As part of its ambitious “Total Peace” agenda, the new Colombian government recently restarted peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), marking the first new negotiations since January 2019. And while this cycle of talks adopted the same agenda and process framework as the previous efforts, current President Gustavo Petro appointed a diverse and broad negotiations team in the hopes of generating early momentum and support. Petro intends to advance on partial accords as quickly as possible — building up to a comprehensive agreement before his brief four-year term in office is complete.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro arrives at presidential inauguration ceremonies in Bogotá, Colombia. August 6, 2022. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)
Colombian President Gustavo Petro arrives at presidential inauguration ceremonies in Bogotá, Colombia. August 6, 2022. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)

Background on the ELN Rebels

Outside of Myanmar’s rebel groups seeking ethnic territorial autonomy, the ELN is the world’s oldest insurgency pursuing national-level political and economic transformations.

In the early 1960s, ELN guerrillas were largely inspired by Catholic Liberation Theology, which espoused the freedom of the oppressed and marginalized across Latin America’s deeply unequal societies. In contrast to the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the ELN has never sought to mobilize a large standing army capable of conducting massive operations against the central authorities. Instead, it has prioritized clandestine ideological outreach at the grassroots level and strategic alliances with unions, students and community-based organizations throughout the country.

For several decades, the movement was deeply committed to defending labor leaders in the mining and oil industries. But ultimately, the ELN has sustained itself financially through kidnapping, extortion of government contracts and consistent payoffs by international corporations. As such, the ELN has historically been much less involved in drug trafficking. Only in more recent years have younger generations of local ELN commanders sought to insert themselves into such illicit activities, with varying degrees of success.

Over the course of Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict, the ELN has committed serious human rights violations, though proportionately fewer than other armed actors. The final report of Colombia’s Truth Commission concluded that the ELN has been responsible for 4 percent of the hundreds of thousands of non-combat homicides linked to the armed conflict. In comparison, 45 percent were attributed to paramilitary groups, 21 percent to the FARC, and 12 percent to the army and the police. Nevertheless, the ELN’s commitment to truth-telling and reparations for victims in emblematic cases — such as environmental disasters from attacks on oil infrastructure and the bombing of the police academy in Bogotá in 2019 — will be crucial for the future of negotiations.

Today, the ELN’s roughly 5,000 members have a registered presence in one-fifth of the nation’s municipalities, with dozens of urban militia cells established throughout the country’s most prominent cities, including Bogotá. Despite becoming the focus of the armed forces during the previous government of Iván Duque, the ELN has grown over 50 percent in both composition and territorial reach in the wake of the FARC’s demobilization in 2017. While it still conducts attacks on government forces, mostly targeting the police, the ELN largely engages in armed confrontations with FARC dissident factions and expansive paramilitary successor groups over control of remote communities and strategic commercial routes.

Dating back to the early 1980s, with the notable exception of President Iván Duque, eight Colombian governments have engaged in formal peace negotiations with the ELN. In nearly every process, the rebels have proposed: humanitarian agreements to de-escalate military confrontation, a participatory national dialogue with diverse sectors of civil society, and a clear differentiation from the FARC. The ELN have been inaccurately framed as the “little brothers” of the FARC in the past — a sticking point which ultimately doomed several negotiations.

Despite their political identity, the ELN has never imagined becoming a civilian traditional party like the FARC has, but rather sees their future as transitioning from “armed resistance” into strengthening broader civilian-led social movements.

Strong Legitimacy and Support for the Renewed Process

The current peace process shepherded by Petro enjoys significant domestic support among Colombians — providing it with the potential for success where so many previous negotiations have fallen short.

Recent national polling has repeatedly confirmed that over two-thirds of Colombians support the renewal of peace talks with the ELN and over three-in-four back the idea of peace negotiations as the main instrument to deal with armed groups in general.

This was reflected in the 2022 presidential elections, when nearly every major candidate openly endorsed restarting peace negotiations with the ELN rebels. And for Petro, the massive voter turnout among Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities along Colombia’s Pacific coast — largely inspired by pro-peace activism — ultimately provided the decisive difference in his clear runoff victory this July.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church, the most legitimate and trustworthy institution in Colombian society, has reaffirmed its deep commitment to supporting the peace negotiations and has been invited to permanently accompany the talks as the only domestic institution outside the two negotiating delegations.

The renewal of the talks has also benefited from tremendous international legitimacy, with a broad range of Latin American and European countries actively and directly supporting the negotiations. For its part, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has committed his special representative in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, to permanently accompany the process with the same status as the Catholic Church. 

Internal Cohesion of the Negotiating Teams

The ELN’s delegation benefits from significant continuity and relative solidarity. Prior to this new round of talks, ELN negotiators conducted over a month of internal consultations to update their consensus regarding the current national political landscape. While many analysts have consistently decried the rebellion as a collection of federated autonomous fronts, the ELN’s elaborate and participatory internal decision-making structures make it harder for local commanders to refuse any hard-reached political decisions, despite their considerable operational and financial authority. Furthermore, the central leadership of the ELN appears deeply committed to national-level transformations and appear resistant to being limited to local agendas where some of their commanders may have deeper roots.

