Recent actions by Colombia’s army against the country’s largest active guerrilla group indicate that the government may be using military pressure to achieve the upper hand in fragile peace negotiations with the group ahead of elections later this year.
Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas announced on January 15 that 22 members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN) had been captured in the days following the end of a ceasefire with the rebel group.
Among those captured is José Gregorio Torres Jaimes, alias “Walter,” the current leader of the ELN’s Central War Front in the northwestern departments of Antioquia and Tolima who was formerly a bodyguard for Commander Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” the leader of the powerful Eastern War Front.
According to Villegas, “with this important capture, the strategic extension of the ELN into zones of Antioquia has been neutralized.”
Nonetheless, Walter is a low-profile leader in a region where the ELN has maintained a very weak presence and where he mainly headed criminal activities like extortion. Over the course of the last year, including during the recent ceasefire period, the ELN does not appear to have significantly strengthened their hold over this region.
Following the end of a three-month ceasefire between the ELN and the government, violence has erupted mainly in longtime ELN strongholds like the coastal department of Chocó. A large military deployment has been sent to Tumaco, an important hub of drug trafficking and organized crime activity in the Pacific department of Nariño.
During a recent official visit to Colombia, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concern over the ELN’s renewed engagement in violence and attacks on oil pipelines, and urged negotiators to agree to another ceasefire while continuing with the peace talks.
“I express my deep concern in the face of the violent events of recent days and a possible escalation of confrontations to the detriment of the political process and the situation of the communities in the areas affected by the conflict,” Guterres said.
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The recent actions against the ELN following the end of the ceasefire could be a sign that the Colombian government will attempt to use military pressure to extract concessions from the group as fragile peace negotiations continue.
It is unclear whether the ELN’s resumed attacks are an indicator that the group is unified and attempting to use violence to gain an upper hand in the negotiations or whether the guerrilla group is divided, with some dissident factions pushing violence while others are seeking to establish a new ceasefire. The recent flare ups may also be fueled by the fact that some powerful factions of the ELN are fighting for control of lucrative criminal activities that were formerly dominated by the FARC.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ELN Peace
The strong military response may also be tied to elections later this year, in which the ruling government is likely trying to tamp down criticisms from the political opposition aimed at painting the party as soft on terrorists. These political concerns are particularly salient in light of difficulties surrounding the implementation of a peace agreement with the country’s former largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Currently, the government’s controversial peace process with the FARC is facing a number of setbacks, including high rates of dissidency and failures to implement key aspects of the accord, such as crop substitution programs and rural development projects. These problems may also be weakening trust in negotiations among some members of the ELN and could be another factor behind the resurgence of violence.
*This article was written with assistance from Angela Olaya of InSight Crime's Colombia Investigative Team.