Talking with ELN Comandante Uriel about Guerilla culture

From the deep Colombian jungle an ELN guerilla commander answered our questions via voice messages about the culture of the Guerilla, which has more depth than one might think.

From the deep Colombian jungle an ELN guerilla commander answered our questions via voice messages. The ELN is one of the oldest remaining Guerilla groups in Latin America. It has been involved in the continuing armed struggle in Colombia since 1964. Unlike other leftist guerilla groups, such as the former FARC-EP, the ELN still refuses to give up its weapons. “Not one step back! Liberation or death!” is their slogan, represented in their anthem, symbol, and in pretty much every Communiqué they publish. The Colombian militants make it to the news regularly but you can rarely see anything else except for footage of heavily armed, masked men and women in camouflage. I spoke with Comandante Uriel about ELN‘s cultural aspect and cultural development.

Unlike many commanders, Uriel has not wanted to remain in absolute secrecy. Twitter and WhatsApp are just some social networks where Uriel keeps in touch with people and measures the pulse of the world outside the Chocoana jungles. “I am one of the intellectuals of the petty bourgeoisie of the cities that has entered the ranks of the National Liberation Army in a conscious way”. The Western War Front of the ELN guerilla is operating in the jungle next to the murderous Gulf Clan Drug cartel. Comandante Uriel’s war front is notorious for training urban ELN militias, kidnapping rich businessman and even soldiers.

If you talk about Colombian culture, you can quickly get lost in the many peculiarities of the individual regions. One comes across only the Indian culture, but also that of the slaves from Africa and the regional peculiarities of the Andes, the lowlands and other regions. Most traditional cultures have long been despised by the petty bourgeoisie because of their origins. Big landowners and the bourgeois class wanted nothing to do with the culture of the common people. It even went so far that certain dances and melodies were banned. Even so, the culture of the common people could not be stopped. Today the Guerilla understand themselves in this tradition. The Guerilla claim to represent the common people, they even go so far as to claim they are the common people. And so they dance the forbidden dances and sing the forbidden songs of those who are oppressed.

I respect the culture in the ELN. It is not new, that the ELN has cultural expressions. What happens is that in the past, it was only known within the guerrillas. Nowadays, through social media and all the media noise that we are making, it has transcended the camps and reaches new spaces. Historically, we have culture in the ELN. Every weekend the camp life is performing and continues to perform cultural performances. There are two slogans: “Culture is the artistic rifle of the revolution.” and the other: “Revolution is also made with culture.”

– Comandante Uriel

ELN is remaking its public image online

It's no secret and no surprise that the mainstream media is trying to frame the guerilla group as scary as possible, That is the simple task of state television and profit-focused media. The mainstream media is trying to deny the political nature of the insurgency group, they want to portray the ELN as a simple Narco organization. One way the ELN tries to counteract the “narco-terrorist” label is expressing itself via the Internet and alternative media. Comandante Uriel often uses social media to give an insight into everyday life in a guerilla camp. He is the friendly face of the organization, comparable to Comandante Marcos of the Mexican EZLN.

In 2017 the ELN Western Front "Omar Gómez" began to expand its online presence. Since then, they have been publishing communiqués, photos of community activities, drawings & songs about historical events, announcements and their self-produced documentaries. However, following an attack on a police academy in the capital in 2019 on January 17, the Colombian Duque-administration hit the ELN online presence with a great wave of repression. Numerous ELN Twitter accounts and websites have been taken offline. The Madrid authorities arrested a man on suspicion of managing websites for the ELN. During our conversations with Uriel, his Instagram account was deleted several times. A lot has happened since then. A number of ELN member accounts have been created on Twitter and Facebook. The ELN online presence was very centralized for some time, now there are also many decentralized online projects by ELN members parallel to the central websites and accounts.

The urban ELN’s online activity stands out in particular. The urban wing of the ELN, the Frente de Guerra Urbano Nacional (FGUN) started a twitter campaign during the armed strike in February 2020. A network of Twitter were created shortly before they started posting the same Content related to the armed strike campaign.

