QUITO, Ecuador – With the help of neighbor and host Ecuador, Colombia’s government has finally entered into peace talks with the nation’s second-largest rebel group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) or the Army of National Liberation, in Quito.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who oversaw the monumental peace talks with the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that were ratified just months ago, saluted the start of the talks in the Ecuadorian capital.
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.
Earlier this month, however, both sides kept their pre-talks promises to release several detained individuals.
The government released two ELN prisoners: Juan Carlos Cuéllar and Eduardo Martínez Quiroz, prominent members that are planned to join the peace talks. In fact, both men were two of the most prominent members of the ELN central command to speak out in favor of the talks. Furthermore, Nixon Arsenio Cobos and Leivis Enrique Valero, two other ELN members, were released due to their health conditions.
Meanwhile, the rebels freed Odín Sánchez, a former congressman and former member of the violent United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), on February 2. He was delivered to the International Committee of the Red Cross in the northwestern department (state) of Chocó after being held by the ELN for the last nine 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 had been reluctant to free Sánchez.
The ELN also released Freddy Moreno, a soldier of the Colombian Armed Forces that was kidnapped on January 28 in the eastern department of Arauca near the Venezuelan border. Like Sánchez, Moreno was handed over to the members of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The start of the talks were 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 has 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 in January when the start date was announced 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 and released the two most important aforementioned individuals earlier this month.
The “table” of the peace dialogue was set up in Quito and, as was the case with the FARC talks, will have guarantor countries that will participate and help in the process including hosts Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Norway and Venezuela. The seat of the talks will possibly move to one or more of the guarantor nations in a rotating fashion but will likely end in Quito.
There will be an agenda of six points: participation in society, democracy, transitions, victim recognition and the end of the conflict and the agreement’s implementation. Several of the same units from the FARC talks, including a truth commission, a tribunal and an international mission for verification, will be used for the ELN talks in “coordination and synchronization” with the Havana bureau.
The opening of the talks were inaugurated by the Ecuadorian representative, Juan Meriguet (subsecretary of his nation’s Foreign Ministry), ELN primary negotiator Pablo Beltrán and the government’s top figure in the talks, Juan Camilo Restrepo.
“We will execute the themes with great speed and rigor as peace requires urgency, but this should not be confused with some sort of ‘express’ version of peace,” Restrepo said.
Beltrán, for his role, hailed the talks but insisted on a future bilateral ceasefire to ensure the smooth progress of the peace talks. His wish will almost surely go unfulfilled, however, as the government did not adhere to a bilateral ceasefire with the FARC until the end of their talks despite several flareups and the risk of more incidents.
Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista ‘Gambino,’ the highest-ranking commander of the ELN, has previously 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 approaching the negotiating table with good intentions 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 has now started is very important and a welcome development,” he said. “The established table of peace dialogue with the ELN fills us with optimism.”
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.