COLOMBIA: ELN as Telling Case Study for Religion & Terrorism’s 21st Century Relationship Status

The ELN not only offers an example of religion and terrorism's relationship, but also how economic desperateness can uproot organizational foundation. Photo (c) El Colombiano 2017The ELN not only offers an example of religion and terrorism's relationship, but also how economic desperateness can uproot organizational foundation. Photo (c) El Colombiano 2017

A famous dialogue segment from The Godfather II captures the distinct power of rebel organizations from general crime counterparts. In the Cuba-themed scene, mafioso Michael Corleone recounts to investor ally, Hyman Roth, a Castro rebel’s suicide attack which also killed a police captain. “Now, soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t”. Roth replies, “What does that tell you?” Corleone conculdes, “They could win”.

While this is not the universal case for rebels – as some are indeed paid – , the exchange highlights the additional award offered to members of entities such as FTOs – mission. In certain cases, it is religion. Colombia’s leftist US State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) , the National Liberation Army (ELN), an originally religious-emphasizing terrorist organization, has changed by time and circumstances.

Therefore, re-analyzing religion’s strategic importance to FTOs via the unique case study that is the ELN and its global counterparts re-news its worth to comprehending current affairs. The ELN’s origins, recruitment methods related to religion, comparison to other religion- influenced FTOs, and corruption of original motives in the 21st century further detail this theme.

Where Che and El Señor Shake Hands…Kind of

Photo (c) La Pagina de Héctor Gómez Kabariq 2015

ELN founding fathers, Colombian Roman Catholic priest Fabio Vasquez Castano, accompanied by other Colombian priests, underwent Castro Cuba training before founding their FTO in 1964. Photo (c) La Pagina de Héctor Gómez Kabariq 2015

Peter S. Henne observes in “The Ancient Fire: Religion and Suicide Terrorism” that, “the most dramatic violence may arise when groups with religious motivations are fighting in the contexts of a nationalist struggle“. The ELN’s origins embody Henne’s statement. ELN founding fathers, Colombian Roman Catholic priest Fabio Vasquez Castano, accompanied by other Colombian priests, underwent Castro Cuba training before founding their FTO in 1964.

Their objective regarded combining extreme populism with Catholic values, borrowing elements of Liberation Theology. Vasquez died in his first ELN combat, since serving as a martyr ELN role model. Successor leaders have prolonged Vasquez’s overarching ELN motto – to transform Colombia into a country under curiously Catholic-communist rule.

Columbus University Professor Brigitte L. Nacos explains that, “Religious terrorists have distinct political objectives and justify their violence along the same lines – regardless of their religious affiliation”. As the multi-nationally geo-strategic territory that Colombia embodies, the ELN was going to need an army as motivated as those The Godfather II quote portrays.

Have Faith

Photo (c) Grupo Canton 2014

Parallel to Mexico’s Knights’ Templar, the ELN operates in poor areas and recruits those impressionable to populist tendencies and saves them with religious idiosyncrasies. Photo (c) Grupo Canton 2014

Religion has been traditionally fundamental to ELN recruitment. Somewhat comparative to Mexico’s Jehovah’s Witness-integrating criminal organization and successor to the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel, the Knights’ Templar, and even Ireland’s IRA, the ELN hosts certain operations in poor areas, recruits those impressionable to populist tendencies and saves them with religious idiosyncrasies.

A Christian-sense of family unit helps engender loyalty and belonging, while populism adds a heightened air of socio-economic and political conscientiousness. Furthermore, if mission is not for ideology, it is for El Señor, or God.

An ISIS spokesman once declared, “The best acts that bring you closer to God are jihad“. This mentality has transformed over the years, particularly in comparison to other FTOs around the world.

Psy-Op Galore

Photo (c) Insight Crime 2017

The ELN is not as extreme nor deadly as Sand Box counterparts, such as ISIS and Hezbollah. Photo (c) Insight Crime 2017

The ELN’s religious elements become clearer in the shadow of other religious-implementing FTOs. Its faith origins used as a psy op are not only foundational, but critical to its existence.

