Kidnappings are rising across Colombia, despite President Gustavo Petro's administration gearing up for peace negotiations with the country's last remaining guerrilla group.
Across the country, kidnappings increased by 93% from January through June, according to the Anti-Kidnapping Unit (Grupos de Acción Unificada por la Libertad Personal - Gaula) of the Colombian Police. There were 173 cases this year, compared to the 80 carried out during the same period in 2022.
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), which is in preliminary peace talks with the government, committed at least 15 kidnappings this year, according to Indepaz, a Colombian think tank. ELN-led kidnappings may be higher, however, as the departments with the largest ELN presence are the most affected.
Most recently, the ELN grabbed headlines after kidnapping a Colombian army sergeant and her two children in Arauca on July 3. Days later, the group kidnapped 19 construction company employees in Norte de Santander, releasing them later that same day.
The rise in kidnappings has occurred amid discussions of a bilateral ceasefire between the ELN and the Colombian government. Both sides agreed to halt operations against one another starting on July 6. But the guerrillas did not commit to ending their criminal activities affecting civilians, including extortion and kidnapping, which are important revenue streams for the group.
“The issue of ELN’s financing has yet to be discussed or decided upon at the negotiating table,” a researcher from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares), who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told InSight Crime.
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Revenue from kidnapping has long been one of the ELN’s main income streams, but the abduction of government workers and state security forces are also bold demonstrations of the ELN's power during ongoing talks with the government.
Besides the Colombian army sergeant, the group kidnapped five municipal government employees from Bolívar in June and a police officer in Cauca in May. The ELN has also displayed its strength in other ways, carrying out a series of attacks throughout the country for its 59th anniversary in July.
“The negotiation phase is a time to demonstrate strength,” the Pares researcher told InSight Crime. "Increasing their violent actions aims to impact public opinion about their reach, dominance, strength, to come stronger to the negotiating table.”
Kidnappings may also be a good litmus test for the guerrilla group, which has had independent factions upend peace talks in the past. Whether kidnappings continue or cease could help indicate how cohesive the ELN, its fronts, commanders, and bases are in this latest attempt at negotiations and determine the actual prospects for peace.
“We know that having a federated organization means there are significant differences in how the Eastern Front, Western Front, or the Urban Front operate and have a presence in their territories,” the Pares researcher said, referring to the various parts of the ELN's disparate and often fractious structure.
If different fronts continue their criminal activities, like kidnapping, it could jeopardize the entire peace process. In a press conference on July 5, the Minister of the Interior Luis Fernando Velasco criticized the ELN’s inconsistent actions, saying that a peace process with kidnappings does not work.
The Colombian government withdrew from earlier peace talks with the ELN after the group attacked a police training school in Bogotá in 2019. The ELN's chief negotiator, Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” claimed he had no prior knowledge of the attack, suggesting it was likely orchestrated by a rogue front aiming to disrupt the peace process.