One of the chief negotiators of Colombia's largest remaining guerrilla group, the ELN, has spoken out on the rebels' peace process and their place in the rapidly evolving Colombian underworld. However, the picture he paints bears little resemblance to the realities of a group that is now playing a pivotal role in shaping Colombian organized crime dynamics.
In an interview with Verdad Abierta, Carlos Reyes described the latest developments in peace talks in Quito, Ecuador between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
According to Reyes, negotiators have now established two sub-working groups that are discussing the participation of civil society in the peace process and humanitarian actions.
Reyes insisted there was a unified backing of the peace process among the guerrillas and denied claims that the ELN's Central Command is struggling to maintain control over the guerrilla fronts scattered around the country. However, he ruled out the possibility of the ELN declaring a unilateral ceasefire to de-escalate the conflict.
"The ceasefire must be bilateral, agreed on, verified and respected by both parties," he said.
Reyes denied the ELN are co-opting spaces left by the demobilizing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). But at the same time, he repeated the statement made by ELN leader Pablo Beltrán that the guerrillas "will go where we are called."
In relation to the conflict hotspot of the western department of Chocó, where the ELN are involved in a long-running conflict with the neo-paramilitary group the Urabeños, Reyes claimed the ELN's interest in the region was not related to control of drugs, illegal mining and smuggling corridors but with organizing communities to address issues such as corruption, poverty and state neglect.
Reyes also accused the state of colluding with the Urabeños in Chocó, pointing to the unimpeded movement of large groups of Urabeños fighters in the region as evidence.
"This paramilitary group has support, intelligence and coordination with the military," he said.
InSight Crime Analysis
Reyes comments present the face of the ELN that the guerrillas would like to show to the world: that of a revolutionary force working for the benefit and with the support of neglected and poverty ridden regions, confronting state corruption, paramilitarism and exploitative businesses that is now preparing for peace. However, while there may be some truth to many of his comments, the reality on the ground is very different.
SEE ALSO: ELN Profile
With the departure of the FARC, who are currently assembled in demobilization camps around the country, the ELN have found themselves presented with a golden opportunity to increase their influence and wealth even as they talk peace in Quito. And contrary to Reyes' comments, there is strong evidence that they are taking advantage by seeking to fill the vacuum left by the FARC in regions with lucrative criminal economies or geographical strategic importance.
The example discussed by Reyes -- Chocó -- stands as a stark warning to how this situation could fuel new cycles of underworld conflicts as the Colombian underworld adapts to the departure of the FARC. If peace talks with the ELN do not progress rapidly, then further such conflicts could erupt as the ELN looks to boost its finances and territorial influence, either to strengthen their negotiating hand or to wage further war.