After 52 years of bloody armed conflict and three years of some secret and some informal negotiations, the Colombian state and the ELN, the country’s last-standing rebel group, have agreed to open formal peace talks.
The negotiations coincide with an ongoing peace process with the FARC, the ELN’s much larger fellow-rebel group.
While formal talks were already announced in mid 2014, just months after initial contact was allegedly made, the formalization of the talks took another two and a half years, mainly because both parties continued to introduce conditions not in the initial agreement to talk peace.
The talks will be held mainly in Quito, but countries like Brazil, Cuba, Chile and Venezuela are also host countries. The talks will be monitored by Norway and Chile, who were also closely involved in the negotiations between the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC.
Top – The war – General agreement and agenda – Timeline – Government delegation – ELN delegation – Resources
The war with Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla group, the ELN, has waged since 1964, but has a history that began in the 19th century.
Violence and civil war have plagued Colombia ever since its recognized independence in 1819.
Not counting the current armed conflict, the country has had eight civil wars since its liberation from Spain.
Political division between liberals and conservatives
The wars were driven by a bitter political conflict between the country’s traditionally secular liberals and the Catholic Church-backed conservatives.
This feud goes all the way back to the founding of the country with the Liberator Simon Bolivar and his second-in-command Francisco de Paula Santander, whose followers respectively founded the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party in what became a two-party political system.
However, rather than pursuing their individual ideological purposes, these parties often were driven by or catered to the interests of wealthy and powerful families.
Colombia’s current president Juan Manuel Santos is, for example, a descendant of independence fighter Antonia Santos and a grand-nephew of President Eduardo Santos.
After World War II, more radical leftist philosophies began to take hold in some parts of the country in response to the oligarchical system of government upheld by the two parties.
The 1948 assassination of populist liberal politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, who many believed would win the 1949 elections, led to a “La Violencia,” a decade-long period of extreme partisan violence that killed between 150,000 and 200,000 Colombians.
La Violencia ended when the two parties agreed to alternate control of the national government every four years, forming the “National Front.”
However, more radical elements of the left such as the communists did not accept this deal between the Bogota political elites, and remained in arms after La Violencia in defiance of the national government.
It is from these conditions that the ELN and a number of other guerrilla groups emerged in and around 1964.
The rise of the ELN
The ELN was strongly influenced by the Cuban Revolution, like many other Latin American guerrilla movements. In fact, the original leaders of the ELN were trained in Cuba, which had been taken over by Communist dictator Fidel Castro only a few years earlier.
Numerous Colombians received scholarships to study in Cuba, but when they left during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, 22 stayed behind to participate in military training to defend against a possible invasion.
Of these, Victor Medina Moron, Fabio Vasquez Castano, Heriberto Espitia, Ricardo Lara Parada, Luis Rovira, Mario Hernandez and Jose Merchan would go on to found the ELN.
The ELN quietly began preparing their military activity in the central Colombian Santander province on July 4, 1964.
Six months later, on January 7, 1965, they carried out their first attack on the village of Simacota, Santander.
After the assault, the guerrillas presented a manifesto, explaining their revolutionary purpose and inviting locals to join their group.
Among those who agreed were several priests associated with the Marxist-like Liberation Theology that seeks to put the Catholic Church at the service of the poor and disadvantaged.
The most famous of these priests was the iconic father Camilo Torres.
Gabino enters war at 14
Among those who joined the emerging group in 1964 was the then-14-year-old Nicolas Rodriguez, know better known as “Gabino,” the highest ranking member of the ELN.
In 1966, Torres was killed in his first ever combat with the Colombian military and has since become an iconic martyr for the guerrillas.
In 1969, three Spanish priests, inspired by the death of Torres, joined the ELN.
Among them was Manuel Perez Martinez, nom de guerre Cura Perezor or Poliarco, who became a top commander of the organization until he died of hepatitis B in 1998.
In 1973, the ELN was decimated in a military offensive called operation Anori.
Over 30,000 army, police, and national guard formed a task force to hunt down the guerrillas, killing 135 of their estimated 200 members.
The casualties included the brothers of leader Fabio Velasquez, Marco and Antonio.
The survivors of the military offensive came together in October 1973 during the guerrilla “Assembly of Anacoreto.”
