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Peace Talks Between Colombia and the ELN

By Sam Colvett

In early December, officials from the Colombian government and the armed group Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) met in Waraira Repano, a national park in Venezuela, to resume peace negotiations. In 2018 and 2019, peace talks between the government and the armed group halted due to the advent of various violent incidents traced back to the ELN. Nevertheless, experts show optimism towards the potential for substantial disarmament processes in these renewed negotiations.

The ELN formed in the 1960’s, shortly after the end of a period of intense violence in Colombia known as “La Violencia.” The ELN drew inspiration from the Cuban revolution as well as the principles asserted by Liberation Theology, a form of Christianity that drew inspiration from Marxist political thought. The height of ELN power came in the 1990’s, when an estimated 5,000 people fought in its army and thousands more from unions and student organizations supported its effort.

Conflict between the ELN and the national government has led to thousands of deaths and displacements in Colombia and Venezuela. The group has historically targeted areas of oil production with violence, and the group has resorted in recent decades to greater use of kidnappings and ties with coca production to fund its efforts.

Fatalities involving the ELN and mining bans (Source: Rojas and Walther for NACLA)

In 2016, the Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) began peace talks with the Colombian government, which ultimately led to a mostly successful disarmament of its forces. In the absence of the FARC, the ELN has moved into areas it previously controlled to grow further and benefit financially. This has led to increased empowerment of the armed group, which has, in turn, led to a recent uptick in violence.

Previous attempts at negotiation between the ELN and the Colombian government have failed. Nevertheless, several changes in the peace process this time tend to point towards a positive environment for successful negotiations.

Firstly, Colombia recently elected its first leftist president Gustavo Petro, who used to be a member of the left-wing armed group known as M-19. This ideological shift potentially places the ELN on more secure footing due to (somewhat) similar ideological orientations. Since his election, Petro has advocated for paz total, or total peace in Colombia. His administration seeks to negotiate with dissident organizations within Colombia to assuage the violence that has long plagued the country.

Second, in the few days since peace talks have convened, the groups have already released three “axes” of their peace negotiation process. These axes include, among other things, the official designation of several guarantor and accompanying countries to aid in the peace process and an agreement to create conditions that will facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to areas of need. Senator Ivan Cepeda has claimed that these axes, and especially the axis relating to humanitarian aid, “imply that the beginning of this process and agreements are going strong.”

Thirdly, the presence of a variety of actors is likely to facilitate lasting change. Several guarantor states, members of previous armed groups, various types of members of the ELN, and members of the political opposition are all convened for the discussion. Noting the importance of the opposition especially, the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) states that “by incorporating the opposition into negotiations, any future agreement stands to benefit from greater legitimacy—and fewer attempts at sabotage—from the Colombian Right.”

Nevertheless, challenges remain in the negotiation process. For example, the ELN’s organizational structure does not grant the central coordinating body much centralized power to enforce any cease fires. The ELN is composed of 23 “War Fronts” that each have their own leaders. Even with a Central Command (COCE) and a National Directorate (DINAL) that receives representatives from each War Front, many experts are concerned that individual War Fronts will reject any peace deal reached in the negotiations.

Furthermore, violence has not necessarily been assuaged by the ongoing talks. Indeed, NACLA points out that on the day the peace talks began, various ELN War Fronts were the likely culprits for attacks on freight trucks and schools in Colombia. Continued violence by individual groups within ELN could exacerbate the difficult process of negotiation.

Ultimately, however, there remains high hopes for the success of these talks. If Petro can successfully navigate the peace process, it will mark significant progress for a country that has a difficult and violent history. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimates that 5.2 million people remain displaced due to conflict, which places high stakes on the success or failure of the peace process.

Photo: "Marcha 20 de julio - 'No más ELN, no más secuestros'" by equinoXio20080720 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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