For the current government, however, building cohesion and solidifying coordinated action will undeniably be a challenge given the diverse set of personalities and sectoral representations involved. The government’s negotiating team includes a broad range of political, social, ethnic and military perspectives under the overall direction of Otty Patiño, one of Petro’s closest confidants and negotiators from their own peace process as part of the M-19 insurgency more than 30 years ago.

One of Patiño’s biggest challenges will be ensuring buy-in from delegation member José Félix Lafaurie, the president of the national cattle ranchers’ association (FEDEGAN) and a prominent leader within former President Alvaro Uribe’s conservative right-wing political party.

However, Lafaurie’s direct participation also brings several important advantages to the process. First, the ELN has always sought to procure concessions — even if they are substantially less than their proclaimed aspirations — from what they view as the powerful economic leaders of the country. Among their doubts about negotiating with a progressive government like Petro’s is their need for buy-in from Colombia’s traditional establishment elites and commitments to long-term implementation of any agreement. If Patiño can get Lafaurie on board, it would go a long way in easing those ELN concerns.

In related fashion, the ELN has always sought to negotiate with former President Uribe precisely because they have viewed the hard-right conservative leader as their archetypal enemy. For his part, surprisingly, Uribe has long sought to negotiate with the ELN, even over the FARC, and Uribe was even slated to lead a government negotiations team in 2021, before Duque refused to provide his approval.

The Role of Venezuela in the Process

The first cycle of negotiations took place in neighboring Venezuela from November 21 to December 12. The ELN has deep territorial and political ties with Venezuela, with at least 2,000 members and some of its most senior hardline leaders residing there.

And over the last decade, the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro has viewed the ELN as an essential element for a guerilla insurgency to return to power in the event the Maduro regime fell victim to a foreign invasion or a military coup.

However, with the possibility waning dramatically for either of those scenarios coming to bear, the utility of the ELN for the Venezuelan regime is fundamentally altered. As such, despite the many fair criticisms of its official role as one of the four guarantor countries in the negotiations, Venezuela can contribute in vital ways to incentivize the process, including by ensuring logistical arrangements for rebel internal consultations.

To a certain extent, ideological encouragement in this direction could be also linked to good faith reciprocity for Petro’s rapid renewal of diplomatic, economic and security relations between Colombia and Venezuela that have been frozen for the last six years.

Furthermore, Venezuelan political negotiations between Maduro and his political opposition resumed officially with a historic humanitarian social welfare accord just days after the ELN talks began. With both Norway and Mexico playing prominent guarantor and facilitator roles in both sets of negotiations, there exist clear momentum-generating opportunities to cement the symbiotic relation between ending the armed conflict in Colombia and the resolution of the socio-economic and political crises in Venezuela.

Partial Agreement to Alleviate Humanitarian Crisis

During the first cycle of talks with the ELN, the negotiating teams have begun exploring parameters to immediately address the conflict’s humanitarian impact on rural communities. Such efforts are not only a moral imperative, but also a vehicle to generate trust among the negotiators trying to establish the reliability and good faith of both sides.

And in a sign of progress, the two sides announced that they had reached a partial agreement for the return of indigenous communities as well as measures to improve conditions for prison populations, including many ELN members — a long-standing point of insistence for the insurgency.

Tragically, however, the rebels’ territorial disputes with other armed groups continue to wreak havoc in communities in departments like Chocó and Arauca, where hundreds of civilians have died over the course of 2022. These devastating sub-dynamics of the overarching armed conflict reaffirm the central assumption behind the Petro government’s comprehensive peace strategy: Engage in solutions-based pragmatic conversations in a coordinated and parallel fashion with as many of Colombia’s 52 recognized armed group structures as possible.

Thus far, including the ELN, 20 groups have expressed interest in participating in the peace agenda — with most geared primarily toward creating plea-bargaining arrangements that would take the limited financial and judicial benefits afforded to individuals that surrendered under the Duque administration and expand them to include collective groups.

The hoped-for effects of this approach are already showing: One of the country’s most violent hotspots in the port city of Buenaventura has enjoyed a dramatic decrease in homicides because of a local cease-fire agreement and anticipation of lasting solutions.

The challenge for the Petro administration will be to allow the ELN to perceive itself as superior to these other groups, with some degree of privileged status as a long-standing insurgency, while also ensuring that any efforts toward a multi-lateral cease-fire are clearly coordinated with equally binding commitments between all groups involved. Disappointingly, in one region along the Pacific Coast, where the initial humanitarian accord was slated to focus its efforts, an ELN front declared an “armed strike” to ensure that competing armed groups were unable to leverage the agreement to expand their territorial control.

With the number of social leaders killed in Colombia continuing to increase since the last several years of the Duque administration, many Colombians will gauge the seriousness and credibility of the negotiations with the ELN by the degree to which there are palpable and tangible improvements in community safety over the end-of-year holiday festivities before talks resume in mid-January in Mexico.

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