Paramilitarism’s 25th anniversary The end of the paramilitary negotiations?
Dec 062006

The Colombian government’s talks with the ELN are moving slowly, but they are still moving. Here is an update on this very complex situation from CIP intern André Guzzi.


An update on the ELN talks

Andre Cavaller Guzzi

One month ago, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Government of Colombia concluded a fourth round of “exploratory” peace talks. The ELN is the second-largest guerrilla group in Colombia, with approximately 4,000 members. Many experts contend that this group has a somewhat more political vision than the FARC – the largest guerrilla group in the country with about 16,000 members.

The exploratory stage of talks between the government and the ELN began at the end of 2005. Representatives from several countries (Switzerland, Norway, Spain, Venezuela, Cuba, Italy, Canada and Japan) and members of Colombian civil society – politicians, activists and representatives of the Catholic Church, among others – were invited to observe the talks, which have occurred in Cuba.

Although neither a cease-fire nor an agenda is in place, both parties announced the launch of “formal” peace talks after the fourth round ended in Havana on October 26. The Colombian government’s high commissioner for peace (peace negotiator), Luis Carlos Restrepo, and the senior ELN representative, Antonio Garcia, classified the round of dialogue as “fruitful.” Among the gains, they mentioned the establishment of an environment conducive to peace and agreement on societal participation in the process.

Though the meeting inspired some optimism, observers believe that much remains to be done in order to make real advances. Still to be discussed is the government’s expectation that a cease-fire be established as a condition for talks to proceed. This cease-fire would include a halt to kidnapping for ransom, which is perhaps the main source of income for the ELN, as it participates far less in the drug trade than the FARC and AUC. According to Restrepo, the ELN kidnaps about one person each five days, and currently the group holds approximately 54 hostages.

Dialogues with the ELN took place during much of President Andrés Pastrana’s administration (1998-2002), but failed in May of 2002. A main reason for failure was the group’s demand for US$40 million to support themselves during a six-month-cease-fire, and the government’s request that the ELN, during a cease-fire, concentrate its forces in specific regions of the country. The break occurred shortly after the election that brought Álvaro Uribe to the presidency. Uribe, whose campaign took a combative “hard line” stance against guerrilla groups, declared that he would negotiate with any group that first accepted a cease-fire. The ELN refused.

For this reason, during the first years of Uribe’s administration (2002-2006), few contacts took place. However, at the end of this period, a dialogue with ELN began to gain momentum. This was spurred by the creation of a “House of Peace” (Casa de Paz) with civil-society guarantors, in which a jailed ELN leader, Francisco Galán, was given a space to meet with representatives of various sectors to discuss what an eventual negotiating agenda would look like.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to move a peace process between a government committed to energetically combating guerrilla groups and a guerrilla group committed to achieving power through an armed revolution. Why should a revolutionary group accept a peaceful negotiation if they have not achieved their main objectives?

This question can be answered based on two points of view: the ideological and the skeptical. The first one – the ideological – would probably state that due to changes in the dynamic of the conflict (for example, since the 1990s, ELN has lost power because it has lost much of its territorial control to paramilitary forces) and growing willingness on both sides to pursue talks, a peace process is likely. This perspective holds that the peace process with the ELN could offer a model for an eventual peace process with the FARC, even though both guerrilla groups have many differences not only in the in the number of members but also in the way they conduct their actions and, probably, the way they would negotiate.

On the other hand, a skeptic would first mention the issue of the cease-fire, and the inability to arrive at a truce after more than a year of dialogues. He or she would also point out that the government is taking coercive actions to pressure for a negotiation. One example is the possibility of FARC and ELN members being judged in the International Court of Justice in The Hague if they do not sign a peace agreement before Colombia’s full entry into the court in 2009. According to the president of the National Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation, Eduardo Pizarro, “an eventual ELN amnesty would be the object of great national debate, because under the creation of the International Court, war crime and crimes against humanity cannot be totally forgiven.”

In addition to these topics, and independent of the mentioned points of view, another question will require an answer. What is the final intention of a peace process between the Colombian government and the guerrillas?

In our view, the goal of such a process should be the peaceful, independently verified dismantling of the ELN’s structures and networks that engage in violent or illegal activity. In exchange for this dismantlement, the Colombian government will have to make concessions, which will likely include some degree of amnesty, an open door to former guerrillas’ peaceful participation in politics, and perhaps some commitments to social and political reforms.

It is not yet clear, though, whether the ELN is willing to dismantle these structures and networks. Some in the group (as well as in the FARC) may prefer to negotiate an armed but peaceful coexistence with the Colombian government. This outcome, however, will be unacceptable to the Colombian government, as well as to most outside observers.

ELN leader Antonio Garcia has argued that that the group’s decision whether to lay down or to keep its weapons will be complex and difficult. He has indicated that it will depend on security guarantees and a halt to the state’s military buildup. “We [the members of ELN] are interested in achieving a good climate for the entire country, not just for one sector of society,” he said recently. “We have to discuss the question of weapons as a whole, talk about everyone’s weapons. The Colombian government has a war strategy and continues to seek economic resources to finance it. If that tendency continues, it won’t be easy to build a peace strategy that includes the state.”

The ELN has yet to develop an internal consensus on this important question, and we can expect its dialogues with the Colombian government to continue moving slowly for some time.

One Response to “An update on the ELN talks”

  1. jcg Says:

    It’s a good summary and analysis of the peace process thus far.

    The issue of intentions is clearly important. What does each side intend, and what are they willing to do in order to accomplish their goals on the negotiating table?

    Apparently, from recent press reports, the government allegedly and quietly gave the ELN a secret (because the details are unknown for us in the general public) proposal centered on the prospect of their electoral participation in 2007, but the group didn’t reply to it. Or at least it didn’t do it under the terms that the government expected, I don’t know.

    But clearly, that’s another sign of the still existing gap between the perspectives of each side.

    Hopefully the ELN eventually develops, as you mentioned, an internal consensus on the subject that allows the talks to progress, and hopefully the Colombian government is willing and able to do likewise.

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