” The internet is indisputable important, despite the differences one may have with the system and its creations. The democratization of communication and information is a double-edged sword. Indisputable too is that it constantly cuts us, as we do not have the sword by its handle, we do not own the technology. Nevertheless, the popular masses have enormously benefited with the advancement of the technology of information and communication. Borders have been crossed, we have socialized the struggle, we have been able to interact with others in different parts of the world, and that is very beneficial. We have been educated in not only what happens in our Colombia, in Latin America -but in the whole world. We have gotten to know the world, we have been able to stay informed, more updated, and stay tuned. That is to say, that though we are in the jungle, in this tropical humid jungle in Colombia, we are understanding and experiencing incidents of other parts of the world in real-time. It has also allowed us to recognize what we ourselves are -the men and women of the ELN, what we live trough, our message, and our report, proposal, and expression to what we want in a world we consider to be upside down. So the internet, the access to that large cloud, has permeated us, transformed us; and we ourselves have contributed elements in which many have been able to recognize and be current with us, even from a far distance. “
– Comandante Uriel

Underground radio stations

In order to spread the revolution through microphones, the guerilla set up their first radio station "RADIO PATRIA LIBRE" on October 27, 1988. On the same day in 2012, "RANPAL" was launched as the first virtual radio network of the ELN. “Radio Nacional Patria Libre” (RANPAL) is the organization's official radio network at national and international level. The ELN's political discourse is spread and advertised through its programs. In Colombia the radio is still an important Medium, especially outside the major cities. The ELN is broadcasting their political program together with a lot of music to the audience.

The Guerilla’s collective identity

The ELN are communists, the collective ideology affects all levels of life. Even love affairs are discussed collectively if problems arise or a wedding is arranged.

The areas in which the ELN is present have numerous indigenous people. Especially in the region in which Comandante Uriel works, in the department of El Choco in northwest Colombia, there is a huge mix of indigenous people who still practice very old traditions. Many women there are suffering from genital ablation and other forms of oppression. “We fight against the patriarchy that is too ingrained in the indigenous culture”, Comandante Uriel tells us. Something important for the ELN is to develop the defense for traditions, folklore, and culture; to continue being an element of resistance as it was for past communities against foreign invaders […] There are many critiques over here about the ancestral cultures. Over the genital ablation that many women still suffer, primarily in the indigenous ethnicities. We constantly have dialogues with indigenous authorities to see what alternatives there are to abandon such practices that go against the reality of all possibilities of progress and advancement. We fight against the patriarchy that is too ingrained in the indigenous culture. We are not defenders of all culture, only for what would be beneficial to the development of forms of resistance that we are promoting so that the cultural reservoir can be defended, maintained, and promoted. So that the young, the boys, the girls, can learn the traditional dances, the traditional songs so that they are never lost. We are being Westernized, our towns are Westernizing and are losing an immense legacy that is important to the resistance and the social transformation we need.

– Comandante Uriel

Every year, the ELN celebrates its anniversary on July 4th. In the 55th anniversary year, the ELN went viral with footage of their celebrations in the local Latin American media. Well-equipped and masked guerilla next to the partying or playing small children. Sure, these images are bizarre, but this is the reality for many people in such communities. Music artists, football, lots of balloons and lots of food were shown in the videos recorded by ELN for the 55th anniversary of this year in El Choco. There are even cakes with ELN motifs for the celebration. Usually, chicken and rice is the staple food in this area.

Although the uniforms and the ELN emblem are worn together as a symbol of collective identity, there is still room for individual expression. The guerilla weave braids and stick clips into their hair, the guerilla wear different hairstyles and hats. Rifles, pistols and knives are also often decorated. Colors only seem to appear in detail, everyday life is dominated by green, brown and black.

The ELN urban youth

The ELN not only attracts people in rural Colombia, but is also organized in the cities, but the reality for the mostly young Elenos & Elenas is different from that of their comrades in the countryside.

The ELN in the mountains and in the dense jungles of Colombia live immersed in nature. Their home emerges between the trees. The urban guerilla lives in the barrios of the cities, narrow streets between small houses are their home. The culture of Urban guerilla is accordingly a completely different one. Broken down to an example: Instead of traditional music, hip-hop is primarily produced. The artists of the Urban Front are far away from the traditional image of the Latin Marxist Guerilla image of the Cold War, although they have not forgotten their roots. Here you can listen to an example of Eleno Hip-Hop from the Barrios:

The ELN is nowhere near as present in urban areas as it is in the countryside. Urban ELN members are usually organized in cells. The average age of the urban guerilla is younger than that in the mountains or in the jungle. It is interesting but comprehensible that the ELN urban youth tries to present themselves differently than their compañeros in the jungle and in the mountains of Colombia. Instead of camouflage uniforms, they wear civilian clothing with matching balaclavas and dark pants. The infamous red and black bandana is of course present.

After the conversation, the commander said goodbye with the following message:

“For the editors and their entire audience, we say goodbye with great appreciation for the fact that you have visited the main source, reached us and given us space to speak. We will continue to focus on what is within our reach so that you can understand and learn about the ELN, the Colombian reality, the desire for liberation of the Colombian public, and the armed resistance of the growing masses in Colombia. ”

-Comandante Uriel,