Does Colombia’s ELN pose a threat to democracy in Andean nations?

ELN guerrilla.

In a rare declaration from Venezuela’s Communist Party (PCV), the representatives of the extreme leftist organization opened an investigation against the Governor of the state of Trujillo, Gerardo Márquez, for “inciting violence” against the right-wing presidential candidate María Corina Machado. Márquez posted threats against the candidate of Vente Venezuela on social media and called on the regime’s militias to “take her out” as she planned to visit the state as part of her campaign agenda. Machado is a front-running candidate in next year’s presidential elections to defeat President Nicolás Maduro.

“I greatly value your support,” remarked Machado to the PCV. “In the struggle for freedom and democracy, we should all rise above ideological differences,” she said. Adding his voice of support for María Corina is the former Mayor of Caracas (2008-2015) and prominent opposition leader Antonio Ledezma.

The former political prisoner of the Maduro regime said he would personally hold Maduro and Vice President of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Diosdado Cabello, responsible should “they lay a finger” on Machado. “We won’t stop until Maduro pays for whatever happens to her.”

The threat of regime-sponsored persecution and violence against a candidate whose popularity among Venezuelans is soaring came with news that the Maoist ELN guerrilla is planning to assassinate Colombia’s Attorney General, Francisco Barbosa, as well as right-wing Senator María Fernanda Cabal and the former head of the Armed Forces, General (ret) Eduardo Zapateiro.

The plot to assassinate the country’s top law enforcement official was released by the Attorney General’s Office, based on intelligence gathered from inside Venezuela, and is allegedly being planned by one of ELN’s urban militia commanders, alias “El Rolo.” Due to the seriousness of the situation, the country’s senior military command, including Minister of Defense Iván Velásquez, summoned Barbosa to a security council meeting, where he was briefed on the threat.

The ELN denied any plot to assassinate the senior government official, claiming that the threat was fabricated by the “enemies of peace.” Even Colombia’s Foreign Minister Álvaro Leyva voiced his doubts over the alleged plot, describing it as “a blow against the peace process with the ELN.”

The accusation from the Attorney General came a week after the ELN agreed to a bilateral ceasefire with the Colombian Government, yet refused to stop extortions and kidnappings. After a prolonged silence from Petro regarding the threat against the country’s top law enforcement official, the President did agree to meet Barbosa on August 11; however, few details have emerged from the private encounter.

Barbosa, however, did state that he would hold the national government responsible for any harm he and his family could suffer from an attack. “I assume the inherent risks of my position, and from no standpoint do I suspend my duties as the Attorney General, but I require a degree of cooperation from the national government, which I am not finding,” he said.

Barbosa’s justified concerns that the state is not doing enough to protect his integrity echo those of Venezuela’s Ledezma, and both statements were issued before the horrific assassination of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. Villavicencio, a conservative front-runner, was gunned down in central Quito after attending a campaign rally.

The investigative journalist and outspoken critic of how illegal armed groups have infiltrated Ecuadorean politics had also accused the state of not offering him and other right-wing candidates enough security protection. Even just days before his murder, the 59-year-old legislator stated on national television that he had received death threats from gang leaders.

Six Colombians have been arrested in connection with Villavicencio’s murder. The death of the Ecuadorean leader has silenced one of the country’s most respected political voices and now paves the way for the victory of the left-wing candidate Luisa González. González is a staunch supporter of the exiled former president Rafael Correa (2007-2017).

A return to correismo in Ecuador, state-backed intimidation of Machado’s campaign in Venezuela, and spiraling violence in Colombia by illegal armed groups mark a dangerous moment for democracy in three Andean nations. Despite few commitments by the ELN to halt attacks against the country’s security forces and energy infrastructure, last week the guerrilla declared an Armed Strike in the department of Chocó.

The Armed Strike has resulted in more than 28,000 displaced persons. The ELN’s justification for causing a humanitarian crisis in the San Juan and San Miguel river deltas is to expand its territorial control in this impoverished, mostly Afro-Colombian department. As ELN combats the country’s most powerful drug cartel and paramilitary group known as Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), the guerrilla and Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro maintain their close ideological ties.

While the focus of the recent political turmoil has centered on Ecuador and threats against Machado, in Colombia, during the first year of President Petro’s term, 167 human rights and community activists have been assassinated, and 57 massacres have been perpetrated by illegal armed groups. These worrisome numbers are compounded by the increasingly visible presence of the ELN’s urban militias in the Colombian capital Bogotá, just months ahead of the territorial elections in which citizens will elect mayors and governors.