BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the Army of National Liberation (ELN), the largest rebel faction in Colombia following the peace agreement reached with the FARC, have reached an unprecedented 102-day bilateral ceasefire as Pope Francis arrived in Colombia.
In the first visit by a sitting pontiff since 1986, Colombia welcomed Pope Francis on Wednesday evening. For the next several days, he will make appearances in the capital Bogotá, the coastal city of Cartagena, the northern and revitalized city of Medellín and Villavicencio, the city where the Andes meet the tropical plains; some 1.5 million people are expected to greet him in total.
In reaction to his goodwill visit and the expected mass of people that are expected to “come together” in a show of unity and peace throughout the country, the government and the ELN decided to show goodwill of their own and signed a 102-day ceasefire.
The ceasefire, unprecedented as it is a bilateral ceasefire, is expected to come into effect on October 1. The Roman Catholic Church (and its local representatives) and with the United Nations will be responsible for ensuring the ceasefire compliance of both factions.
Juan Camilo Restrepo, the government’s chief peace negotiator and Pablo Beltrán, the ELN’s top leader, signed a document that “intends to improve the humanitarian situation of the Colombian population” through a “reduction of the intensity of the armed conflict” that they hope will lead to a permanent cessation of violence.
The bilateral ceasefire, according to President Santos, will be renewed “in the case that the ceasefire promises are fulfilled” and the “negotiations advance.”
In 2015, Santos asked his fellow Colombians to join his “crusade for peace” amidst the FARC peace 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 rebels 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 with the FARC, now formerly Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, started in 2012 with the hopes of ending a war that claimed more than 220,000 lives and displayed nearly seven million more since it began in 1964.
The talks eventually proved successful after several previous tries had failed and just this week, the FARC fully converted from an armed rebel group to an official political party that will participate in the parliamentary elections of March 2018.
With just under a year left in his presidency, Santos then turned to the ELN as part of that “crusade for total peace.” The process of the peace talks with the government and the FARC and those talks with the ELN are different, but for Santos, there is “only one concrete finish to the conflicts and that is peace.”
The “table” of the peace dialogue with the ELN 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 the Ecuadorian capital.
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.
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. Starting October 1, however, both sides assured that all these actions would stop.
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 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.