BOGOTA – The death of a high-ranking rebel commander in the western Colombian jungle department of Choco constitutes the biggest blow to the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group in recent years.
Andres Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel,” was the face of the ELN’s Western War Front and was known for his regular social-media presence in which he frequently commented on political matters and peace negotiations.
Sunday’s joint operation by Colombia’s army, navy and National Police, with support from the air force and federal Attorney General’s Office, targeted a rebel camp in the Choco municipality of Novita.
Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said there were two minors at the camp that are still under the control of the guerrillas.
“It was a more than a year of tireless (effort) that we concluded with a long infiltration through the jungles of Choco, using different means and methods given the rugged geography that’s found on the Pacific coast, until reaching the camp where the criminal, alias ‘Uriel,’ was located,” armed forces commander Gen. Luis Fernando Navarro said Monday in a press conference.
Alejandro Montoya, who three years ago had been one of the ELN’s negotiators in since-suspended peace talks in Ecuador, was killed along with four other guerrillas in May in an airstrike in the Caribbean department of Bolivar.
Montoya, however, was lower in the group’s hierarchy than Uriel, whose death marks the biggest blow to the ELN since conservative President Ivan Duque took office more than two years ago.
Before Sunday’s operation, the Colombian armed forces’ main success under Duque had been the December 2018 killing in southwestern Colombia of Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” leader of a group of FARC dissidents who did not lay down their weapons despite that guerrilla group’s 2017 demobilization.
Trujillo said authorities had been tracking “Uriel” since 2018 “when he was designated a high-value target of national interest.”
He added that 500 million pesos (around $131,000) will be paid as a reward for information that led to the guerrilla leader’s whereabouts.
This operation is important because “Uriel” was seeking to “destabilize, delegitimize institutions through acts of violence, vandalism and terrorism,” the minister said, adding that the rebel commander used both guns and social media as weapons in that struggle.
The guerrilla leader, an ELN member for more than 25 years, acknowledged a month ago that the rebel group had participated in violent demonstrations last month in Bogota against police brutality that left at least 13 dead.
During those protests, at least 75 National Police substations, known as immediate attention centers (CAIs), were torched.
“Uriel” also was among the ELN commanders accused of masterminding the January 2019 car bombing of a National Police cadet training academy in Bogota that left 22 dead – including the attacker – and 66 injured.
Referring to the presence of minors at the camp, Trujillo said military operations are lawful in those circumstances as long as they comply with “all principles (related to) the conduct of hostilities.”
He added that the group holding the minor at the camp, in this case the ELN, was the party in violation of international humanitarian law.
“International humanitarian law has in no way undermined the state’s capacity, the sovereign capacity of states to use legitimate force to guarantee or restore security conditions,” Trujillo said.