The Jamundí precedent “Journalistic terrorism?”
Sep 172006

Here is a translation (thanks to CIP Intern Mariam Khokhar) of a column published over a week ago in Medellín’s El Colombiano. The author is Moritz Akerman, one of the five "civil society guarantors" of the Casa de Paz, a space on the outskirts of Medellín where an ELN guerrilla representative has been allowed to meet with people to discuss an eventual agenda for negotiations.

The ELN dialogue process has received little attention, which is a good thing. Outside the impatient gaze of the media and the general public, relations are being forged, consensuses are being built, and progress is slowly being made. Akerman’s column provides a useful, concise view of the risks and opportunities the process currently faces.

September 8, 2006
Window of Opportunity for Negotiation
Moritz Akerman
El Colombiano (Medellín, Colombia)

In my last column I emphasized the opportunities and the risks – as seen from "this side" – for the political negotiation of peace with the guerillas. But, just as it takes two to dance, I believe that an analysis should be done of the guerillas’ level of commitment, focusing this analysis for now on the ELN. The methodology of opportunities and risks will again be useful.

Let’s start with the opportunities.

1. The ELN maintains, so far, levels of political ethics that have allowed it a distance or separation from narco-trafficking. [Note: some recent evidence points to greater ELN involvement in the drug trade.] This condition eases favorable communication with society and with the international community, although the ELN continues to gravely harm citizens with kidnappings and landmines. Another aspect of this opportunity is the fact that the ELN, in this recent stage of movement toward dialogue with society and negotiations, seems to have broken with the logic of military strength and force as a means of gaining bargaining power. Its thesis is that the logic of negotiation should coincide with the logic of deepening democracy and preparing society. If this logic develops, consequently, it should lead them toward eliminating all forms of hostilities against citizens.

2. It has a collective decision-making process recognized by its fronts and its fighters. It would seem to have consolidated itself more fully in this stage of communication with society, the government, and the international community. This communication has permitted the ELN to take into account citizens’ aspirations and demands as it decidedly moves toward politics and away from participation in the war. And it will offer political and social accompaniment of its negotiations with the government, which today are demanding new and more meaningful levels and definitions. It would seem that within the ELN, and with this direction in mind, the leadership of Antonio García has been reinforced [García, viewed as one of the ELN's hardest-line members, is playing a leading role in talks with the government]. This leadership is pushing him increasingly toward politics and distancing him from acts of war. Antonio García is a categorical man whom none can accuse of being weak in the negotiations. For this reason he can pull the peace policy forward, along with the rest of the ELN.

3. Recent internal events within the ELN seem to have ratified willingness to continue negotiations, such as launching the "Political Campaign for Peace" as a prologue to the National Convention, and within the country’s political and electoral calendar.

4. The ELN, in its communication with society at the Casa de Paz, has received assurances from business and opinion leaders of their full commitment to see its participation in politics shielded against acts of right-wing terrorism, which in the case of the UP submitted that organization – and that unequaled political opportunity for peace – to an extermination not just of its men, but of the insurgents’ trust in the state and even in democracy. [The UP was a political party begun by the FARC during a 1980s peace process; thousands of its members were systematically assassinated.]

5. While it has not disappeared, paramilitarism has been delegitimized and somewhat disarticulated, and no social sector sees it today as a resource to stop the left’s political influence, or as an anti-subversive instrument. Today, no elite sees the paramilitaries as an instrument to protect itself. If the guerillas make advances in political negotiations, the objective fact – of having silenced and paralyzed thousands of undemocratic gunmen – will become irreversible: all gangs of assassins will be revealed to be nothing but the military shields of narco-trafficking.

Now, let’s look at some risks.

1. In all human processes and more so in a political negotiation, there is always a subjective risk: that leaders will not be capable of perceiving the opportunity and will lack the political skill to take advantage of junctures that may not be repeated. The FARC failed to take advantage of Pastrana’s opportunity and the Caguan. As García Lorca said, "a coin that will not be minted again." A future negotiation with the FARC will never have the level of influence and opportunity that it could have had with Pastrana.

2. The possibility exists that the ELN might prefer to negotiate in a process simultaneous to, or together with, a process with the FARC. The risk would be that they could end up marginalizing themseves while waiting for a stronger negotiating position. On the other hand, the ELN negotiations could be a stimulus for negotiation with FARC, with the ELN serving as a "trailblazer" for the entire insurgency.

3. The risk exists that the FARC might not understand the ELN’s political decision to negotiate. This would translate into major confrontations between these two guerilla groups. It is impossible to eliminate this risk completely. But the government, society, and the international community can minimize it by effectively demonstrating an attitude of high commitment. The security forces must respond with reciprocity to an eventual cease of military actions by the ELN, and the international community and society should be alowed not only to verify it, but to accompany it – politically and financially – so that ELN members can move toward politics while maintaining their zones of influence, the base of their social-political-military structure.

