Six months into negotiations with the ELN, talks face an uncertain future. While there has been some progress, continued attacks against Colombian security forces, a rise in child recruitment, and an inability to reach a ceasefire threaten to capsize President Gustavo Petro’s ambitious plan for “Total Peace.”
Since Petro took office in August 2022, he has radically shifted Colombia’s security policy, seeking talks with paramilitaries, guerrillas, and drug trafficking groups.
To its credit, the government has not shirked away from the complexity of such a task. Securing Total Peace would mean convincing groups to demobilize, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN); the ex-FARC mafia, a loosely connected network of armed groups who refused to join the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC); the powerful, if fragmented, Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), also known as the Gulf Clan or Gaitanistas; and a patchwork of smaller gangs and factions.
Each group represents its own challenge, but none more than the ELN. Successfully negotiating with the ELN would put an end to decades of stagnation and frustration stretching back to 1975. The last negotiations between the two sides ended abruptly in January 2019, after the ELN set off a car bomb at a police academy in Bogotá, killing 23 people.
These latest talks began in November 2022, with Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Norway, and Venezuela acting as guarantor countries. Six months on, dialogue has not been easy. InSight Crime looks into the events that have threatened to derail the process to date.
The Ceasefire That Wasn’t
One of the biggest misunderstandings to date came at the beginning of the year. On December 31, 2022, just before midnight, Petro sought to end the year on a high note. He announced on Twitter the government had reached a ceasefire with some of the largest groups involved in Total Peace, including the ex-FARC mafia, the AGC, and the ELN.
The ELN disagreed. On January 3, the group publicly denied Petro’s claim, stating that no such agreement had been made and that the ceasefire had been a “unilateral decision” from the government, which was never discussed at the negotiation table. This reaction led the government to suspend the measure.
And while both sides would agree in future talks that a ceasefire would be possible, it has not been implemented. According to Luis Fernando Celis, a researcher at Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundacion Paz y Reconciliación – PARES), the government made a “mistake” in announcing a decision that had not been mutually agreed and was then unclear in its clarifications.
However, Celis continues to believe a bilateral ceasefire is possible in the coming months.
“We have to look at the details,” he told InSight Crime. “Implementing it will take time. It can go faster in some regions than in others due to different local conditions.”
He also warned that the ELN has used the opportunity offered by past government negotiations to regroup and reposition itself in key parts of the country while publicly appearing to remain committed to dialogue.
The ELN quickly sought to differentiate itself from other illegal organizations also negotiating with the government. In September 2022, shortly after the Total Peace plan was first announced, the ELN issued a statement questioning why they were being grouped with other, what they deemed more criminal gangs.
In short, the group sought “political negotiations,” covering social and economic issues. In comparison, talks with the likes of the AGC have a narrower focus, with authorities seeking to negotiate a surrender of sorts, with AGC members turning themselves in and offering reparations for their actions.
In March 2023, the ELN clarified its reasoning: “We are in an armed confrontation with the state and, in this regard, we are discussing a bilateral ceasefire … The government knows that for this discussion to be legitimate, the political nature of the ELN must be recognized,” the ELN’s chief negotiator, Pablo Beltrán, told Colombian newspaper, El Espectador.
A few days later, the ELN’s demands were partially met. The government granted the group a degree of political recognition but indicated that this would not prevent legal proceedings against ELN members from continuing.
But uncertainties have remained. On May 12, during a speech to the armed forces, Petro called out the ELN for “fighting for territory for its illicit economies.”
On Twitter, the ELN’s commander-in-chief, Antonio García, lambasted Petro for going against the March declaration recognizing the political nature of the ELN talks. Within days, the Colombian government issued another statement, which again recognized the “political nature” of the talks and the “legitimacy” of the ELN envoys.
Attacks on Armed Forces
On March 29, the ELN launched a mortar attack on a Colombian army base near El Carmen, a town in the department of Norte de Santander. Ten soldiers were killed. It was the most serious blow, to date, to the talks.
Amid public outrage, Petro warned that the ELN was “absolutely far from peace and the people.”
In response, García answered on Twitter that the ELN “has the right to respond to attacks it receives.”
Colombia’s guerrilla groups have a history of ramping up acts of violence during sensitive periods of a negotiation process. In 1990, the government suspended talks with the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Board, an umbrella group of guerrillas that included the ELN, after a Colombian politician the group had kidnapped died in captivity. Talks were also scrapped by Petro’s predecessor, Iván Duque, in 2019 after the police academy car bombing.
This time was different. Petro stopped short of canceling the talks. Instead, at a meeting three days after the army base attack, the government and the ELN agreed to maintain negotiations and highlighted the urgent need for a ceasefire.
Recruitment of Minors
In mid-April, the mayor of Yarumal, a municipality in the northern Antioquia department, reported that the ELN had recruited a dozen minors from the town. Antioquia governor, Aníbal Gaviria, strongly condemned these actions and questioned the ELN’s commitment to peace.
This led to another confusing round of accusations and denials. First, the ELN’s commander-in-chief, Antonio García, denied any forced recruitment of minors and stated that “people join [the group] voluntarily.” At the same time, however, chief negotiator Pablo Beltrán admitted the group had recruited minors aged 16 and older. In response, the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office issued a statement that any recruitment of children under 18 was a crime in Colombia and flew in the face of international humanitarian laws.
According to a recent report from the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare and UNICEF, the ELN was the second-largest recruiter of minors in Colombia between 2012 and 2022, trailing only the now-defunct FARC.
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