At the assembly, those held responsible for the military defeat were executed and exiled leader Fabio Vasquez outlined a new strategy for the group from Cuba.
However, the execution of members caused major unrest among the the guerrillas and Velasquez was banished from the group on claims he was more interested in promoting the interests of Cuba than those of the ELN.
Gabino then took over Velasquez’ leadership of the group.
The remaining division within the group kept it from acting coherently and forming a serious threat to the government, which took advantage seeking the first-ever peace talks, but without success.
The ELN’s violent resurrection
The group remained in relative disarray until the 1980s when a newly arisen drug trafficking industry provided the ELN with considerable more funding, mainly by demanding protection money from the narcos.
Additionally, during the in the middle of the decade, oil was discovered in Arauca, one of the ELN’s strongholds, and the group also began extorting local and international oil companies.
Thanks to the growing revenue from kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking, the group reached its peak around 2001 with approximately 4,130 fighters and thousands more supporters across the country, both in the countryside and the cities.
ELN membership (1964 – 2021)
However, the entry of the paramilitaries escalated the conflict and, while rapidly expanding its military forces, the ELN increasingly began using terrorist activities and kidnapping.
Throughout the 1990s, the ELN was regularly bombing major oil pipelines, even those from which it still drew revenue.
On 18 October 1998, the Cimarrones Front bombed the Central Pipeline of Colombia, which was next to the town of Manchuca.
The fire spread to the town, destroying 46 buildings and killing 54 people, most of whom were minors.
In April 1999, the ELN hijacked an Avianca flight, taking 43 people captive.
The next month, ELN guerrillas dressed as policemen kidnapped 186 people from a church in Cali, the largest single kidnapping in Colombian history.
Since the late 1990s and in spite of growing their military apparatus, the ELN suffered major territorial losses to the newly found anti-guerrilla paramilitary groups, internal feuds and occasional clashes with the much bigger FARC guerrilla group.
The group lost, however, its strategically important stronghold in the northern Magdalena Medio region that connected its military units from the west and the east of the country.
The pressure on the group increased even more in 1999, when the United States agreed to finance “Plan Colombia,” a counter-narcotics offensive that effectively became a counter-insurgency offensive.
While fighting the paramilitary AUC and the US-backed Colombian military, the ELN lost more than half of its fighters between 2002 and 2008.
Making friends with the FARC
As both the ELN and the FARC were facing increased military pressure, they decided to put aside their differences which had previously led to violent clashes between the two Marxist groups.
The alliance probably allowed the groups to prevent their own extinction and instead force a stalemate.
Neither guerrilla group had the power to overthrow the government and the rebels’ return to traditional guerrilla warfare ended the state’s territorial advances made in the 1990s and the first decade of this century.
Moreover, a series of major scandals over mass human rights violations by the military and a global economic crisis forced the US to diminish military aid.
Top – The war – General agreement and agenda – Timeline – Government delegation – ELN delegation – Resources
General agreement and agenda
The general agreement formally outlines both parties’ commitment to the talks and the logistics facilitating them.
Unlike with the FARC, with whom the agenda and the ultimate agreement mainly dealt with the causes of aggravators of much of Colombia’s political violence of the past decade, the ELN’s agenda is more open.
In the case of the FARC, the two warring parties made peace. In the case of the ELN, the guerrillas seek a more public and democratic process, actively involving the civilian population in finding solutions to the violence they were partly causing.
Agreement between the ELN and the Santos administration
The Government of the Republic of Colombia (National Government) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), from here on “the delegations,” as the result of exploratory and confidential talks and given their expressed disposition for peace, have agreed to install a public table of conversations to tackle the points established in the agenda, in order to subscribe a Final Accord to end the armed conflict and agree to transformations in the search for a Colombia in peace and equality.
The exploratory talks took place between January 2014 and March 2016 and the Republic of Ecuador, the Republic of Brazil and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, whose governments have acted as guarantors together with the government of Norway and the Republic of Chile. The National Government and the ELN express to all of them special recognition and gratitude. The continuity of accompaniment of the international community is essential.
Acknowledging that peace is the ultimate good of any democracy, and with the objective to put an end to the armed conflict, eradicate political violence, putting at the center the situation of victims and move towards national reconciliation through active public participation and the construction of stable and lasting peace, the delegations have agreed to the following:
- Install a public peace talks table in Ecuador
- The sessions of this table will take place in Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil and Cuba. These countries, together with Norway, will be the guarantors.
