Colombia's second largest guerrilla group, the ELN, may soon begin peace talks with the government, perhaps signalling an end to its ideological war, but creating further uncertainty in the world of organized crime.
The first to break the news was radio station La FM, which said it had confirmed that following "satisfactory" preliminary talks, and that the guerrillas and the government would begin official negotiations in the second week of May.
As yet, neither the government nor the National Liberation Army (ELN) has officially confirmed media reports that talks are imminent. However, the conspicuous absence of any public denial from either side, along with the high level of detail in reports -- suggestive of a strategic leak by official sources -- give the claims some credibility.
According to La FM, talks will be led by five negotiators from each side, with the ELN delegation headed by Israel Ramirez Pineda, alias "Pablo Beltran" -- a member of the guerrillas' central command -- and the government's team by former Inspector General Jaime Bernal Cuellar.
The reported agenda will include the oil sector, foreign investment, labor reforms and the right to education.
La FM claimed the news will be confirmed in the first week of May, when the official start date and location for the talks -- believed to be either Venezuela or Cuba -- will be announced.
InSight Crime Analysis
The ELN currently has less than 3,000 fighters, but remains a formidable force in regional strongholds such as Arauca, Norte de Santander, Nariño, Cauca and the south of Bolivar.
The rebels have made numerous calls to be allowed to join peace talks started with their larger cousins the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in October 2012, even going as far as reportedly sending an unofficial delegation to Cuba where the talks are taking place. While the government has clearly been engaging the rebels behind the scenes, publicly it has rebuffed their approaches, with President Juan Manuel Santos saying he would be open to talks, but only when the time is right.
It appears that time has now come, which is good news for prospects of peace in Colombia. If the FARC demobilizes while the ELN remains active, it is possible the smaller group could be significantly strengthened by dissident FARC guerrillas disillusioned with the peace process, ensuring the conflict rumbles on.
However, the demobilization of the ELN could also have major implications for Colombia's underworld. Although the ELN's relationship to the world of organized crime has traditionally been more ambiguous than the FARC's, their main revenue sources are all criminal -- extortion, kidnapping, illegal mining and the drug trade.
The first of these -- extortion -- has been a mainstay of the group's funding for most of its existence. The ELN's "war taxes" cover the range from multinational businesses to residents of towns in areas they control. The oil sector in particular is one of the rebels' favourite targets, not just for extortion, but kidnapping as well as oil theft and politically motivated infrastructure attacks.
Kidnapping has also been a reliable revenue stream over the years, despite the group initially labeling it an "anti-revolutionary" activity. Unlike the FARC, the ELN has yet to renounce kidnapping and even carried out a spate of high profile abductions prior to talks, in what may have been an attempted to muscle its way to the peace table.
A more recent addition to the rebel's criminal portfolio is the booming sector of illegal mining. However, while in some regions illegal mining has become the main income source for the FARC and narco-paramilitary groups known as the BACRIM (from the Spanish for "Criminal Bands"), the ELN's involvement remains comparatively minor and is frequently in association with the FARC.
However, the demobilization of the ELN has the potential to have a significant impact in the world of drug trafficking. For many years, the ELN refused to participate in drug trafficking -- which remained an "anti-revolutionary" activity long after kidnapping had become acceptable. The group still denies involvement in drugs, but nowadays there can be little doubt that this rings hollow.
The ELN controls coca growing operations in regions such as Norte de Santander by the Venezuelan border and Nariño in the south, and there have been reports the rebels are increasingly involved in trafficking, but as late comers to the drug trade the rebels remain bit part players compared to the FARC and the BACRIM. However, the guerrillas were responsible for pioneering an approach that would alter Colombia's criminal landscape.
In 2006, the ELN were on the ropes, beaten back not only by the government's military offensive but also by a bitter local conflict with the FARC. In desperate need of funds and equipment to keep their struggle alive they turned to the narco-paramilitaries of the Rastrojos -- a group with its origins in the disbanded Norte del Valle Cartel, but which is comprised of many of the ELN's former enemies from the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
The insurgents struck an agreement with the Rastrojos to exchange coca base and security services for funds, arms and communications equipment, marking the first major alliance between a guerrilla group and its former enemies in the BACRIM.
While the conflict with the FARC ended after guerrilla leaders negotiated a ceasefire and nationwide alliance in 2009, the ELN's pact with the Rastrojos continued as the guerrillas got ever deeper into the drug trade.
An ELN demobilization may represent the loss of a valuable partner for the already much weakened Rastrojos or other groups that work with the guerrillas, but it could also represent an opportunity to absorb their interests. If the ELN move away from the drug trade, their BACRIM allies will be well placed to capitalize, either by seizing criminal assets and networks or -- if the ELN opt to follow the path the FARC are reportedly taking in selling off their interests in the drug trade -- by buying them.
The alliance could also facilitate the criminalization of factions of the guerrillas, as it would provide an easy step to cross over into the ranks of the BACRIM for guerrillas not prepared to be "reinserted" into society. The prospect of holdout factions of the ELN joining the BACRIM or continuing their war as a dissident faction remains one of the biggest questions hanging over peace talks.
The group has a history of infighting and has previously seen factions breakaway either to make peace – as with the Current of Socialist Renewal (CRS) in the early 90s -- or to continue with the struggle -- as happened when the rebels entered into peace talks with the government of President Alvaro Uribe, between 2002 and 2007.
A dissident splinter group would be unlikely to represent an existential threat to the state of Colombia, but even a small group of armed and battle-hardened ex-guerrillas could remain a thorn in the side of the authorities. Any fighters that joined the BACRIM, meanwhile, would be a serious asset with their training and experience.
This has happened before, when over 2,500 fighters from the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) demobilized in 1991. Many former EPL fighters later enlisted with the AUC before becoming leading figures in the BACRIM and, even today, ex-EPL fighters dominate the criminal landscape. Meanwhile, a small dissident faction remains active in Norte de Santander, where its leader Victor Ramon Navarro, alias "Megateo," has earned a reputation as a major drug trafficker and cocaine broker.
As with the prospect of peace with the FARC, negotiations with the ELN offer Colombia a new opportunity to leave behind the civil war that has ravaged the country for nearly half a century. However, unless it is handled carefully, the aftershocks of demobilization may well be felt throughout the Colombian underworld.