As the public phase of peace talks between the government of Colombia and the country's second-largest guerrilla group begins, the rebels' ongoing kidnappings and fragmented structure promise a bumpy road for the negotiations.
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and the Colombian government planned to meet on February 7 in Quito, Ecuador, for the official start of negotiations meant to bring an end to the conflict between the parties, reported El Colombiano.
The talks, whose preliminary phase was launched in 2014, had failed to officially begin in October 2016 because the guerrilla group had not released a kidnapped former congressman, Odín Sánchez Montes de Oca.
Sánchez was finally let go on February 2, reported El País, opening the path for the delayed official start of the talks five days later.
The release of another ELN hostage held since January 24, a soldier named Fredy Moreno Mahecha, was confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross on February 6, according to El Tiempo.
For its part, the Colombian government freed four guerrillas in exchange, which the ELN welcomed as a positive sign in a press release. But the rebel group also criticized the continuing military operations against the group, saying that "the obstinate position of [President Juan Manuel] Santos' administration to discuss while continuing the hostilities will result in grave difficulties for the negotiation process."
InSight Crime Analysis
The official talks between the ELN and the government may have finallly started after numerous delays, but the rebel group's fragmented structure raises serious doubts as to the leadership's ability to reign in its troops' participation in criminal activities such as kidnapping, and to ensure that they would comply with a possible agreement.
Reports have indicated that the ELN is actually expanding its operations by recuperating the drug and illicit mining activities abandoned by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia - FARC), amid the latter's own demobilization process.
Moreover, extensive InSight Crime field research in the department of Nariño has uncovered evidence of at least three kidnappings by the ELN in the last four months that have not been officially reported. These included a former mayor of the Roberto Payán municipality and a senior business figure in El Charco with ransoms in excess of $100,000.
The flag of the ELN planted in the Roberto Payán municipality of Nariño. InSight Crime photo
These recent events could be a means for the rebel group to increase its leverage at the negotiation table. León Valencia, the director of the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación), told El Universal that the ELN would likely continue the kidnappings until the government agreed to a bilateral ceasefire during negotiations.
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But one cannot ignore the lucrative aspects of the kidnappings and illicit trades, nor the fact that they endanger the talks by calling into question whether certain elements of the guerrilla group are actually willing to eventually demobilize. Further kidnappings could be particularly damaging as they could chip away at public support for the peace process.
Moreover, given the ELN's fragmented structure, its leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias "Gabino," may not be able to rein in the rank and file and put a stop to kidnapping and other criminal activities. Similarly, Gabino's ability to enforce the implementation of a possible agreement within the rebel ranks is uncertain.