- Proceed with direct and uninterrupted conversations between the delegations of the Government and the ELN.
- Execute the agenda with utmost swiftness and rigor.
- Develop the following agenda:
1. Public participation in peace building
The participation of society will be:
a) Depending on initiatives and proposals that make peace viable in the course and context of this process.
b) About the issues on the agenda
c) A dynamic and active, inclusive and pluralist exercise that allows the construction of a public vision of peace that appropriates the transformations towards the nation and the regions.
2. Democracy for peace
Democracy for peace is the purpose of this item of the deal:
a) Realize a debate that allows examining the participation and the decisions of society in the problems that affect their reality, and can be channeled towards constructive elements for society.
b) Treatment of conflicts towards the construction of peace
c) Revision of the regulatory framework and guarantees for public demonstration. Treatment of the legal situation of the accused and convicted of acts in the development of social mobilization.
d) Public participation in the construction of citizenship.
3. Transformations towards peace
To agree on transformations towards peace is the purpose of this point, taking the following into account:
a) Transformative proposals made by society, underpinned by the results of item 2 of this agenda (“Democracy for peace”).
b) Transformative programs to overcome poverty, social exclusion, corruption and environmental degradation, in search of equality.
c) Comprehensive alternative plans with a territorial focus that constitute economic and productive options that benefit the communities.
In building a stable and lasting peace, essential is the acknowledgement to the victims and their rights, as well as treatment of and resolution to their situation based on truth, justice, reparation, commitments of non-repetition and remembrance. These joint elements support forgiveness and a reconciliation process.
5. End of armed conflict
The objective of this item is ending the armed conflict to eradicate violence in politics and facilitate the transition of the ELN to legal politics, for which the following points will be addressed:
a) Definition of the future judicial situation of the ELN and its members
b) Security conditions and guarantees for the ELN
c) Conditions and guarantees for the political exercise of the ELN
d) Tackling the detention of charged and convicted members of the ELN
e) Clarify the phenomenon of paramilitarism for it not to repeat itself
f) Humanitarian and dynamic actions
g) Bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities to end the armed conflict
h) Under the new circumstances generated by this process, an agreement will in regards to the ELN’s arms will be constructed in order to end the armed conflict.
The government will make the procedural and institutional adjustments required for the due diligence of the agreements mentioned in this item.
The implementation seeks the execution of the reached agreements of this agenda, in order to realize the changes that will allow movement from armed conflict to peace, taking into account the following:
a) The implementation phase of the agreements will be defined in a General Execution Plan, which fundamentally will be founded on the specific plans of each item on the agenda. The aforementioned plan will at that point be elaborated and will count on a timetable.
b) The General Execution Plan will include mechanisms of checks, balances and verification that will rely on the participation of the public, the international community, the government and the ELN.
c) The General Execution Plan will consider the following dimensions: judicial, political, social, economic and diplomatic.
d) At the signing of the final agreement the General Execution Plan of the agreements will take effect.
II. Public phase
1. Objective information for the country in regards to the debate and progress at the table
a) Society needs objective and balanced information about the talks and the peace process. To reach this, among other, participatory communication will be facilitated.
b) Joint declarations at the end of each cycle and when the delegations deem convenient.
c) Declarations of each delegation when it so deems convenient
d) The table will have its own means of communication like joint statements, reports, a website and whatever else will be agreed in the course of the public phase.
2. Pedagogy for peace is based on:
a) Public participation
b) The proportionality of the table in the transformation of the armed conflict
c) Creating a favorable environment for peace
d) Communicating this pedagogy as an element of the construction of a culture of peace.
e) The peace talks will be conducted in an environment of respectful cooperation
3. Operation of the table
a) Each delegation will have 30 representatives. During the table’s sessions 10 members of each delegation will participate, five primary and five supplementary.
b) The conversations during the public phase will develop following the order of the established agenda. Any change will be mutually agreed.
c) Once the process is public, mechanisms with the Havana Table will be established to identify issues that require coordination and synchronization.
d) The delegations will agree to the table’s operating rules for the public phase
e) In each work session a time limit will be established for the following. The duration of the sessions, the recesses between them, and consults will be defined in alignment with the process and the needs of the joint table or a delegation.
f) Each delegation will have its advisers who are considered necessary for the development of the process. The same goes for the table.
g) For the treatment of the received proposals on the items of this agenda particular relevance will be given to recommendations of the public. The delegations will define the working methods and forms of public participation.
