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Will 2019 see a Peace Process for the ELN rebels in Colombia?

Polls show that 64% of Colombians want President Duque to resume negotiations with the ELN, but the new government called off talks in 2018, leaving the future of the peace process uncertain. Español

ELN Guerrilla members. Image: cortesy of pacifista.tv

Even though Colombia signed a peace deal with the FARC rebels in 2016, armed conflict in the country is not yet over. Another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN – Ejército de Liberación Nacional, in Spanish), the country’s now-largest guerrilla organisation, is still alive and kicking.

Since the demobilisation of the FARC, remote parts of the country have witnessed increased violence, as guerrillas – most notably the ELN – and criminal groups compete for the control of territories left behind by the FARC, including access to drug-trafficking routes. In fact, Colombia’s coca acreage for cocaine production is at an all-time high, despite government efforts to eradicate plants.

Former President Juan Manuel Santos began formal peace negotiations with the ELN in 2017, but in September 2018 newly-elected President Iván Duque called home the negotiation team from Havana, pointing to the ELN’s continued involvement in kidnapping and their refusal to free hostages. Meanwhile, the rebels’ negotiation team – still in Cuba – insists that they are committed to negotiating peace and are waiting for the government to send a new delegation.

Santos’ negotiations with the ELN reached their zenith in September 2017, when both parties agreed to a 4-month bilateral ceasefire. This was the first of its kind since the rebel group was created in the 1960s.

The rebels’ negotiation team – still in Cuba – insists that they are committed to negotiating peace and are waiting for the government to send a new delegation.

Following the end of the ceasefire –largely respected by both sides – the insurgents resumed violent activity in January 2018. They bombed oil pipelines and attacked military installations and police stations, affecting the civilian population and killing and injuring several members of the forces of the state.

Ultimately, Santos suspended the talks, claiming inconsistencies between the ELN’s words of peace and actions of war. Negotiations began again in Cuba in May 2018, with the aim of forging another truce. Despite some advancements, the parties were unable to agree to another ceasefire.

Negotiating with a “terrorist group”?

Colombia’s new president Iván Duque has been openly critical of the negotiations. In his inaugural speech, he announced that he would take 30 days to evaluate the past 17 months of talks and decide whether to continue with the process.

These 30 days have passed, leaving the future of negotiations more uncertain than ever. In September Duque dissolved the negotiation team in Havana. Later on, while in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, he referred to the rebels as a “terrorist group” and reaffirmed that his government was open to resuming dialogue only when the ELN releases all remaining hostages and ends participation in all criminal activity.

This has been the position of the government since then.

In response, the ELN has released damning statements claiming that Duque’s government is revealing its bellicose tendencies, and they have reached out to the Senate’s newly created peace commission urging them help the negotiation to advance.

The rebels’ delegation in Havana even suggested they would be open to discussing Duque’s demands (i.e. releasing hostages and suspending all military activity), but stressed that any new set of conditions need to be discussed at the negotiation table, and not defined unilaterally by the new government.

On 18 December, the ELN tweeted their desire for 2019 to bring peace for Colombia and later  declared a 12-day unilateral ceasefire from 23 December-3 January to “contribute to a climate of tranquility at Christmas and the New Year.”

What do Colombians want?

The messages sent by the government conflict with what most Colombians want. The most recent Gallup poll (fielded in October 2018), which measures the perceptions of Colombians living in five of the country’s major cities, show that 64% of those surveyed think that negotiations should begin again.

Not only are these figures substantial in their own right, they also show a clear upward trend, steadily increasing from 50% in February 2018, reaching almost 70% in June.

One does not need to be an ELN-supporter to believe the government should sit down and continue negotiating.

Opponents to the peace negotiations have suggested that only those who are sympathetic to the ELN support the peace negotiations with the insurgents.

Poll figures clearly show that this is not the case.  Indeed, 93% of the people surveyed by Gallup reported a negative (desfavorable) opinion of the insurgent group, which implies a considerable overlap with those who are calling the government to resume talks. One does not need to be an ELN-supporter to believe the government should sit down and continue negotiating.

The voices from the margins

The opinions and attitudes from Colombian cities were confirmed by our conversations with community members from marginalised regions with high ELN presence (and where polls usually do not arrive)—notwithstanding the country’s stark urban-rural divide.

Colombians want to see the negotiations to resume in 2019.

For example, in Arauca -- a department with a historically high presence of the ELN -- a government official noted that the peace process with the FARC meant that the military could increase its presence in the region, that there were no cases of intimidation during the presidential elections, and that criminality has gone down overall.

However, he also stressed that the ELN is still active in the area and continues to threaten the security of the communities living there. Therefore, he hopes that a similar process with the ELN will serve to increase security in this region and thus believes that the new government should resume the talks.

A civil society leader from the department echoed these messages. Recognising that security conditions have improved since the demobilisation of the FARC, she noted that the ELN continue to harass, intimidate, and enact violence in the communities in which she works, including forced recruitment and homicide.

Therefore, she was clear in voicing her opinion that ongoing negotiations should continue. In her view, this will allow the region to finally experience “una paz completa” (a holistic peace).  She noted, “people are fed up… they want a peace process with the ELN.”

Duque won a majority of votes in the department of Arauca. This further shows that Colombians who want the government to continue negotiations with the ELN are not necessarily guerrilla sympathisers. Regardless of whether people come from large cities or rural areas, including regions where the ELN has had historical presence, Colombians want to see the negotiations to resume in 2019.

When deciding his next move, Duque should pay attention to these demands.

About the authors

Annette Idler is Director of Studies at the Changing Character of War Programme, University of Oxford. She has conducted extensive fieldwork in Colombia’s borderlands. She tweets @AnnetteIdler

Annette Idler es investigadora senior en el Departamento de Ciencia Política y Relaciones Internacionales de la Universidad de Oxford y es la directora de investigación del centro Changing Character of War, donde dirige el proyecto CONPEACE. @AnnetteIdler

Dr Julia Zulver is the Postdoctoral Gender Researcher on the CONPEACE Team. A graduate of the Latin American Centre at the University of Oxford, her research focuses on women's mobilization under contexts of high violence. She tweets @JZulver

Dr Julia Zulver es investigadora post-doctoral en el proyecto CONPEACE del centro Changing Character of War de la Universidad de Oxford.@JZulver

Dr Juan Masullo is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and is part of the CONPEACE team, a research project based at Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre.

Dr Juan Masullo es Lecturer en el Departamento de Ciencia Política y Relaciones Internacionales de la Universidad de Oxford y hace parte del equipo CONPEACE, un proyecto de investigación del centro Changing Character of War de la Universidad de Oxford.


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