Colombia's second-largest rebel army the ELN has apparently handed a hostage over to the FARC, raising the question of what the deepening alliance between the two groups could mean for the country's kidnapping trade and peace process.
According to the military, a Colombian engineer who was kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (ELN) last year was recently handed over to a faction of Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The hostage, Leon Montes Ceballos, was kidnapped last year in a rural part of Colombia's central Antioquia department, and is now being held by the FARC's Mario Velez Columm, Colonel Juan Carlos Vargas told El Tiempo.
By handing over the hostage, the ELN was able to move more quickly through the region and thus escape military pressure, Vargas added. He also cited the incident as an illustration of the "clear alliance" between the two guerrilla groups.
According to the army, the FARC and ELN have previously swapped other kidnapping victims, and have also shared fighters, weapons, and equipment.
Both guerrilla groups have been considerably weakened in Antioquia in recent years, although the department remains a key area of operations for the rebels, in part due to the lucrative illegal gold mining trade in the region.
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Despite the past friction between the FARC and the ELN -- they were at war with one another during a brief period in the 2000s -- they agreed to a non-aggression pact in 2010, and more recently jointly announced their desire to work together in a peace procress with the government.
While the FARC has committed to stopping kidnapping, the ELN has shown no interest in doing so, and has rejected the government's request that they do so as a precondition for peace talks. While the FARC are currently negotiating with the Colombian governmnet in Cuba, the ELN has continued kidnapping, often targeting foreigners.
If the ELN are passing off their hostages to FARC factions, this raises serious questions about whether the FARC are trying to have it both ways: publically committing to not carrying out kidnappings, while helping their ELN allies protect their hostages. This could create some bad blood at the ongoing peace talks in Cuba.
Ongoing FARC support of ELN operations could also put the government under greater pressure to find a way to negotiate the ELN's inclusion in the peace process. The guerrillas have said that said any peace dialogue must include both groups to have any hope of success, and if their alliance continues to deepen it makes less and less sense to continue the process without the ELN.