4. If the ELN gets a good start, negotiations with them will become a general test of the entire negotiation process with insurgents. It would be the laboratory for a negotiated political solution of Colombia’s conflict. While this in itself is an opportunity, it is at the same time the biggest of the risks. Some in the ELN and many of the negotiation’s "social companions" could be tempted to assume the childish attitude of "let’s be realists and ask the impossible": instead of becoming a stimulus for an eventual negotiation with the FARC, the ELN process could become an almost insuperable obstacle. The success of negotiations with all insurgents is not measured in unattainable demands, but in the grand prize that society is willing to offer guerillas who initiate and make possible a negotiated solution to the conflict.

3 Responses to “An optimistic look at the ELN talks”

  1. richtiger Says:

    I’m not a great fan of the ELN. I don’t know that the organization’s (relative) non-participation in the drug trade is an adequate moral counter-balance to its extortion activities.

    However, if I were an ELN member, I’d certainly be nervous about the prospect of rejoining civil society and participating in the political process.

    Circumstances in Colombia have changed, no doubt, since the systematic assassination of members of the Unión Patriótica in the late 80’s; but what guarantees, really, would “reinserted” ELN members have as regards their life, safety, and freedom?
    The government, as I recall, guaranteed the safety of UP spokesmen; but all the governmental assurances and bodyguards couldn’t keep UP partisans from falling prey to rightist assassins (who were-ahem–often part of the government).

    As a prelude to reintegrating the ELN, why not prosecute the murderers of the UP martyrs? Why not address the concerns of UP wives and children who still clamor for justice?

  2. jcg Says:

    richtiger: That’s quite a complex debate, to say the least.

    Those concerns may be genuine, but consider that the PDA, a current left/center-left movement representing far more people than the UP ever did, has not faced a fate even remotely resembling the UP’s.

    That doesn’t mean that threats and murders do not continue happening, because practically nobody is completely immune from violence in Colombia, but the fact of the matter is that things have improved.

    It shouldn’t be forgotten that the UP’s extermination did not happen by itself, you know, but in a clear historical, political, economic and even military context. Addressing them all here would take far to much time, but I will mention some factors.

    It didn’t just happen due to government inaction or action, but also because of the particular behavior of many others: the guerrillas themselves, the druglords, members of the security forces, paramilitaries, and so on.

    For better or for worse, current conditions are not identical. For example, druglords are not quite as ruthless as they then were (the UP was not the only victim of violence in the 1980’s), the military is not exactly the same either (it may still be guilty of human rights violations, but not on the same scale), the paramilitaries are at least partially demobilizing (in the 1980’s they were doing exactly the opposite: multiplying and growing more and more) and today’s ELN is not identical to yesterday’s FARC.

    If the ELN completely demobilized and went back into society, that in itself would constitute a significant difference: the UP was made up mostly of non-FARC personnel, while the FARC itself continued as an active guerrilla force and even significantly expanded its operations (that does not intend to “justify” the massacre of the UP, which is inexcusable. It is, however, a factor that is often olympically ignored in most histories of the UP and its extermination).

    “(who were-ahem–often part of the government).”
    Part of the government’s security forces, yes, but also often part of drug mafias and private paramilitary groups as well.

    Neither Betancur nor Barco had any reason to exterminate the UP, even though their governments (and, in turn, the state itself) did share a certain responsibility for allowing it to happen.

    “As a prelude to reintegrating the ELN, why not prosecute the murderers of the UP martyrs? Why not address the concerns of UP wives and children who still clamor for justice?”

    On a moral level, that sounds completely fair. Unfortunately, it is far easier to say that than to put it in practice.

    The state could easily admit that it assumes its co-responsibility for the crimes and agrees to pay reparations, find out the truth and punish those responsible, but putting all that in practice is much harder.

    Coming up with money for reparations and publicly admitting wrongdoings in a general manner is, all things considered, not that difficult (expensive and shameful, but eventually doable).

    Yet since most of the murders happened almost 20 years ago, the passage of time complicates everything else. Many of those directly responsible are either dead or have managed to remove themselves from public scrutinity in one way or another. Reviving long dead investigations will not be a cakewalk, and many may not even reach anywhere if many victims, assassins and witnesses are either dead or simply unavailable. Some will progress more than others, but I fear that most investigations will simply get stuck once again.

    Realistically speaking, I fear that the closest that we will ever come to uncovering the gory details of the truth will be by getting any surviving paramilitaries involved to reveal not only their own participation in the crimes, but also that of their accomplices in the state’s security apparatus and in other sectors of Colombian society.

    How to go about doing that, of course, is also a controversial matter.

  3. richtiger Says:

    Thanks, jcg, for taking the time to sketch some of the differences between the situation in the 80’s and the present. I hoped someone would be so kind as to do that.

    Because of those differences, ELN “partidarios” can probably demobilize without committing suicide in the process; but a peace settlement with the government does involve great risks for the organization and its members. Certainly it’s significant that the Polo Democratico has not sufferred any (?) violent reprisals. Of course, Carlos Gaviria and the Polo have consistently resisted any kind of connection to the FARC, for example.

    My call for justice for the UP was-at least partly-rhetorical. However, the remnants of the UP are still seeking answers and reparations–a not unreasonable request to make of the government. That the government cannot respond is one more indication among many that Colombia is a “failed state.”

    I don’t mean that there’s no hope for peace and progress in Colombia; but the way will be long and difficult. It’d help if Carlos Gaviria became the next president of Colombia. Miracles do sometimes happen.

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