One of Colombia's most powerful criminal groups, the ELN, has expressed its willingness to return to peace talks with the government, following the election victory of president-elect Gustavo Petro. But this olive branch has been extended along with a list of demands.
On June 20, the day after Colombia’s presidential elections, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), issued a statement on their official website announcing its “complete willingness to move forward with a peace process.”
The message, signed by the ELN's Central Command (Comando Central - COCE), stated that, in order for peace talks to take place, the new government would have to show progress on a number of key issues, including crop substitution, political participation, transition toward cleaner energies and the economy.
Talks have been stopped since January 2019 when outgoing President Iván Duque broke them off. This came after the ELN carried out an attack against a police academy in Bogotá, killing at least 21 people. several uniformed personnel dead and many more injured.
During the campaign, Gustavo Petro mentioned the possibility of entering peace talks with the country's armed actors, as part of a "comprehensive peace process." However, no details have been put forward as to what such talks would look like.
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The ELN seems to be testing out the incoming government’s willingness to negotiate. But will Colombia's president impose his own conditions and sit down to hash out a peace agreement?
The ELN guerrilla is currently in a good position: it has an established presence in the country’s most important criminal enclaves and has managed to gain a foothold in Venezuela, with the support of the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
The recent past may offer a vision into the ELN's true intentions. It initially refused to participate in peace talks with the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2014-2018) before accepting, but then did so with Duque. Although the group speaks of its “willingness" to participate in talks, in reality, it may be laying out its demands to see how the new government reacts.
The political career of Gustavo Petro has also been controversial due to his former participation in the M-19 guerrilla movement. He was a member during the 1970s and 1980s until the group demobilized in 1990 and entered politics. Given Petro’s past, it would make sense for the ELN to feel more confident entering a peace process under his government.
However, the conditions demanded by the ELN will have to be considered by the government against the backdrop of a starkly divided country. Opinion is divided in Colombia between those who want talks and those who believe the ELN and other criminal groups should continue to be confronted militarily.
The ELN has already tried, on several occasions, to sit down with different Colombian officials to lay the framework for a possible peace agreement. But these efforts have repeatedly failed. Time will tell if Colombia's first left-wing administration can make a difference.