest incident underlines how the smaller guerrilla group use kidnap as a political and strategic tool, which particularly threatens the safety of business operations in rural areas of the country primed for post-conflict economic development.

Herein MS Risk analyses the current relations between the ELN and the government, the guerrilla group’s strategy around using kidnap as a political and financing tool, and future dynamics as Colombia muddles forward in its attempt to end an armed conflict that has plagued the country for more than 60 years.

The background

At the end of April President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the government would not enter into the previously publicised talks with the ELN if the group did not agree to cease all kidnap activities and release any victims currently being held. The ELN argued that this was not part of the initial negotiation and that the government was doing a u-turn on its previous commitment to enter into preliminary dialogue with the group.

The ELN’s response highlights the group’s political strategy, and in a comminque it refers to key points it wants to discuss with the Colombian state:

According to the group’s communique, edition 528 in their paper Insurrección, discussing kidnap and hostages is the fifth point on the agenda. The communique underlines the group’s refusal to give up kidnap as a political tool, and outlines that the Colombian state must enter into negotiations with the group in the current context. This is a different strategy to that of the FARC, who were prepared to call an official ceasefire when entering into first stage discussions with the government a number of years ago in Havana, Cuba.

Discussions between the state and the ELN are currently frozen, though the government recently sent mediatory to Caracas, Venezuela to engage with ELN representatives to push forward future negotiation plans. However, this latest event is likely to see the government back away from the negotiating table and take a more hard-line stance against the group.

Why kidnap?

Kidnap has always been at the heart of the ELN’s tactical strategy to negotiate with the government, as well as a key financing method. Unlike the FARC, the ELN has always maintained that the group is not involved in drug cultivation or trafficking. As such, extortion and kidnap, are key methods of financing its operations. The ELN’s strongholds tend to be in remote areas that are cut off from many of the state’s formal institutions, which make searching for victims particularly problematic.

According to the office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía General de la Nación), the ELN have carried out 4,900 kidnaps in Colombia since the group’s inception in 1969. This is an “official” number and the informal numbers are likely to be significantly higher, noting the lack of reporting around many cases, and the numerous copy-cat kidnaps that take place within the ELN’s wider social network that is not under central command.

The group has always taken a particularly aggressive stance towards business personnel and major corporations, claiming a Robin Hood style rationale of redistributing wealth among communities that have been historically suppressed and excluded from society. They use their revenues from extortion, kidnap and other illegal contributions to support their fighters and maintain their operational capacity.

Recent kidnap cases and dynamics

Kidnapping anywhere in the world – and particularly in this context in Colombia – is not just a criminal activity, but a highly political and complex one. Understanding how it is used as a strategy is essential for assessing future trends in Colombia, particularly in the context of the post-conflict environment. As MS Risk has been discussing in its series on post-conflict economic analysis in Colombia, the likely official end to the armed conflict between the government and the FARC will open up areas of the country to investors that have traditionally been no-go areas since the 1960s. However, the armed conflict will not end by negotiating with the FARC alone and Colombia is likely to face difficult challenges in the coming years as the country implements the peace process and attempts to develop a post-conflict economy.

Opening up key regions to investors is likely to increase the risk of violent illegal activities as groups vie for control, as well as further increasing economic inequality – a key driver of armed conflict in many regions. The Catatumbo region – where Hernandez-Mora disappeared – is one of the government’s key areas to develop its agro industrial projects to offer alternative livelihoods outside of coca cultivation. This is exactly what Hernández-Mora was reporting on before she was taken by guerrillas, underlining the high risk environment in these volatile areas. While the government is visibly trying to paint an optimistic picture surrounding the peace negotiations in Havana, if it is unable to actively engage in such negotiations with the ELN, swathes of the country are likely to remain extremely challenging for both local communities and the international investors the government is aiming to attract.

In general terms, the lack of a bilateral agreement and ceasefire between the Colombian state and the ELN outlines that in the near future the guerrilla group will not give up its key political and financial strategy of carrying out kidnaps. Moreover, current events suggest they might increase their visibility in this field to put pressure on the government to negotiate on their terms. Alongside this, many of the kidnaps and extortions carried out by the ELN are done by their wider network and are not controlled by a central command structure. Even if those names involved in official negotiations called for a ceasefire, it is unlikely that the group’s wider network engaged in criminal activity would follow.

What to watch out for 

The near-end of the armed conflict between the FARC and the government has seen significant discussion around future economic development plans, particularly in post-conflict regions. President Manuel Santos has outlined that two key industries will be the extractives sector and the agro-industries – both of which are controversial areas of business in many parts of the country, and in particular the ELN and the FARC have maintained strong opposition to extractives projects in Colombia, often victimising their workers.

The ELN have carried out numerous kidnaps against those working in the oil and gas sector, particularly personnel involved in extracting and transporting processes. MS Risk maintains that the ELN is unlikely to give up its practice of kidnap and extortion in the near term, which means companies – particularly those entering the market – in the extractives sector, are likely to face continued security threats to local and international workers. Investors looking to develop their operations in Colombia, or enter new markets through government initiatives must carry out effective due diligence at a local level to understand trends between the varying armed groups operating in the region.

For more information please contact MS Risk’s Latin America team:

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