ELN guerrillas stand in formation during a drill.

ELN guerrillas stand in formation during a drill.

The Last of the Cold Warriors Are Oiling Their Weapons in Colombia

South America’s biggest guerrilla army has made peace, but its smaller rival is still fighting.

In the jungles of western Colombia, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, a small rebel army is holding out against the government, drug traffickers and history.

The Cold War ended a quarter of a century ago, and the biggest guerrilla army in the Americas, the FARC, finally handed in its weapons this year. Yet the FARC’s smaller rival, the Marxist-Leninist National Liberation Army, or ELN, is still on a war footing.

The group is currently holding peace talks with the Colombian government in Quito, Ecuador, while fighting off drug gangs encroaching on its territory. Many of the rebels are skeptical that they’ll be able to reach a lasting peace with Colombia’s “oligarchy.”

“We have to keep fighting, we have to keep shooting, to be able to build a more just Colombia,” said “Yerson,” the alias of a commander of the group’s so-called Ernesto Che Guevara combat unit. “I don’t see enough common ground for the ELN to leave more than 50 years of its history on a negotiating table in Quito.”

Photographer Iván Valencia traveled to Choco department in western Colombia to document the rebels’ daily life for Bloomberg News before the ceasefire ends next month.

Members of the ELN patrol the San Juan River in Choco, Colombia. In the region’s deep forests, boats are a key means of getting around. Whoever controls the rivers, controls the area.

ELN fighters stand in formation in an aerial photograph taken above a remote hamlet in Choco.

Iván Valencia/Bloomberg

A guerrilla rides his bicycle in town, chased by his dog. The rebels are more relaxed than usual because of the ceasefire.

Guerrillas test explosives with homemade mortars fashioned from gas canisters. They’re getting ready to return to war when the ceasefire ends next month.

Iván Valencia/Bloomberg

The guerrillas are getting ready to return to war when the ceasefire ends next month. Here they are test-firing one of their mortars. 

A guerrilla watches television from outside a typical wooden home. Local people don’t have electricity, but the rebels hooked the TV up to their gasoline-powered generator.

Iván Valencia/Bloomberg

ELN fighters stand in formation during a meeting. Right now, the ceasefire with the government means they’re less worried about airstrikes or ambushes by the armed forces.

An ELN rebel plays in a soccer game with local residents.

ELN members wrap explosives in a sack to shape a homemade mortar known as a pipeta.

Clothing, including an ELN uniform, dries outside a home.

A guerrilla puts a cap bearing the ELN logo on the group’s dog, Palomo. The guerrillas say they rescued the dog after Colombia’s army abandoned it in a firefight.

A female ELN fighter sits, weapon in hand. Many of the group’s recruits are women, who fight in the same units as men do.

An ELN member shakes hands with a villager. The guerrillas are the local authorities because the state has little or no presence. Local farmers sell produce to them.

ELN guerrillas fire weapons during a drill in Choco department. The rebels are using the ceasefire to train troops.

An ELN member walks past a weapon propped against a wall.

An ELN member walks toward morning training exercises.