Colombia's ELN guerrillas' refusal to formally renounce kidnapping may prove to be a major obstacle for the start of peace talks with the government that were announced by both sides earlier this year.
According to Colombia's Defense Ministry, the National Liberation Army (ELN) is currently holding nine hostages, reported El Espectador. However, País Libre, a non-governmental organization that tracks kidnapping in Colombia, reports that the ELN has only two hostages.
The government is currently involved in peace talks with Colombia's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). The FARC's decision to publicly renounced kidnapping in 2012 was widely seen as having helped convince the government to sit down and negotiate with the rebel group. The ELN, however, has failed to do the same despite agreeing to enter into its own peace process with the government.
In an interview with El Espectador, ELN leader Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias "Pablo Beltrán," said kidnapping was an issue "on the table" for upcoming peace talks. "The government has gone to a lot of effort to make sure that this issue would be addressed," he added.
The issue is complicated by two recent kidnappings that the ELN has reportedly profited from.
In early April, the ELN released former governor Patrocinio Sánchez Montes de Oca, whom they'd kidnapped in 2013. Recently, however, Sánchez revealed to Colombian media that he was not released as a good-will gesture -- he was exchanged for his brother. Sánchez was in ill health, so his brother insisted on taking his place, the former governor said.
In a similar situation, the ELN released a hostage in March who had been kidnapped in September 2015. The minister of Interior has described that release as "a gesture that opens the possibility of finally beginning formal negotiations." However, that hostage later said he was released after his family paid the guerrillas a ransom, rather than as a gesture of good will.
InSight Crime Analysis
The ELN are obviously reluctant to give up a criminal activity that they have long relied on for cash, and they may not be the only guerrilla group to feel this way. Notably, there have been reports that the FARC are encouraging increased planting of coca crops, perhaps in order to have a bigger reserve of funds should the government start seizing their other assets.
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The ELN may refuse to formally renounce kidnapping until the group has built up its own cash reserves. It is possible that the guerrillas also see this as a way to pressure the government into a bilateral ceasefire before continuing negotiations.