Colombia's government has initiated preliminary peace talks with the country's second largest guerrilla group, the ELN, in a move that raises the possibility of the demobilization of another major player in the Colombian underworld but that could complicate current negotiations with the FARC.
In a joint press release on June 10, the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) confirmed that both parties are engaged in exploratory peace talks to define the agenda for more formal negotiations. So far, they have agreed on two points for the agenda -- victims of the conflict and citizen participation -- but have yet to finalize the other topics or agree on a start date for the negotiations.
President Santos stated that an integrated peace process including both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the ELN would be the best way to guarantee an end to Colombia's armed conflict, but said he cannot confirm whether or not the two negotiation tables will eventually be united.
The talks began behind closed doors in Ecuador in January 2014 after a series of meetings held the previous year.
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The ELN is Colombia's second largest Marxist guerrilla insurgency, although it is estimated to have less than 2,000 fighters and a far more localized presence than its cousins in the FARC.
The group has previously participated in several failed peace negotiations with the Colombian government, the first of which took place during the presidency of Belisario Betancur in the 1980s. The group also attempted another peace process under Andres Pastrana beginning in 1998 and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Alvaro Uribe's administration on two separate occasions.
Since the start of negotiations with the FARC in 2012, the ELN has repeatedly asked to join the talks, and rumors have been rife for some time that behind the scenes talks were taking place.
Bringing the ELN to the table marks a positive step towards peace for Colombia, and if they were to demobilize at the same time as the FARC it would close down one of the avenues open to rebel holdouts. At present, the two groups cooperate closely in both political and military actions, and the leap from one organization to the other would be easy to make for those that want to continue in the armed struggle.
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However, the ELN has different expectations for negotiations, such as its insistence of the involvement of civil society, and their participation in joint talks could make an already complex and tangled process with the FARC even more problematic.
If the talks are successful, then the demobilization of the ELN could have a significant impact on organized crime in Colombia. The rebels support themselves through kidnapping, extortion and now drug trafficking -- which in the past they viewed as "anti-revolutionary," but has become a mainstay of their funding. In the last decade, they have formed alliances with narco-paramilitary groups, in particular the Rastrojos, and have been drawn ever deeper into drug production, security services for traffickers, and possibly even trafficking.
Given that the exploratory peace talks began in January, Santos' official confirmation appears timed for the second round of presidential elections, which will take place on June 15. During the presidential campaign, Santos has largely painted himself as the peace candidate, in contrast to his opponent, Oscar Zuluaga, who would only continue talks under conditions unlikely to be met by the guerrillas.