Peace negotiations between Colombia's government and the ELN guerrilla group have backtracked once again due to the issue of ongoing kidnappings by the rebels, highlighting how this issue has become a key stumbling block to the talks.
Colombia's government decided to unilaterally "freeze the implementation of the accords signed and agreed upon this week" with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), according to a joint press release from June 10.
On June 6, both parties had come to terms on several points concerning the "pedagogy and communication for peace." But four days later, authorities decide to backpeddle on the decision.
"How can the 'joint pedagogy of peace' be done, when the ELN persists in advocating kidnapping," argued Juan Camilo Restrepo, the government's chief negotiator, on Twitter.
In an open letter sent to El Espectador and published on June 5, Restrepo had already raised the issue of kidnappings by the ELN group as a barrier to peace talks, even as the official maintained that there was still sufficient time to reach an agreement under the administration of current President Juan Manuel Santos, whose term will end next year.
(Negotiations between the two parties have not come to a complete halt, as only the implementation of the cited communication measures has been frozen.)
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Speaking on behalf of the government, Restrepo defined kidnapping as a humanitarian issue that needed to be addressed as a priority. The ELN's abandonment of the illegal activity was also established as a prerequisite to a bilateral ceasefire, for which the rebel group has consistently called.
In a recent interview with TeleSUR, ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias "Gabino," insisted on the importance of implementing a bilateral ceasefire "for humanitarian relief mostly in the areas subject to the armed confrontation for 53 years and ... to generate trust in the peace process."
Gabino added that "on the part of the ELN there is every disposition. If the government decides so tomorrow, we could agree on the ceasefire."
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The kidnapping issue has emerged as a central obstacle to the progress of the ELN-government peace negotiations. The official start date of the talks, originally set for October 2016, was delayed by more than three months due to the ELN's inability to release a high profile hostage, former Congressman Odín Sánchez Montes de Oca, who was eventually freed in February of this year.
Now, the kidnapping issue has blocked the implementation of recent agreements in the peace process, while holding at bay the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire. The rebel group, under continued military pressure, has repeatedly insisted that a bilateral ceasefire will help advance the talks.
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Even if the ELN leadership decides to order an end to kidnapping, it is uncertain whether or not they will have the capacity to enforce the decision among their fractured ranks.
For one, the ELN does not possess a strong, vertically-integrated hierarchical structure. Reports of dissent from several ELN fronts have already surfaced. And secondly, as InSight Crime discovered during a recent field investigation in Nariño, the kidnapping business remains extremely lucrative, which further increases the risk that fighters would refuse to follow orders to abandon this source of income.