Camilo Torres only held a gun for four months, but nevertheless became the undisputed martyr of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group.
On the brink of formal negotiations with the government, the leftist rebels have requested “as a gesture of peace” that the insurgent priest’s remains be located 50 years after he died in combat. In doing so, the ELN also seeks to resuscitate a symbol that differentiates the organization from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), represents unity among its decentralized fronts, and harkens back to an era of legitimate armed struggle.
It’s a tactical move even as tension between the ELN and the Colombian government ratcheted up this week following an attack on an army base in the Arauca department.
President Juan Manuel Santos held an emergency security meeting in Arauca on Monday and ordered Colombian troops to concentrate all forces on the ELN. He also put a $100 million peso bounty on the leader of the guerrilla group, alias “William.”
In other words, Camilo Torres harkens back to a very different era for the ELN.
The “Che Guevara of Catholicism” was a charismatic intellectual who confounded his religious peers and secular, upper-class family. As the co-founder of the Sociology Faculty at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, he became a vocal proponent of liberation theology and critic of Colombia’s unequal income distribution.
True to his belief that “if Jesus were alive today, he would be a guerrilla,” Camilo Torres traded in his cassock for a camouflage uniform in 1965. Just months later, in his first skirmish with government troops in the northeastern department of Santander, he was shot dead at 36 years old.
What happened to the corpse has been the source of much speculation. The ELN and leftist Colombian politicians have accused the military of keeping the body as a macabre trophy.
General Álvaro Valencia Tovar, who died in 2014, was both a childhood friend of Camilo Torres and commander of the Fifth Brigade that killed him. In 2006, the general claimed that several years after the battle he secretly ordered the exhumation of Torres, who was placed in a military tomb alongside government soldiers.
In 2002, he ostensibly gave the remains to Fernando Torres, the priest’s reactionary brother, who passed away without corroborating the story.
In mid-January this year, the Colombian government responded to the ELN’s entreaty by deploying a team of experts, including pathologists, dentists and anthropologists. “Let’s find where the remains of Camilo Torres are so that we can continue the process to end this war,” said President Juan Manuel Santos in the town of San Vicente de Chucurí, where the guerrilla icon had fallen.
Just one week later, the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences unearthed what is believed to be his body from a cemetery in Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander. The identity will become clear following several months of DNA testing.
The ELN stands to gain much more than a proper burial for its quintessential fighter. First, Camilo Torres is the most emblematic political distinction from its larger rebel counterpart.
The FARC stemmed from rural and peasant self-defense organizations linked to the Com- munist Party. The ELN, on the other hand, emerged from radicalized sectors within trade unions as well as student groups that sought to emulate the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
From the 1970s until 1998, Manuel Pérez Martínez, a Spanish priest, commanded the ELN and solidified the group’s reliance on a violent interpretation of liberation theology.
Second, Camilo Torres is a unifying image for a highly decentralized organization. The ELN is far less cohesive than the FARC, and thus at much greater risk of internal resistance or even fracture during a peace process.
In fact, the group’s central command (COCE) only materialized in 1986 after a long internal shake-up. While the Secretariat of the FARC gives direct orders in a top-down fashion, the COCE provides instructions that are interpreted and acted upon according to local realities.
Military attacks, territorial forfeitures, and geographic scattering have obstructed communication, leading ELN fronts to become even more autonomous.
Finally, Camilo Torres represents an era when the ELN could more easily justify taking up arms. In the 1960s, the Liberal and Conservative parties still rotated power among themselves by design of the National Front. Liberation theology may have prompted Colombians to fight for social change with gunfire, but an exclusionary political system and social inequality helped set the stage.
Over time, the ELN turned to criminal activity for funding, including extortion, kidnapping, and illegal mining. Since the mid-2000s, various fronts have become involved in narco-trafficking, in stark contrast to previous anti-drug policies.
In June 2014, President Santos announced exploratory peace talks with the ELN. With an estimated 1,500 combatants, the rebels remain a formidable force across eight departments.
In Arauca, a traditional stronghold, the ELN is the dominant illegal armed group. In order for Colombia to achieve a lasting post-conflict phase, the ELN must follow in the footsteps of the FARC by launching separate but simultaneous dialogues.
Thus far, it has pursued a broader negotiating agenda that is more inclusive of civil society. For the ELN, Camilo Torres represents an opportunity to sugarcoat its corrupted struggle for the poor and marginalized.