In recent months, the ELN has made several attempts to reach a ceasefire but these have been continually rebuffed by the Colombian government, which claims the guerrilla group has no real desire for peace. So why does it keep trying?
On July 7, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) formally requested a ceasefire with the national government, after the United Nations Security Council called for armed hostilities around the world to stop due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This call was immediately rejected by President Iván Duque, who demanded the group “free all those it holds and put an end to its criminal acts.” The government has repeatedly stated that the ELN’s kidnapping practices are one of the main obstacles to resuming peace talks.
The latest call by the ELN for a ceasefire was not the first this year. The group made a similar plea in April, with the group saying it would help Colombia deal with the pandemic. A month later, it dropped the ceasefire and blamed the government for not taking similar steps.
In February, the ELN took a different approach to get the attention of the Colombian government, carrying out coordinated attacks across large parts of the country as a show of force.
Peace talks between the ELN and the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos began in February 2017. But the negotiations were shut down by President Duque after the group carried out a January 2019 bombing attack against a police training school in Bogotá.
InSight Crime Analysis
The ELN has arguably been Latin America’s most successful criminal group in recent years, expanding its membership and becoming well established in two nations as it expanded into Venezuela. InSight Crime named it as one the region’s foremost criminal actors for 2018 and 2019.
But if it is in such a position of strength, what could it gain from a ceasefire?
First, the calls for a ceasefire have revealed some of the internal divisions the ELN has undergone of late. As such, it is uncertain how united the group is in seeking ceasefires.
Much of the group’s Central Command (Comando Central – COCE) has been stranded in Cuba since January 2019, when the peace talks held on the island were suspended.
Over this time, the group has continued to grow in power, especially in Venezuela, where it reportedly has been welcomed by the government.
Furthermore, while the ELN has a top-down hierarchy, its fronts have traditionally operated with a great deal of autonomy, able to take their own local decisions about how to pursue specific criminal economies. This autonomy is likely to have grown stronger with the COCE in Cuba, especially as a younger generation of leaders has come to rule their fronts.
The COCE has also sought to continue the ELN’s political work, potentially alienating it from ELN units now more focused on maximizing their criminal revenue.
Kyle Johnson, an expert on armed conflict in Colombia, told InSight Crime that the ELN’s repeated calls for ceasefires are a way “to measure the government politically.”
At the same time, the COCE could use the rejected attempts at a ceasefire to improve ties with the ELN’s rank-and-file. For Johnson, the government’s continued refusals may allow the COCE to maintain its influence with the ELN fronts, providing an excuse for its leaders to continue their political activity in Havana while armed activities continue in Colombia.
Essentially, the COCE may well have called for a ceasefire and anticipated a negative response from the government, in order to use that to maintain its very legitimacy.