In a sign of waning confidence in the negotiations that could lead to their unraveling, Colombia's government has suspended peace talks with the country’s largest active guerrilla group and plans to intensify military action following a series of violent attacks.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made the announcement on January 29, saying that the decision to pause talks with the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN), which were scheduled to resume this week, is tied to a series of recent bombings of three police stations on Colombia's Pacific Coast.
The recent attacks, which add to a wave of violence following the January 9 expiration of a temporary ceasefire between the government and the ELN, have worn down the “patience of the Colombian people,” the president said. According to Santos, peace negotiations will not continue until the ELN “makes its behavior compatible with the demands for peace of the Colombian people and the international community.”
The ELN’s Urban War Front (Frente de Guerra Urbano) has claimed responsibility for the January 27 bombing of a police station in Barranquilla, the capital of Colombia’s northern Atlántico department, that left five police officers dead and 41 injured.
According to Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, authorities also suspect that the ELN is responsible for two additional attacks on police stations in Soledad, a city on the outskirts of Barranquilla, and in the neighboring department of Bolívar, which together resulted in the deaths of two police officers; six other officers and one civilian were injured in the blasts.
In a statement released by the ELN on the day of the president’s announcement, the rebel group said that “as long as the two parties do not agree to a new ceasefire, military actions will continue on both sides.” The rebels also urged for a return to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Santos and Defense Minister Villegas have both called on Colombia’s army to continue a post-ceasefire strategy of intensifying military actions against the ELN.
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The Colombian government’s recent decision to suspend peace talks with the ELN and escalate military action is just the latest sign that trust in the process is breaking down, potentially foreshadowing a collapse of the talks.
And with elections looming, neither side appears ready to back down. As InSight Crime recently reported, the government’s response to renewed violence has focused on attempting to use military pressure to forcefully extract concessions from the guerrilla group. This aggressive approach could be influenced by political concerns that opposition parties might attempt to paint the ruling party as soft on terrorism ahead of elections this spring.
The ELN’s continuing attacks have also opened questions about how unified the group might be when it comes to supporting the peace negotiations. Violence could be an attempt to gain an upper hand in the talks, to blow them up altogether or to expand and take over lucrative criminal activities formerly controlled by the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which demobilized in 2017.
There may also be a weakening of trust in the process among some members of the ELN in light of setbacks in the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC.
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The international community and the Catholic Church -- both of which strongly supported the FARC-government peace talks -- have called for a renewal of the ceasefire. In a joint statement, the United Nations Verification Mission and Colombia’s Episcopal Conference said the government and the ELN “share the need for a more robust ceasefire agreement that generates greater trust between the parties and in Colombian society.”
Although the FARC peace talks were strongly supported by the US government under the administration of former President Barack Obama, the current administration of President Donald Trump does not appear to be throwing support behind the negotiations with the ELN. Following the police station bombings last weekend, the US State Department condemned the attacks and offered help to the government, but did not mention the talks or call for a renewed ceasefire.
*With additional reporting by Angela Olaya.