Colombia prosecutors have charged the ELN rebel leadership with 15,896 crimes in a legal move that will add to the pressure on the guerrilla group to follow through on their promise to submit to a peace process.
The Colombian Attorney General's Office said on May 11 that it had issued a "macro-imputation" against five members of the Central Command (Comando Central - COCE) of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación - ELN).
"We are advancing in the construction of the origin, evolution, expansion, policies and strategies of the ELN; its structures and those who are ultimately responsible for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed within the context of the internal conflict," the Attorney General's online press release said.
The umbrella accusation covers the 1986-2016 period and alleges COCE responsibility for 4,894 kidnappings, 930 cases of illegal recruitment, 5,391 homicides, 2,989 displacements, 1,605 other human rights violations and 80 cases of gender-based violence.
Specific cases attributed to the ELN leadership include the 1989 kidnapping and murder of the Roman Catholic bishop of the department of Arauca, the murder of political leaders and security forces, a series of "mass kidnappings," and cases of sexual abuse against female guerrillas.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
The prosecutor's office also accused the ELN leaders of murder in connection with the deaths of 126 women in the departments of Arauca, Boyacá and Casanare -- many of whom were partners of police or military officials -- adding that those cases will be prosecuted as femicides, or the killing of a woman due to her gender.
The charges are being brought against COCE members Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, "Gabino," Israel "Pablo Beltrán" Ramírez Pineda, Eliécer "Antonio García" Chamorro, Gustavo "Pablito" Giraldo Quinchía, and Rafael "Ramiro Vargas" Sierra Granados.
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This significant legal step taken by the Colombian government only weeks after the ELN agreed to formal peace talks shows that the state is willing to take on the guerrillas in the judicial arena as well as on the diplomatic front.
Despite reiterated attempts by the Colombian government to make it clear that the time for peace with the ELN is now or never, the road to official talks has been consistently rocky. Recent field research by InSight Crime uncovered evidence that at least one member of the ELN's top command -- the Eastern War Front commander called Pablito -- is opposed to the peace talks. Continued ELN attacks, mainly by Pablito's troops, have threatened to derail negotiations on more than one occasion.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ELN Peace
This "macroimputation" presents ELN leaders with a more tangible threat. While they are already wanted for numerous crimes by both the Colombian and US governments, this all-encompassing accusation produces a more dire legal scenario for the COCE should the ELN backs out of the peace process, with its expected benefits from transitional justice.
The move puts ELN commanders on notice that they could be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, taking them into legal territory that could transcend the internationally accepted jurisdiction of transitional justice.
Given the ongoing peace talks with Colombia's main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), the government is also in a position to dedicate more military resources to exerting pressure on ELN troops. The FARC has declared and generally observed a unilateral cease-fire. Evidence of stepped up military action against the ELN can be seen in the recent killing and capture of two ELN chiefs in west Colombia.
This flexing of state muscle against the second-largest guerrilla group in Colombia comes at what could be a crucial point in time. InSight Crime has seen evidence that some FARC units are already transferring illegal economies to their guerrilla cousins, heightening the risk of a supercharged ELN taking shape in the wake of a potential FARC demobilization.