However, the ELN is not as extreme nor deadly as Sand Box counterparts, such as ISIS and Hezbollah. Indeed, all use religion as a basis for which to fortify themselves and rationalize certain actions. Yet perhaps the variations of religious extremity is due to geopolitical and cultural dissimilarities more than institutional ones.

In addition, the ELN’s significantly smaller man power compared to ISIS and Hezbollah have made it even more desperate to turn to new ways of continuing operation. Cuba re-opening diplomatic and commercial ties to the West as globalization increases, Cold War remnants fade and the Castros brothers die off mirrors the ELN’s need for evolution. And with Cuba, the new ELN is already underway.

Multinational Peer-Pressure

Photo (c) W Radio 2017

The national government has found itself between disputes with multinational corporations and their operations being affected by ELN run-ins. Photo (c) W Radio 2017

Corruption of original ELN religious motives in modern times is patent. “Violence with no strategy behind it terrifies,” Daniel Byman of NPR observes, “but it can backfire against a group and the cause it embraces”.

The FTO has been hit hard by Colombian authorities’ counter-terrorism and drug enforcement efforts for decades. Such has continued to be the case even in larger Colombian FTO, the FARC’s, disarmament and legalization process, which has left a large black hole of criminal opportunities to other entities such as the BACRIM, drug cartels – including the Usuaga Clan and The Office of Envigado – and other rebel groups, including the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). In general, ELN structural change has become particularly critical on a purely economic level. Retaining and obtaining allies, recruits and overall power through faith is no longer sufficient.

Kidnapping, drug trafficking, illegal mining “protection taxes” and operations, and illegal oil pipeline tapping are major problems. The national government has found itself between disputes with multinational corporations and their operations being affected by ELN run-ins. Norwhich University’s Andrea Mazonne highlights the implications of  multinational actors, stating that, “The world’s challenges and threats are changing for many reasons, especially because of increased interaction in world politics“. Overall, there is not only desire, but multilateral pressure, for ELN evolution.

The Future is Now…It Must Be

Photo (c) El Colombiano 2017

The ELN declared cease fire partially in the name of Pope Francis’ recent Colombia visit and has re-opened discussions of peace talks with the national government in this event’s wake. Photo (c) El Colombiano 2017

In conclusion, the ELN not only offers an example of religion and terrorism’s relationship, but furthermore how economic desperateness can uproot organizational foundation, even an initially religious-inspired FTO.

The proactive results of said metamorphosis are continuing to negatively manipulate national and international humanitarian and commercial interests. This situation thus encourages peace negotiations in the FARC’s wake more fervently than ever, with more to lose than the four other failed negotiation attempts during the late 20th and early 21th century.

However, present religious motives are not utterly expired. This may actually be a good thing. The ELN declared cease fire partially in the name of Pope Francis’ recent Colombia visit and has re-opened discussions of peace talks with the national government in this event’s wake.

Gracias a dios.

About the Author

Ailana Navarez
Ailana Navarez is Pulsamerica’s Editor-in-Chief, Owner, Digital Marketing Manager and Contributor; and Deputy Editor of partner-magazine International Policy Digest. She is former Contributor of Uruguay and Venezuela. She has published over 80 international relations-related articles as a political analyst / journalist with a concentration in Latin American leadership analysis, economy, history, international relations, and her research passions, politics and narco-trafficking. As a photographer, she has covered international summits – including of MERCOSUR and the UN. She holds a BA in Government and Psychology at Harvard, pursuing an MA in Homeland Security at Penn State, and is certified in Competitive Counter Intelligence, Technical Surveillance Countermeasures and Countering Terrorism & the Asset Threat Spectrum. She has volunteered for environmental, educational and law enforcement entities - domestically and abroad. She maintains permanent residency status in Panama, the United States and Uruguay. She speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese and Hawaiian Creole.