Latin America and Caribbean Report N°68 - The Missing Peace: Colombia’s New Government and Last Guerrillas
The National Liberation Army, or ELN, is Colombia’s last guerrilla movement standing. Forged in the tumult of the 1960s and influenced by a mix of Marxist and religious creeds, the group has withstood infighting, government offensives and clashes with other insurgents. But its “armed resistance” to a state it sees as serving the interests only of economic elites appears dated and damaging. Even as other guerrillas and paramilitaries have negotiated peace deals with the government, talks with the ELN stumble along at an agonising pace. Several ELN units whose strength and involvement in drug trafficking is growing appear reluctant to end their armed struggle, though their position could change if talks make progress. President-elect Iván Duque, due to take power on 7 August, has established strict conditions for continuing negotiations, heightening the risk of resumed hostilities. The parties should quickly agree on an improved bilateral ceasefire, greater civic participation in the peace process and confidence-building measures if they are to persuade the new president not to scrap negotiations.
Having been suspended in January 2018, with the participants later expelled from Ecuador, talks between the ELN and the government resumed in Cuba in early May. But overcoming the setbacks and lost opportunities of the past two years will be a challenge. A loosely defined agenda laid the basis for the start of the peace process in 2017, while a bilateral ceasefire starting that October and lasting for more than 100 days instilled guarded optimism. Against the backdrop of demobilisation and the handover of arms by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), formerly the country’s largest guerrilla movement, the apparent progress created a sense, in late 2017, that President Juan Manuel Santos could achieve peace with both insurgencies.
These expectations were confounded in early 2018. Recalcitrant ELN units, above all in the Pacific region of Chocó and along the eastern border with Venezuela, used their power in the movement’s command structure to block a renewal of the ceasefire. A 27 January attack by an ELN unit on a police station in the northern port city of Barranquilla killed seven policemen and injured more than 40 more, stirring great public anger and prompting the government to suspend talks.
Meanwhile, deep in its rural strongholds, where the ELN has long acted as an armed supporter of social organisations and a provider of public order, many locals chafe at its growing brutality and belligerence. Clashes between ELN units and other armed groups in the Catatumbo and Chocó regions have displaced thousands. Par- ticipation in drug trafficking, nominally prohibited by the guerrillas’ top command, has become conspicuous in certain regions. Long sympathetic to the Venezuelan government, the guerrillas have a cross-border lifeline to the neighbouring country, with senior commanders residing there while fighters act ever more openly in Venezuelan towns and villages.
The ELN’s scepticism toward the peace process, and the violence it deploys, have won it no friends in national politics. President-elect Duque insists that strict conditions be imposed on the group’s 2,000 combatants before talks go ahead – conditions that the ELN would almost certainly reject. His opponent in the 17 June run-off, former guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro, warned that the ELN faced a stark choice: opt for peace or transform into a drug trafficking group. At the same time, the risk is high that a new government will dilute the implementation of the FARC peace agreement, thereby deepening the ELN’s already profound mistrust of the Colombian state. A scenario in which Duque ditches the ELN process and declares open war on the group is a real possibility. His government appears likely to treat the ELN as a “terrorist” group, operating from a safe haven in a pariah state in Venezuela, thus justifying such a move.
Yet a resumption of fighting is not inevitable. Already galvanised by the possi- bility that the Duque government will abandon President Santos’s dedication to negotiated peace, the two sides should use this round of talks in Havana to strike landmark deals. Government officials have noted a change in the ELN’s willingness to take major steps at the negotiating table, especially following various unilateral ceasefires and a significant reduction in violence in recent months. Should the two sides agree on confidence-building measures and a framework for civil society participation in the peace process, push through local accords to reduce the human costs of the conflict, and lay down the terms of a new bilateral truce with clearer conditions and improved verification, then the negotiators will have the momentum. The new president is definitely no avid supporter of the process. But he may become a grudging one, if agreements are in place that reduce violence and enjoy the backing of civil society and foreign states.
Finally, all supporters of the negotiations need to stress to Duque the grave dangers of returning to conflict. The ELN has been hurt by state military offensives, including attacks on the group earlier this year after the ceasefire lapsed. But across the border in Venezuela, the safety and protection the guerrillas have historically enjoyed will continue to work to their advantage. The territories across the country in which the movement operates are difficult to penetrate and control, while the ELN’s fighters, often disguised as civilians, remain hard for authorities to identify. Declaring war on the group may sate the new government’s desire to impose state control over the entirety of Colombia’s national territory, but firepower alone will not bury the last of its guerrillas.