Peace negotiations between Colombia’s government and the ELN rebel group have reached their most precarious moment since they began last year. A wave of violence recently spurred Ecuador to back out as guarantor of the discussions. And concerns over the implementation of a 2016 peace deal with the ELN’s guerrilla cousins, the FARC, have hurt the group’s confidence in the ongoing talks. InSight Crime spoke with ELN members and residents of communities where the group operates in order to get a sense of where the shaky process might be headed.
In a secluded part of the impoverished department of Chocó in western Colombia, a guerrilla fighter cleans her weapon with pride.
“I joined the guerrilla six years ago,” says the woman, who goes by the alias “Yomira.”
“I joined to fight for the people,” she adds. “Because the truth is the people are done for. It makes me happy to join the fight.”
Yomira belongs to the powerful Western War Front of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), which patrols the jungles of Chocó.
There is a strict routine for those within the ELN’s ranks. The day begins with a 6 a.m. inspection, which is followed by classes in current affairs, Marxist ideology and explosives training. The afternoon is devoted to military exercise. The day ends at 6 p.m. with another inspection and singing of the ELN anthem, which includes a repetition of the lyrics “Not one step back! Liberation or death!”
Residents of the town of Santa Maria de la Loma de Bicordó express reluctant sympathy for the guerrillas’ cause, as well as deep-rooted fear.
“We’re poor and so these guys are the only ones who can help us. But we know they’re not our real friends,” one resident told InSight Crime. “I have a young son. I’m terrified they’ll take him and make him fight.”
There are no more than 100 people in this village. There’s no running water, and electricity is rationed. It comes on only for a few hours in the evening.
While the town is mired in poverty, the San Juan river upon which it sits is a key part of a multibillion-dollar industry. The vast waterway is a strategic route for drug traffickers, linking coca production zones to the Pacific coast from where shipments of cocaine are dispatched to international markets.
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The Urabeños, a powerful crime group formed by ex-paramilitary forces, controls the northern part of the San Juan river. The group’s Pacific Bloc keeps a permanent armed guard in the town of Dipurdú, just downstream from the river’s source. The camouflage and rifles of the Urabeños members are visible from passing vessels.
The central section of the river belongs to the ELN. But in the southern delta, where the river empties into the Pacific Ocean, the ELN and Urabeños are fighting for control of territory previously controlled by the largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Caught in the crossfire are the riverside communities.
“With the [FARC] peace process, we expected schools and hospitals to be built. But all we got is more violence,” said a community leader from Cabecera, who asked not to be named.
Residents’ experiences with the aftermath of the 2016 FARC peace deal have not engendered confidence about the potential of talks with the ELN.
“If peace with the FARC brought us more war, what will peace with the ELN bring us? Forget it!”
Revolutionaries vs. Reality
The ELN’s engagement in peace talks with the government suggests a willingness to eventually lay down arms. But some leaders are wary of conceding too much to the government.
An officer of the Western War Front who uses the alias “Estasio” believes the FARC negotiated a bad deal.
“They sold out on everything they believed in. The government has made a fool of them,” he said. “We won’t fall for that.”
Inspired by the Cuban revolution and the Liberation Theology promoted by some Catholic priests in the 1960s, the ELN says it is fighting for radical social reform.
“We’ve told the government before,” said a Western War Front commander who uses the alias “Uriel.” “If they want to get rid of the guerrilla, then they need to get rid of the reasons for which we exist.”
Uriel says government negotiators are rushing through the official agenda without full consideration.
“They want to jump to the last points, forgetting the first, which is for us the most important,” he said.
The first topic for discussion is perhaps the most controversial of the six on the agenda. It revolves around “peacebuilding,” which the guerrillas interpret as a process of social reform.
“The ELN has repeatedly said that for them peace involves deep change. The question is how far is the government willing to go,” said Luis Celis, a former guerrilla turned peace advocate.
Estasio, the officer with the Western War Front, says he’s in the struggle for the long run.
“I’m ready to give up my arms and pay my sentence if we can achieve the change we’re fighting for,” he said, clutching his rifle. “But I’m a realist. It won’t happen yet, not with these negotiations.”
There appears little appetite for compromise. Critics are therefore suspicious. There is a concern that some elements of the ELN are prioritising their criminal interests. The lucrative drug trafficking and illegal gold mining networks in Chocó may be hard to abandon.
Peace Talks as a ‘Test’
Uriel, the ELN commander, describes the peace negotiations as a “test.”
“We are analyzing the intention of the government to see if it’s genuine,” he said. “For now, with the implementation of the agreements made in Havana with the FARC, we see that it’s not. This does not give us hope. The government is not living up to our expectations.”
The Western War Front has voiced outspoken opposition to what they call a “neo-liberal peace,” which it says would focus on “the silencing of weapons” and not social change. This has led to accusations of dissent within the ELN, but the guerrilla group is not a vertical structure. Each of its eight fronts is autonomous, complicating efforts to make unified decisions about the peace talks.
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The Western War Front is the only one of the eight fronts not to have a seat at the negotiating table. But Uriel denies there is division within the ELN. He says internal differences have been misinterpreted and exaggerated by the media.
Celis, the fighter turned peace advocate, also warned against overplaying disagreement.
“It is too early to talk about dissent,” he said. “The negotiations are about exploration. There’s no deal on the table yet so there are bound to be varying opinions.”
Beyond a Ceasefire
The ELN announced a five-day unilateral ceasefire for the first round of Colombia’s presidential election, which took place in late May. The announcement came on the heels of the fifth round of peace dialogues, which kicked off on May 10 in Havana, Cuba. (Ecuador, the original guarantor for the talks, ended its role as host country in April after a wave of violence linked to the ELN there.)
The Colombian government has made it clear that it would prefer a permanent, bilateral ceasefire, but this will be much harder for the ELN negotiators to sell to their rank and file without any concessions from the government.
The commanders of the Western War Front say they want definitive proof of the state’s commitment to a peace that extends beyond a ceasefire and demobilization. They are adamant they want pledges on social reform and structural overhaul.
In the makeshift camp on the banks of the San Juan river, the insurgents gather for their weekly radio conference. It is a chance for the various blocs that make up the Western War Front to discuss strategy, and there is only one message. Through the hiss of the interference, the airwaves carry a bleak directive: “We have no interest in a political solution. We are absolutely not interested in demobilization.”
Uriel is adamant the Western War Front will not change its stance. “If all the enemy wants is to demobilize use, then we are wasting our time,” he says.
It gives cause for pessimism, both inside and outside the ranks of the ELN. “The future has to be about war, not peace,” says Estacio. “Our fight will continue. It must continue.”