Will ELN Join Colombia’s Peace Talks?

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The ELN guerrilla group is making moves towards entering peace talks with the Colombian government, which could be crucial to negotiating a lasting peace with Colombia’s other rebel organization, the FARC.

The National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest insurgency, published a statement on their website on November 12, declaring that they had put together a team that was ready to begin exploratory dialogue with the government. In their declaration, the group  “hailed” the talks currently underway with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and called for a ceasefire while negotiations continued.

The government responded by publicly calling for discretion from the ELN, which Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said was a precondition for moving forward, reported El Espectador.

“We will respond in due course though the right channels,” he said. “The worst thing would be to start having a dialogue through the media.”

However, the guerrillas re-stated their interest in negotiating days later. In an interview with ELN Commander Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” published on their website on November 15, he said the group was ready to begin talks without any preconditions.

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The FARC and the government opened formal talks in Oslo last month, and will begin another round of talks in Havana next week. The involvement of the ELN could be crucial to making these talks work.

There seem to be incentives for all sides to make sure the ELN is involved. If the FARC were to demobilize, the ELN could take over the territories and economic ventures of its former rival, including drug trafficking and extortion. The ELN could also provide a new home for any renegade FARC fighters who did not want to lay down arms.

However, the ELN is weak. It has an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 soldiers nationwide, compared to 8,000 for the FARC. Joining forces would give the ELN the best chance of making sure its interests are heard.

These interests are slightly different from the FARC’s. The ELN has traditionally sought greater civil society involvement in peace negotiations. It has also placed more emphasis on sovereignty, particularly as it relates to the use of the country’s natural resources. The FARC have taken up this cause as well, and together the two may make it central to the talks.

Leon Valencia, director of Nuevo Arco Iris think tank and himself a former ELN guerrilla, has pointed out that the two groups both have territory in the provinces of Arauca, Catatumbo, Cauca, Nariño, the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia, and Bolivar. He said that their political agendas would not be distinct, although each group would have a different emphasis, pointing out that mining and oil extraction would be a major theme for the ELN. 

However, the combination of two different groups with potentially competing interests could complicate the process, and increase the risk of it being stalled by one side or the other. As the International Crisis Group noted in a recent report, a joint negotiation would “probably reduce risks of coordination failures but might have drawbacks also, including slowing the pace.”

The two groups have taken part in joint negotiations before. In 1991, they held talks with the government of Cesar Gaviria in Venezuela and in Mexico, under a rebel umbrella organization known as the Simon Bolivar Guerrilla Coordinating Group. These talks came to a standstill, however, as the two sides failed to reach an agreement.

The ELN also held a series of meetings with the government of Andres Pastrana following the breakdown of the FARC peace process in 2002. The most recent set of ELN peace talks broke down after several years of discussions under previous President Alvaro Uribe. As Crisis Group set out in a 2007 report, the ELN felt that the government was using the talks to try to legitimize its controversial negotiations with the right-wing paramilitaries.

In the interview published this week, ELN commander Gabino acknowledged the failed peace talks, but said they showed that the ELN had been open to peace for more than 20 years.

“We are aware that each new failure to achieve peace has serious repercussions for the future of Colombia,” he added.

The Santos government’s initial reaction to the overture notwithstanding, it has said publicly that it is open to other guerrilla groups joining negotiations. The FARC is reportedly also in favor. The two guerrilla groups called a truce with each other in December 2009, ending the warfare that had raged between them in some parts of the country in the preceding years.

Talks between the Santos government the ELN may have already begun. Valencia has said publicly that the ELN is taking part in preliminary talks with the government, and that it sent a delegation to observe the talks with the FARC, which took place recently in Norway.

International support for these negotiations goes beyond Norway and Cuba. El Tiempo reported this week that possible ELN-government talks have another advocate: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

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