Colombia Govt, ELN Rebels Set Date to Start Formal Peace Talks

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The government of Colombia and the country’s second-largest guerrilla group announced that they will soon begin formal peace negotiations, a new step in a long-delayed peace process that is sure to encounter many obstacles moving forward.

The announcement was made at a January 18 press conference in Quito, Ecuador, which has agreed to host the talks between representatives of the government and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).

According to a joint statement, the negotiating parties have agreed to start the talks on February 7.

The ELN has promised that by February 2 it will release former congressman Odín Sánchez Montes de Oca, who is being held captive by the guerrilla group. This hostage situation has previously derailed the start of the talks.

The parties also agreed that ELN negotiators would be declared “peace advocates” under a presidential decree (pdf) that allows the government to suspend arrest warrants and prison sentences for members of armed groups engaged in peace talks.

It is unlikely, however, that the government will reduce its efforts against the rebels. The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has kept pressure on the ELN in the run-up to this recent announcement by continuing both military and judicial actions against the guerrillas.

InSight Crime Analysis

The announcement in Quito represents a significant step forward in long-running efforts aimed at achieving a peace deal between the Colombian government and the ELN. The two sides entered into preliminary talks in June 2014, and they announced a negotiating agenda in March 2016. Official negotiations were preivously scheduled to start on October 27, 2016, but they were delayed by the rebels’ failure to meet the government’s demand that they free Sánchez by that date.

It remains to be seen whether unforeseen circumstances will once again postpone the official start of the negotiations. But even if the talks begin as scheduled, it is unlikely that their successful conclusion will come swiftly.

History has shown that peace negotiations between governments and guerrilla groups are full of thorny issues that often take years to resolve. And as InSight Crime has previously noted, the agenda for the ELN talks will allow civil society actors to participate fairly extensively in the peace process, which could draw out the negotiations even further as various opinions and proposals are considered.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the ELN Peace Process

Perhaps more importantly, however, is dissidence in the ELN ranks. There are deep divisions within the guerrilla group about whether to commit to the talks, raising questions about the rebel leadership’s ability to ensure compliance with any deal negotiators might eventually reach. Rather than submit to the terms of a possible peace agreement, many ELN members may choose to defect and continue the lucrative criminal activities that have sustained the group for decades.

This dynamic could be exacerbated if ELN dissidents join up with defectors from the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which recently signed a final peace agreement with the government. Despite the signing of that deal, several FARC factions have broken away from the process and are refusing to participate in the implementation stage.

Previous reports have suggested that some FARC units have been handing control of criminal economies over to the ELN. It is possible that collaboration between these guerrilla cousins — and in particular, defectors from both groups — could deepen as the peace process with the ELN moves ahead.

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