Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla group, the ELN, is ready to start peace talks with the new government. Should these get going, it might begin a series of similar negotiations with other armed actors in the country.
During his August 7 inauguration speech, Colombian President Gustavo Petro once again called on the country’s armed groups to “lay down their arms,” a rallying cry he repeated during his presidential campaign and reinforced further once elected president.
According to statements made by the president in several interviews, there will be a “bilateral ceasefire” with groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the main security challenge facing the new government, to “end the war in Colombia.” Petro has described the proposal as one for “total peace.”
After Petro was declared the next president, the guerrilla group published a statement announcing its “full willingness for a peace process.” Nevertheless, the message made clear that the new government should address issues like crop substitution, political participation, and the country’s economic model in order for peace talks to move forward.
The ELN’s cards are on the table, and it seems that both the new government and illegal groups are open to exploring peace talks. However, past peace talks with the ELN have historically failed, and the government will have to approach renewed efforts with caution.
Below, InSight Crime takes a look at the previous attempts to negotiate peace with the country’s oldest guerrilla group and the reasons why they have failed.
The Guerrilla Phoenix
Between August and October 1973, almost a decade after it formed, the ELN was hit by Operation Anori. Public security forces attacked the group in the Antioquia department, where the group was in hiding after suffering several attacks.
The operation led to the arrests and deaths of several of its leaders, among them Manuel and Antonio Vásquez Castaño, the group’s founders. With few men in their ranks and surrounded by the Army, the ELN proposed surrendering in exchange for amnesty, El Tiempo reported.
The president at the time, Alfonso López Michelsen, sent a delegation to work on the guerrilla’s negotiated surrender. However, the group never appeared, suggesting there were no guarantees in place. Although the group was weaker than ever, the ELN regrouped and laid its roots again, resurfacing during the late-1970s and 1980s.
A Heart Attack
Another attempt at peace talks came in early June 1990 during the government of César Gaviria. This time, discussions took place with the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinator, a bloc made up of the ELN, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), and a dissident Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) front that sought to establish a path to peace with the government.
The talks took place in Caracas, Venezuela. But after an attempted coup led by Hugo Chávez in 1992, the peace talks were moved to Tlaxcala, Mexico. A short time later, Argelino Durán Quintero, a former minister of public works, suffered a heart attack while EPL rebels held him hostage. His death undermined the peace process and left hopes for peace hanging.
The ELN’s Golden Era
Between 1994 and 2010, three different Colombian presidents tried to negotiate with the ELN: Ernesto Samper, Andrés Pastrana, and Álvaro Uribe.
During the Samper administration (1994-1998), the guerrilla group had limited contact with the government, although the president made an effort to start talks. In 1998, the Machuca massacre in the Antioquia department, in which the group blew up an oil pipeline and killed dozens of people, closed the door to any possibility of further peace talks.
That same year, Pastrana decided to move forward with talks upon taking office. As he did with the FARC guerrillas, he proposed the creation of a demilitarization zone in order to advance negotiations.
However, local residents refused out of fear that the group might expand in the area. History would probably have proved them right, because the same strategy was used by the FARC and ended up with the guerrillas becoming stronger than before.
After Samper, the Uribe government authorized the start of a peace agreement with the ELN on two occasions, according to El Tiempo. The processes would have taken place in Havana, and although there was participation by other governments, the peace agreement never materialized.
This time period was marked by the power held by both the FARC and ELN guerrillas. This power allowed them to decide whether they were willing to participate in a peace agreement, or refuse to negotiate all together.
Two Presidents and a Car Bomb
After several failed attempts by other administrations, the government of Juan Manuel Santos managed to negotiate a historic peace agreement with the FARC. The framework for this agreement also opened a window of opportunity for the ELN to follow in the FARC’s footsteps.
The talks started in February 2017 in Quito, Ecuador, but were hampered by fighting between the guerrilla group and public security forces on Colombian soil. The agreement with the FARC stole all the attention, and by the end of Santos’ term, talks between the ELN and government hadn’t led to anything.
After assuming the presidency in 2018, doubts about whether Iván Duque would continue peace talks were confirmed in his inauguration speech. With uncertainty hanging in the air, the ELN once again put an end to any hopes of peace after the group crashed a car bomb into the country’s premier police cadet academy in Bogotá in January 2019. Since then, there has been no official rapprochement between the government and the guerrillas.
Back to the Negotiating Table?
President Petro’s proposal for widespread peace is starting to take shape. As an institution, the church has offered to serve as a go-between and the ELN has already shown a willingness to return to the negotiating table.
The commander of the ELN, alias “Antonio García,” said that the group “has never set conditions” for the peace talks. However, there have been many conversations and few results. The ELN’s structure as a guerrilla has been, in part, the reason some processes have not ever come to fruition.
Despite having a core decision-making body known as the Central Command (Comando Central – COCE), the guerrilla group’s structure allows its fronts to maintain a certain level of autonomy regarding the battlefield. The attack on the cadet school and the Machuca massacre are examples of this.
Political differences between the ELN and previous governments have proven to be insurmountable obstacles in the past: the deadlock with the Gaviria administration in 1990, and again with Pastrana in 1998, attest to this. However some groups, such as the M-19 urban guerrilla force and a part of the EPL, did demobilize in 1991 during the administration Gaviria.
In fact, Petro was notoriously part of the M-19 guerrilla group. As such, he serves as an example of how the demobilization processes have succeeded in some respects.
Petro’s presidency is one way to “overcome the crucial problem of political exclusion” that the guerrillas have faced for years, wrote investigator León Valencia, the director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación – Pares), in an article for Infobae.
“The inclusion of the left and social movements in power strips violence of its political character,” said Valencia, adding that “moving forward, only the abyss of the dispute over legal and illegal rents remains.”
The ELN is looking at the historic possibility of finding another, more peaceful, path. Petro, a former guerrilla spokesperson and now Colombian president, did the same just over 30 years ago.
For now, the only question that remains is whether or not the guerrillas will repeat history and thwart any hopes of a successful peace process. Time will tell.
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