BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has said his government will enter into negotiations for an eventual peace agreement with the nation’s second-largest rebel group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) or the Army of National Liberation, on February 7, just months after the peace agreement signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was ratified.
In 2015, Santos asked his fellow Colombians to join his “crusade for peace” amidst the FARC talks and announced that his government had opened an exploratory phase of talks with the ELN.
In a joint statement, the two sides stated that they initiated early talks after a series of contacts and exploratory meetings held since 2013.
A September 2016 scheduled start date failed to materialize after a pre-talks agreement on the release of hostages taken by the ELN and the release of ELN members from State custody broke down.
Now, a tentative agreement is in place for the government to release two ELN prisoners: Juan Carlos Cuéllar and Eduardo Martínez Quiroz, prominent members that would join the peace talks once released. In fact, both men were two of the most pro-peace talk ELN central command members.
Meanwhile, the rebels are set to free Odín Sánchez, a former congressman and member of the violent United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), on February 2 to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sánchez has been held by the ELN for the last eight months.
The AUC, a right-wing paramilitary and drug trafficking group that was active in the conflict and thought to have links with the Colombian military, warred with the FARC and the ELN before it demobilized and fractured into smaller groups in 2006. For this reason, the ELN has been reluctant to free Sánchez.
If the talks begin as scheduled with February 7 as the start date, they will be held in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito with the help and support of the Ecuadorian government and its outgoing leader, President Rafael Correa.
The dates for the talks are tentative and under scrutiny from opponents of the process as Santos set several deadlines for different milestones during the peace talks with the FARC, many of which were unfulfilled.
The peace talks in question between the FARC, Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, and the Colombian government, started in October of 2012 initially in Oslo, Norway and then continued in Havana, Cuba with the hopes of ending a conflict that has lasted over half a century.
In reaction to a ultraviolent crackdown on peasant organizations, the FARC militarized in 1964. As the primary guerrilla force, the FARC rebels have been engaged in war with the Colombian government since then, a war that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced nearly seven million more.
Agreements on land reform have been achieved during the peace talks, along with the group’s future political participation and the topic of the illicit drug trade. The last point that was agreed upon, which was transitional justice, carried with it the sub-point of suspect and victim recognition and reparation, the most sensitive subject given that it concerned all those affected by the conflict. As such, it was also the longest point as negotiations about the victims lasted 18 months.
The talks, which finally produced a bilateral ceasefire and led to the lowest levels of violence seen in Colombia in over four decades, saw its definitive peace agreement ratified in Congress just last month.
“I will continue to seek peace until the very last minute of my presidential term,” said Santos after the FARC deal was ratified. He made the peace agreement one of his primary concerns and platforms when he was re-elected to a four-year term in 2014 and is now turning his attention to the ELN as his presidency ends in August of next year.
With the conclusion of the talks with the FARC and the initialization of talks with the ELN, Colombia is “advancing toward complete peace,” Santos said from Davos, Switzerland where he was attending the World Economic Forum. “The processes between the two are different, but there is only one finish to the conflicts and that is peace.”
Actions of war, including skirmishes with government forces, kidnappings and sabotage of private and state-run petroleum and logging companies, are still being taken by the ELN while government forces still actively hunt and engage the rebels in combat. The ELN has, however, released several hostages during the last several months.
Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista ‘Gambino,’ the highest-ranking commander of the ELN, has said that the levels of war activities will depend upon the actions of the government toward the rebels during talks.
Furthermore, the ELN has expressed that it is hesitating to adhere to a cease in operations due to the government’s insistence on trying in court several young members of the ELN who form part of its non-combat groups in various colleges and universities.
Regardless of this impasse, the two sides seem to be heading to the negotiating table and as the talks intensify, belligerent actions by both sides are expecting to significantly fall.
“We have been trying to start the official peace talks for over three years now,” Santos said in referencing the fact that exploratory talks opened in 2013. “It has been quite a difficult and trying process but the second stage that will be starting next month is very important and a welcome development,” he said.
The the ELN has existed since 1964 like the FARC, and like the FARC, the Marxist/Liberation Theologist ELN has been labeled a terrorist organization by the government of Colombia and their US and EU allies. At times, the two groups have conducted operations alongside and against each other given that they operate within the same geographical area, but those instances have been rare.
Led by Roman Catholic priests, most notably Father Camilo Torres who was also a university professor, the group engaged in radical activities in opposition to ruling goverments and their continuation of policies that furthered the stark inequalities of Colombian society. They then took up arms after a crackdown by authorities on the group’s activist actions at universities.
Today, following decades of warring against the powerful and well-funded Colombian Armed Forces and right-wing paramilitary groups, the group is estimated to field some 3,000 armed guerrillas throughout the territory of Colombia.
The ELN, like the FARC, has participated in peace talks before, most notably in the mid-1970s. Several decades later, the group also entered a similar “exploratory phase” of talks with the government while the FARC negotiated with the Executive during the leadership of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002). In 2004, communication was established between the ELN and the government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) but was quickly severed, as were tries for talks once again in 2007.
Boosted by the results achieved through peace talks with the FARC, however, the government negotiators and their counterparts in the ELN are much more confident for a positive outcome this time around.