BARRANQUILLA, Colombia – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has suspended the ongoing peace talks between his government and the Army of National Liberation (ELN) after a faction of the rebel group claimed responsibility for several attacks that left seven policemen dead in the northern coastal region of the country.
“I have made the decision to suspend the fifth cycle of the peace talks that were to be held throughout the next several days until I see a consistency on the part of the ELN between their words and their actions,” Santos announced.
The announcement by Santos is the latest negative development in what has been a worsening situation in recent weeks between the government and the ELN following the early January expiration of the 101-day ceasefire signed between the two parties several months ago.
In September, Pope Francis arrived in Colombia in what was the first visit by a sitting pontiff to the South American nation since 1986.
While Pope Francis visited the capital Bogotá, the coastal city of Cartagena, the revitalized city of Medellín and Villavicencio, the city where the Andes meet the tropical plains, the government and ELN representatives were busy discussing how to lower tensions.
In reaction to his goodwill visit and the mass of people some 1.5 million strong that came 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 101-day ceasefire.
The ceasefire, unprecedented as it was a bilateral ceasefire, came into effect on October 1. The Roman Catholic Church (and its local representatives) and with the United Nations ensured 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 intended to “improve the humanitarian situation of the Colombian population” through a “reduction of the intensity of the armed conflict” that they hoped would lead to a permanent cessation of violence.
The bilateral ceasefire, according to President Santos, was to be renewed “in the case that the ceasefire promises are fulfilled” and the “negotiations advance.”
Fast forward to early January, however, the ceasefire expired with no extension and within days, the ELN resumed their attacks on military targets while the government forces returned to hunting rebels and bombing their jungle encampments.
This monday, an ELN cell that calls itself the Urban War Front claimed responsibility for the violent attacks that took place over the weekend. A police station in the northern coastal city of Barranquilla was attacked and five officers were killed while two other attacks near the city claimed the lives of two soldiers.
In a statement that released by the cell, the faction reserved the “right to rebel” against the government authorities as there was no longer a ceasefire or any other agreement to limit war activities in place. Notably, the cell was alone in its declaration and there was no statement from top ELN leadership or the group as a whole, which indicated that the Urban War Front acted independently in the attack.
Regardless, Santos placed the blame on the entire organization and ordered a stop to the peace talks in which his government has been involved with the ELN for just under a year now.
In 2015, Santos asked his fellow Colombians to join his “crusade for peace” amidst the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) 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 2017, 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 last year, the FARC fully converted from an armed rebel group to an official political party that will participate in the parliamentary elections of March 2018.
Santos then turned to the ELN as part of that “crusade for total peace” before his presidency ends in August of this year. 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.”
Santos’ decision to stop the peace talks is curious; in the past, he has reiterated his wish to “negotiate during wartime.” He outlined this doctrine himself: “Terrorism is fought with all forcefulness as if there were no peace negotiations, and negotiations are carried out as if there were no terrorism.”
Indeed, those actions of war, including skirmishes with government forces, kidnappings and sabotage of private and state-run petroleum and logging companies, were being taken by the ELN while government forces still actively hunted and engaged the rebels in combat before the ceasefire came into effect. While those hostile acts took place, the peace talks continued.
Santos said that “despite his insistence on the need for continuing peace talks amid warfare,” the negotiations demand a “minimum of coherence” and that he, along with the Colombian people, have their “limits” and “only so much patience” and for this reason, he decided to suspend the talks.
Rodrigo Rivera, the government’s High Commissioner for Peace, said that the negotiations have entered into a “critical phase” and that while the talks are not “broken,” the “dynamic of cooperation and dialogue has been negatively affected” by the violent acts.
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, the late 1990s and in the early and mid 2000s.