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3 QUESTIONS – Peace talks between Colombia, ELN rebel group


The chronology and future of peace talks between Colombia and the National Liberation Army (ELN) can be discussed in three questions.

What is the root of the ELN?

The National Liberation Army (ELN) is a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group that was founded in 1964 by Fabio Vasquez Castano, a young man who returned to his country after studying on a scholarship in Cuba. His father died on the side of the liberals in this conflict, called “La Violencia.”

Unlike the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was founded by communist peasants at the same time, the ELN’s first members, along with Castano, consisted of students, radical guerrillas, priests, and exponents of Liberation Theology.

After the discharging of Castano, who became an authoritarian leader in later years, by Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista and Spanish priest Manuel Perez, the redesigned ELN turned into an umbrella organization of many independent groups. ELN became less dependent on leaders but its decision processes were complicated.

The founders of the ELN belonged to people from different classes and has also different organizational structures to compare the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Because of this fact, the ELN was difficult to negotiate and unpredictable organization.

Today, ELN is led by Eliecer Erlinto Chamorro, known as “Antonio Garcia”, “Number 1,” along with chief negotiator Israel Ramirez Pineda, known as “Pablo Beltran,” Rafael Sierra, known as “Ramiro Vargas,” Jaime Galvis Rivera known as “Ariel,” and Anibal Giraldo known as “Pablito.” Those five people are comprising the leadership of the group, called “COCE.”

Divided into at least eight different and autonomous war groups under COCE, the ELN operates in more than 20 of Colombia’s 32 administrative regions, involving in attacks on military targets as well as ransoming, assassinations, infrastructure sabotage, control of drug routes, and border smuggling.

According to sources such as the regional press, NGOs, or InSight Crime, it is estimated that the ELN has around 3,000 militias in the cities as it has guerillas in Venezuela as well. The ELN is also the last active guerrilla group in the country.

What stage are the negotiations with the ELN?

The first negotiations with the ELN and government were unsuccessful when Alfonso Lopez Michelsen was in charge in 1975. At that time, ELN said it could negotiate for peace, but did not keep its word.

Former President Virgilio Barco’s dialogue efforts at the end of the 80s were also unsuccessful. Cesar Gaviria, who served as the president from 1990 to 1994, achieved the small group of the ELN to lay down arms, but could not reach an agreement with the ELN.

Although Cesar Gaviria, who came to the presidency in the 90s, had a small opposition wing within the organization lay down arms, he could not reach an agreement with the ELN.

The negotiations started with the inclusion of Germany and Spain in 1994 under the presidency of Ernesto Samper and continued despite the political turmoil in Colombia. But the peace talks ended in 1998 with the pipeline attack carried out by the ELN in the countryside of the city of Segovia in the Antioquia administrative region. The tragedy known as the “Machuca Massacre” left 84 people dead, including 42 children, due to the fire that broke out after the explosion.

Right-wing opposition leader Alvaro Uribe Velez took the lead in the negotiations after President Andres Pastrana’s term ended in 2002. While the negotiations between the Uribe government and the ELN in Cuba could not conclude, it was the turn of Uribe’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos to bring the organization to the table.

Peace talks, which were supposed to start in October 2016, were stalled after the ELN did not release former Congressman Odin Sanchez. Then the sides were back to the negotiation table at the beginning of 2017 in Ecuador. Despite many terrorist attacks carried out by the ELN, including the bomb attack on the police station in the capital, Bogota, Santos, the negotiations were still ongoing with the group.

Peace talks moved to Cuba after Ecuador gave up its guarantor status.

The right-wing government of Ivan Duque won the 2018 elections and it was not keen on any peace process. Duque ended the negotiations by demanding the release of all the hostages. Peace talks ended after ELN carried out the car bomb attack on the police academy in Bogota in 2019, in which 21 students were killed.

The decline in the positive views of Colombians against ELN was seen in the public opinion polls. In the research conducted by research company Invamer between December 2016 and August 2021, the average of Colombians who thought positively about the ELN was 3%, while the rate increased to 8% in February 2017, when the Quito talks started, dropping to 2% in April 2017.

Today, the public support for negotiations with armed organizations for peace is 71%. The support for the conduct of these negotiations with the ELN is 63%. The rate of Colombians who said “don’t negotiate with the ELN,” which was 28% in October, increased to 34% in December. It can be accepted that even a small problem caused by the organization will damage the support that can be given to the negotiations.

Should we be hopeful for peace?

As a continuation of the talks between the Colombian government and the ELN, which paused in 2019, the first round of negotiations was completed last week. Those talks have been held in Venezuela since Nov. 21.

The second round is expected to start at the beginning of 2023, hosted by Mexico.

The attacks that led to the end of many peace processes are seen as the ELN’s autonomous groups sabotaging each other in the media. However, the fact that the same names are always sitting as negotiators in the peace talks and of course at the overturned negotiating tables can be attributed to the fact that these attacks may have been carried out deliberately.

While the ELN continues the negotiations with the same people, the government is on the peace table with 16 new and inclusive people. It can be said that Otty Patino, one of the leaders of the M-19, who has a particularly important peace and negotiation background, will not allow the table to be overturned quickly, alongside left-wing senators Ivan Cepeda and Senator Maria Jose Pizarro, who can run the dialogue with the ELN.

Jose Felix Lafaurie, whose participation in the negotiations can help the right-wing accept the peace process and help this group feel safe in the negotiations. His participation can also be a remarkable factor for solving the land ownership issue, one of the country’s most important problems.

Unlike the previous peace process, which was undertaken under the guarantor status of six countries, including Ecuador, Brazil, Cuba, Norway, Chile, and Venezuela, the current peace process is taking place only under the guarantor status of Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela, and hosted by Venezuela.

The next round of peace negotiations will be hosted by Mexico, where Brazil, Mexico, and Chile are invited as guarantors, the US as special participant, and Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland joining the process as “comrade” countries to support and coordinate the peace.

A process with the guarantor status and participation of nearly 10 countries can put more pressure on the ELN than other peace talks.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

Source : AA