Peace talks between the government of Colombia and the country's second-largest guerrilla group have been delayed again after the rebels failed to release a high-profile hostage, a sign that the group's lack of coordination could prove an obstacle to the talks' progress.
Formal peace talks between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) were scheduled to begin on October 27 in Quito, Ecuador. The negotiations were officially announced on October 10 after years of delays.
However, the guerrilla group failed to meet the government's demand that they release all hostages prior to the start of the talks, putting the peace process temporarily on hold.
The ELN has not yet released Odín Sánchez Montes de Oca, a former congressman who traded places in April with his brother Patrocinio, the ex-governor of the Chocó department who had been held hostage by the group for more than two years.
However, the day the talks were due to begin the government's chief negotiator for the ELN peace process, Juan Camilo Restrepo, issued a statement saying that the process of releasing Sánchez has begun with assistance from the International Red Cross and the Catholic church.
"The government welcomes this development, and notes that this procedure is expected to be completed successfully, hopefully before November 3, the date agreed to begin the first formal round of negotiations," Restrepo said in the statement.
In a public address, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said, "I have instructed the government negotiating team to suspend the trip and the formal installation of the negotiations. This remains delayed until [the ELN] release Odin Sánchez safe and sound."
Santos nevertheless reiterated his administration's commitment to the peace process.
"We have every disposition of the government to advance in this process," he said.
The ELN's official Twitter account posted messages expressing concern about the postponement of the talks.
"We do not agree with the suspension of the dialogue," one message reads.
"We are trying to reschedule the installation of the dialogue in the coming days," reads another.
InSight Crime Analysis
The announcement that the negotiations would be delayed represents the latest in a series of obstacles that have made for slow progress in the peace process between the government and the ELN. Reports of potential talks between the two sides have been circulating for years. Preliminary negotiations were announced in June 2014, but the peace process was only formalized in March of this year.
The issue of the ELN's involvement in kidnapping has previously proven to be a major roadblock for the advancement of the process. And now, the group's failure to free Odin Sánchez on time appears to have stalled the talks once again. The longer it takes the group to free Sánchez, the more precarious the process as a whole will become.
If Sánchez is eventually released, there are still several other factors that could make for slow progress toward a final deal. One is the structure of the talks, which include a prominent role for civil society. This could provide an opportunity for various stakeholders to have their opinions and proposals heard, but it is also likely to lengthen the timeline of the negotiations.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the ELN Peace Process
Moreover, this latest setback will likely reduce President Santos' political capital, particularly in light of the recent public rejection of the peace agreement his government reached with the ELN's guerrilla cousins, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). In addition to dealing with the demands of the ELN in the negotiations, Santos will face limited room for maneuver when it comes to handling the powerful political forces that have aligned against his government's moves toward peace with rebel groups.
Another factor that could complicate the talks is dissidence within ELN ranks. InSight Crime sources in Chocó have said that Patrocinio Sánchez was originally targeted for kidnapping because he had dealings with elements of the ELN during his bid for office and reneged on promises he made to the guerrillas after he was elected. This may be part of the reason that the ELN faction holding Sánchez has been reluctant to turn him over.
Given the ELN leadership's apparent desire to move forward with the negotiations, the fact that Sánchez was not released ahead of the scheduled start of the talks suggests that the organization has entered the peace process in a divided and uncoordinated state. This dynamic means that government negotiators will likely have reduced confidence that their ELN counterparts can deliver on promises made during the negotiations.