The Colombian government will make the resources available for the operation of its delegation.
The costs related to the ELN (delegation, advisers and activities to be developed during the process) will be financed through an international cooperation resource fund which will be established for this purpose.
Top – The war – General agreement and agenda – Timeline – Government delegation – ELN delegation – Resources
January – The ELN and the government make first contact with the intention of beginning peace talks
April 14 – ELN leader Nicolas Rodriguez, a.k.a. “Gabino,” said that the Santos administration and the “oligarchy” have no interest in peace or social justice.
May 16 – The FARC and the ELN announce unilateral ceasefire for Colombia’s presidential elections, calls for govt reciprocation.
June 10 – President Juan Manuel Santos announces peace talks with the ELN, exactly five days before his reelection.
June 17 – ELN criticizes the Colombian government, claiming the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos stalled making ongoing peace talks public and unilaterally altered a joint-communique on the talks.
November 3 – The ELN says it laments that the government has required secrecy about the progress and challenges of the “formal exploratory dialogue” that has been occurring “for more than a year.”
November 6 – The ELN denounces the disappearance of one of its members who was to participate in exploratory talks with the Colombian government. According to the guerrillas, rebel Eduardo Martinez was arrested at a police checkpoint near the Venezuelan border on October 30.
January 7 – ELN releases a series of statements reflecting conclusions from a conference of the guerrilla group’s top leadership. While the guerrillas explicitly state their willingness to abandon arms at some point, their statements do not indicate that formal talks with the Colombian government are any closer to beginning.
January 31 – Santos denies rumors of an imminent announcement of the launch of ELN peace talks he announced half a year earlier.
February 3 – In a message to Colombia’s security forces, ELN leader “Gabino,” proposes creating zones in which neither side carries out military operations. The government rejects the idea.
March 8 – According to the ELN, secret talks with the government that were held the days before end.
March 14 – “Advances have been made in the preparation of an Agenda,” the ELN tweets. “It hasn’t been concluded, but only one point remains and work continues to define it with clarity.”
April 24 – “Gabino” says the “peace train” could start soon, but warns any deal to end half a century of war will have to rule out jail time for the rebels.
May 13 – Santos announces that top bosses from the FARC and the ELN have met in Cuba at the end of April to advance an eventual peace agreement.
July 24 – The ELN drops its demand for a bilateral ceasefire ahead of peace talks.
September 4 – “Gabino” urges Colombia to mend strained diplomatic ties with neighbor Venezuela, who they consider “key” in attempts to formalize ongoing peace talks.
December 28 – Guerrilla chief “Gabino” announces a deal to begin peace talks between Colombia’s government and ELN rebels is ready with talks beginning in 2016, a year and a half after the initial announcement.
February 9 – Colombian government announce that the ELN must release a civilian and a soldier held hostage before the peace process can begin
March 30 – ELN and the Colombian government announce an agenda for negotiations from Venezuela. ELN hold a press conference in Venezuela
June 28 – The ELN asked the Colombian government for a permanent, bilateral ceasefire, but fails to offer concessions in return
October 10 – ELN and the Colombian government announce that formal peace talks to be inaugurated on 27th October. The guerrillas vow to release hostages before talks
October 23 – Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos appoints his former agriculture minister Juan Camilo Restrepo as the government’s chief negotiator in peace talks with the ELN
October 24 – Week ahead of ELN peace talks marred by violence and displacement.
January 24 – The ELN, days after Santos, invited Uribe to take part in the peace talks. The former president refused.
January 31 – ELN negotiator Pablo Beltran tells press his organization will not submit to the transitional justice system agreed with FARC rebels.
February 1 – The ELN said it would continue its kidnapping practices unless agreement in the talks is reached about the subject.
February 2 – ELN releases former governor Odin Sanchez after 10 months of captivity after an agreement the government would release two guerrillas.
February 3 – The Colombian government releases guerrilla prisoners, which was the ELN’s last remaining demands for talks to begin.
