The Colombian government's latest offer of legal benefits to individuals of armed groups who surrender and face justice was met with skepticism, especially since it came amid the coronavirus lockdown. But with 40 members of the ELN now having turned themselves in, could this strategy be more effective than previously thought?
On May 13, amid army operations in southwestern Cauca department, five members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN) voluntarily turned themselves in under a new decree that encourages members of armed groups to surrender. This brought the total number of ELN members who have surrendered since the decree came into force in late April to 40.
Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos, who is in charge of ensuring that those who surrender have a true desire to rejoin civilian life, told InSight Crime that this was not a repeat of a broader peace agreement, such as that reached between the government and the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia -- FARC) in November 2016.
*Read InSight Crime's full interview with Miguel Ceballos, Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, here.
"This is a route for individual demobilization. The door for groups demobilizing collectively has closed in Colombia," explained Ceballos.
The decree specifically targets five of Colombia's major criminal groups: the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN); dissident elements of the FARC, known as the ex-FARC Mafia; Los Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Cartel; the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL); and Los Caparrapos.
The government has previously rejected individual overtures, preferring in the past to negotiate with entire groups. In September 2017, for example, Urabeños leader Darío Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” expressed his willingness to demobilize. However, then-President Juan Manuel Santos ruled out the possibility of negotiations.
The government order comes on the heels of the ELN's announcement that it was lifting a ceasefire put in place for the month of April during the mandatory quarantine imposed by the government in response to the coronavirus. According to the guerrillas, the government has shown an unwillingness to re-engage in peace talks with the group since they were suspended in January 2019.
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The surrender of the ELN fighters is an encouraging sign for the government, but it remains uncertain whether it was the new decree that drove them to lay down their weapons. Over the years, about 4,400 members of the ELN have demobilized in various ways. For the decree to be considered a success, members of the ex-FARC Mafia, Caparrapos and other groups will need to surrender also.
The situation differs for each group. Despite the surrender of a few members, the ELN has largely been growing in Colombia and Venezuela and increasing its control of drug trafficking and illegal mining.
While Los Urabeños have lost a lot of ground in recent years, reports of their demise have been exaggerated and they remain a major force in the northern department of Chocó. Despite efforts to unify them, the ex-FARC Mafia are not a single criminal force and their fronts have seen varying degrees of criminal success across Colombia.
Los Caparrapos have solidified their presence in Bajo Cauca in Antioquia and southern Córdoba, despite a current fight with Los Urabeños, a former ally.
Of the five groups targeted by the government's decree, only the EPL have been in real trouble. Besides losing much of their Catatumbo stronghold to the ELN, the drug trafficking and political factions have engaged in internecine conflict in recent months, regularly murdering their own leaders.
Ceballos detailed to InSight Crime the incentives on offer. Those demobilizing will first be placed for three months in homes run by the Humanitarian Assistance Group for the Demobilized (Grupo de Atención Humanitaria al Desmovilizado - GAHD), where they can be joined by relatives.
At the same time, a prosecutor will be appointed to evaluate their crimes and what judicial process they will have to face.
“We’re not relinquishing the possibility of criminal action against these individuals,” Ceballos said. “What we’re doing is providing a path for special treatment...for those that lay down their weapons.”
Those charged for smaller offenses, such as conspiracy to commit a crime or weapons possession, may only receive probation, he explained. They will face a five- to six-year transition to civilian life, during which they will receive a stipend as long as they work and commit no crimes. At the end, they will receive a larger lump sum to develop their own professional path.
Outside of these conditions, the Duque administration has not shown much willingness to converse with armed groups. Besides its ongoing operations in Cauca, the Colombian Army has gone after ELN targets in Bolívar and Chocó.
It has also been placing renewed pressure on Cuba to extradite ELN leaders stranded there since the peace talks broke down.
According to Ceballos, the government is ready to sit down with the ELN again, if certain conditions are met: the freeing of all kidnapping victims, the release of all minors within their ranks, and an end to child recruitment and the use of landmines.
Despite the surrender of a few members, the ELN has been thriving across Colombia and Venezuela.
"The ball is in their court," he explained.
The fear of coronavirus spreading across rural parts of Colombia where there are few health resources is another reason to promote individuals to surrender, Ceballos said.
"On the one hand, we’re talking about around 13,500 people that today are members of these groups and could spread the virus," he said. "Secondly, these same individuals could also contract the virus and should be thinking about their own health and lives."
With the new possibility of rejoining civilian life, Colombia’s criminal groups, and in particular their individual members, will have to decide whether or not to continue with criminal activity in the times of coronavirus. However, illegal criminal economies that are stronger than ever and a steady flow of drug trafficking money may keep them away.