BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Seven people were killed during two ambushes at the western and eastern edges of the Colombian jungle and the government has blamed the Army of National Liberation (ELN) while the rebels have placed the blame on right-wing paramilitary unit operating in the areas as the two sides attempt peace talks.
On Saturday, five people were killed in El Carrá, a small town on the banks of the San Juan River in the lush, jungle department (state) of Chocó in western Colombia.
In the days that followed, no individual or group claimed responsibility for the attack while President Juan Manuel Santos said that he urgently ordered the “immediate capture of those responsible.”
The Public Ministry, however, soon placed the blame on the ELN rebels.
“Testimony collected in the area indicated that seven individuals wearing military uniforms and red-and-black ELN bracelets are those responsible for the heinous crimes that took place in El Carrá,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Additionally,” the statement continued, “the killers left their marks at the scene of the killings” by hanging a flag bearing the colors and logo of the ELN on the facade of a house that was attacked.
Néstor Humberto Martínez, the Attorney General, said that the motive for the killings was so that the ELN could “occupy the territories left vacant” by the much bigger rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who have demobilized as part of a landmark peace deal reached with the Santos government in late 2016.
For their part, the ELN, usually quick to claim responsibility for an attack or other act of war in their ongoing conflict with the Colombian government, denied any role in the killings.
The rebels said that the crimes were carried out by the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), a right-wing paramilitary group that splintered off from United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in 2008 when the latter was forced to demobilize.
The AUC was a right-wing paramilitary and drug trafficking group that was active in the conflict and thought to have had links with the Colombian military. They warred with the ELN and the much bigger rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), before demobilizing and fracturing into smaller groups (like the AGC) a decade ago.
The ELN’s assertion that the AGC was responsible for the murders was backed by the testimonies of many people that live in the area; local residents told Colombian daily El Espectador that the perpetrators were, in fact, members of the AGC. The testimonies collected by the Public Ministry, however, remained unconfirmed.
In late 2016, the town’s residents told members of the visiting NGO Human Rights Watch that there had been shootouts in recent months between the AGC and the Colombian Navy in the area. They made no mention of any violent ELN acts.
“False information does not contribute to peace,” the ELN said in a statement of their own referring to the peace talks between their group and the government that finally began last month in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.
Martínez, the Attorney General, highlighted the sensitivity of the situation as he said he put himself in contact with the government’s chief peace negotiator, Juan Camilo Restrepo, to “evaluate the sincerity of the peace talks in Quito.”
Restrepo, in response, said that he is “taking everything into consideration” but expressed explicitly that he and the government would not abandon the peace talks.
“We are only five weeks into the process, which means that we are in the very early stages of change in the conflict,” he said. “The opening period of these sensitive talks require patience,” Restrepo stressed, but he added that the government “will not conduct these negotiations with naivety.”
Just days later, however, two Colombian soldiers were killed and three others were injured on Tuesday evening in Arauca, a sparsely-populated and oil-producing department of Colombia that borders Venezuela.
An armed attack was carried out on a military convoy that was escorting a bus of transportation company Copetrán on a road near the small town of Nuevo Caranal. As the convoy slowed in a reduced speed area, it was attacked with gunfire and small explosives.
The soldiers then began firing back and a short gunbattle ensued. The gunfire slowed to a stop and, according to the military, ended when the assailants withdrew and fled into a nearby wooded area. The soldiers then searched the vicinity but they could not find the gunmen as they had “blended into the town’s civilian population,” the military said.
The owner of Copetrán, Mauricio Atuesta, said that his company’s buses have been attacked in the past by ELN members operating in the lush, green territory of Arauca. In the previous attacks, however, Atuesta said that Copetrán buses that were empty and parked were lit on fire when “extorsion demands were not paid” but they were not attacked with gunfire as in this case.
In contrast with the Chocó attack, the ELN offered no denial of the attack in Arauca and within hours, Santos said that he had ordered the National Police and the Colombian Armed Forces to “redouble their military actions” against the ELN in the face of the “heinous attack.”
Late Wednesday evening, Santos took to his Twitter account and revealed that the alleged perpetrators of the Arauca attack had been detained. “The Colombian Army and the Air Force are acting forcefully and effectively against the ELN, and the suspects allegedly responsible for the attack in Arauca have been detained,” he said.
The two individuals detained, according to Santos, include the leader of a local ELN division who is nicknamed ‘The Throat’ and a soldier of the ELN who has been turned over to child services as he is a minor.
Restrepo, the negotiator, once again insisted that peace negotiations will not be broken by acts of violence, but that these sorts of attacks will only force the military to take further actions of war against the ELN.
“As was the case with the FARC, the government does not want to adhere to a bilateral ceasefire until all the requirements are met and the gestures of the de-escalation of conflict are consistent. Once the peace talks with the ELN conclude, then, like with the FARC process, the government will be glad to sign a bilateral ceasefire,” he said.
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 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.
In early February of this year, however, both sides kept their pre-talks promises and finally released several detained individuals.
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 in December.
“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. Hostages released recently by both sides lowered the tension until this week’s attacks.
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.
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.