After a week involving a high-profile kidnapping and alleged ceasefire violations by Colombia’s two largest armed groups, the future of President Gustavo Petro’s Total Peace policy is in jeopardy.
First, on October 28, members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) kidnapped the parents of Luis Díaz, a Colombian football star, at a gas station in Barrancas, La Guajira. The mother was quickly released, but the father, Luis Manuel Díaz, remains captive at the time of publication.
The ELN’s Northern War Front (Frente de Guerra Norte), based in La Guajira, claimed responsibility for the abduction.
Then, on November 5, the ELN’s Western War Front (Frente de Guerra Occidental) declared an armed strike in Choco, claiming the Colombian military had violated the ceasefire by colluding with the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) in the region.
That same day, the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC), the largest faction of the ex-FARC mafia, a dissident group from the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), suspended peace talks with the government after just three weeks. A bilateral ceasefire remains in place.
The events capped a horrible turn for Petro’s Total Peace plan, which aims to end the country’s decades-long internal conflict by negotiating with armed and criminal groups. The plan was ambitious from the onset, but talks with the country’s two most important criminal groups, the ELN and the EMC, appear to be unraveling.
Kidnapping Plunges ELN Negotiations Into Crisis
The ELN’s kidnapping of Luis Manuel Díaz and the armed strike may have violated the group’s ceasefire with the government and raised concerns about its ability to adhere to any future peace agreements.
These violations leave the Colombian government in a precarious position as the ELN is Colombia’s largest armed group and is considered critical to the success of Total Peace. The ceasefire has been in place since August and prohibits hostile actions between the ELN and Colombian security forces, while also strictly forbidding the ELN from taking hostages.
These incidents have underscored a longstanding concern surrounding ELN negotiations: The group’s decentralized command structure grants individual war fronts significant autonomy, leading to dissent, internal fragmentation, and seemingly rogue actions, such as the kidnapping of Díaz and the announcement of an armed strike.
The ELN has reportedly committed at least eleven potential violations of the ceasefire agreement between October 3 and November 3, according to the non-governmental organization Institute of Peace and Development Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – Indepaz). But kidnapping has drawn international attention, increasing pressure for the government to establish a clear red line with the ELN.
Doubts About Ex-FARC Mafia’s Commitment to Peace
Negotiations between the Colombian government and the EMC have come to an abrupt halt just 20 days after establishing a ceasefire. On November 5, the EMC announced the government had failed to uphold its commitments agreed during negotiations, although the ceasefire would remain.
This breakdown came after a confrontation in the town of El Plateado in Argelia, in southern Cauca, a key drug trafficking hotspot under the control of the Carlos Patiño Front, which is part of the EMC. On October 26, it was reported that members of the Carlos Patiño Front were blocking the arrival of electoral materials ahead of local elections on October 29.
Their presence appears to have violated an agreement brokered with the government, under which the EMC troops would temporarily vacate the municipality during the elections and allow the army to make sure voting happened peacefully. Following the elections, the army was to withdraw. However, the army remained in El Plateado, leading to an alleged riot instigated by the Carlos Patiño Front, eventually leading to locals kidnapping, and later releasing, 20 members of the security forces.
The collapse of these talks has led to concerns among analysts that the EMC is using negotiations as a pretext to recruit more people and fortify its positions. After the collapse of two previous negotiations over the past year, the EMC expanded its influence in key areas.
The peace process with the EMC has also struggled due to a lack of monitoring, such as delays in establishing the monitoring and verification mechanism outlined in the ceasefire protocol. “[These agreements] can’t be done on the fly. You need to have everything ready for when the ceasefire comes into effect. These improvisations here show that this government didn’t have a strategic plan,” said Luis Fernando Trejos, a professor at Universidad del Norte and conflict analyst, told InSight Crime.
Negotiations Stalled Elsewhere
While talks with the ELN and the EMC are the largest roadblocks to Total Peace, other negotiations such as those in cities like Buenaventura and Medellín, also face significant challenges.
In Buenaventura, rival gangs, the Shottas and Espartanos, have tried to maintain ceasefires while talks progress. However, Colombia’s Congress has not approved the legal framework needed to allow negotiations with such criminal groups. In early October, members of Congress presented a bill aimed at amending the Justicia y Paz law, which facilitated the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) in 2006 to include newer gangs. Unfortunately, this move also faces stiff opposition in Congress, where the president’s party needs majorities.
The delay in establishing a legal framework also has significant implications for the potential resumption of negotiations with one of Colombia’s largest armed groups, the AGC. Peace talks with the AGC unraveled in March when the government accused the group of orchestrating an armed strike by miners in the Bajo Cauca region in northwestern Colombia.
Political and Public Stalemate
These strains are only further eroding political and public support for Total Peace.
Colombia’s regional elections, held on October 29, saw a slew of mayors and governors opposed to Petro’s government elected into office, further threatening support for Total Peace at the local level.
The events of the past year have also eroded public support for Petro’s flagship plan. From August 2022 to August 2023, polling showed the percentage of Colombians who approved of negotiations with armed groups had dropped from 76% to 59%, while those in favor of defeating these groups by military means climbed from 21% to 37%.
Even if the EMC and ELN talks soon continue, these may not be completed by the end of Petro’s current presidential term in 2026. The successful peace process with the FARC counted on far broader support and still took four years to complete. The responsibility for completing Total Peace may therefore well fall on a different government.
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