February 7 – ELN frees Fredy Moreno, a soldier who had been held hostage for two weeks in the Arauca province as a gesture of good will ahead of the inauguration of the talks.
February 7 – Delegations in Quito, Ecuador formally inaugurate the peace talks.
February 16 – Following a week of talks in Ecuador, the government’s lead delegate Juan Camilo Restrepo announces a “first accord” between the two sides seeking progression towards a cease of fire. The accord covers agreements on the role of civil leaders in the peace process and humanitarian measures to de-escalate the conflict.
February 22 – Colombia’s government and the ELN agree to ask leading European nations to help create an international fund to finance ELN participation in ongoing peace negotiations.
February 23 – Ecuador’s opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso ensures that he will continue support for peace talks in the event he is elected president.
February 27 – Colombia’s government peace negotiators slam the ELN rebels for jeopardizing the peace process after they claim responsibility for a bombing outside a bull ring in the capital, Bogota.
March 29 – Colombia government chief negotiator Juan Camilo Restrepo urges ELN to end violence as it appears to be expanding its territory, reiterating that that state negotiators will not leave the negotiating table.
March 30 – Both sides announce that they are close to an agreement on landmine removal.
April 6 – In their first joint press conference, Colombia’s government and the ELN rebels announce an agreement on landmine removal. Additionally, government chief negotiator Juan Camilo Restrepo and ELN chief negotiator “Pablo Beltran” say that during the second round of talks, due to begin on May 3, the warring parties will seek an effective de-escalation of violence.
Juan Camilo Restrepo (Chief negotiator)
Juan Camilo Restrepo is a senior Conservative Party politician who has been in and out of national government since the late 1970s. During his career, he has been minister of Mining, Finance and Agriculture under three different presidents.
Juan Sebastian Betancur
Juan Sebastian Betancur is a liberal businessman and Colombia’s former ambassador to Italy. The Medellin-born Betancur is a personal friend of President Juan Manuel Santos and the former chairman of Proantioquia, one of Colombia’s most important business associations.
Luz Helena Sarmiento
Luz Helena Sarmiento is a geologist with ample experience in the country’s oil and mining industry as well as government. Sarmiento has worked for state-run oil company Ecopetrol and multinational coal company Cerrejon, and in government held positions as Environment Minister and head of the National Environmental Licensing Agency.
Juan Mayr until recently was Colombia’s ambassador in Germany. Mayr was environment minister in the Conservative government of former President Andres Pastrana (1998 – 2002). Before that, he was a prominent environmental activist and photographer.
Retired General Eduardo Herrera is the former director of Colombia’s Superior War School and the former commander of three National Army battalions and three brigades. Of all members of the formal negotiating team, Herrera is the only one who took part in the preliminary negotiations.
Alberto Fergusson is a renowned psychiatrist and a member of the executive board of the elite Rosario University in Bogota. The psycho-analyst has not held positions in politics until his involvement with the peace talks with the ELN.
Pablo Beltran (Chief negotiator)
Pablo Beltran, nom de guerre of Israel Ramirez, studied chemical engineering in the 1970s before joining ELN. He is currently considered the third most powerful of ELN’s commanders and has taken part in peace negotiations before with former Presidents Andres Pastrana and Alvaro Uribe.
Antonio Garcia (Spokesperson)
Antonio Garcia, whose real name is Eliecer Herlinto Chamorro, is the ELN’s second-in-command after “Gabino.” He was previously a part of the ELN delegation to peace talks with former President Andres Pastrana. During these talks, Garcia will be the delegation’s spokesperson.
Aureliano Carbonel is a commander of the ELN’s northern front that is active in the Magdalena River valley and the north of the Antioquia province. Though little is known about him, his name frequently appears in ELN publications.
Consuelo Tapias is another negotiator of whom little is known. She was not on the list of ELN negotiators presented in Caracas on March 30, but will be working with the delegation in Quito.
Gustavo Martinez’s past is largely a mystery, but he is a frequent writer in the ELN’s magazine Voces.
Bernardo Tellez is a long time militant who has fought for the guerrillas in the Magdalena Medio region, one of the ELN’s long-time strongholds.
Supplementary ELN negotiators
- Vivian Henao
- Isabel Torres
- Silvana Guerrero
- Maria Helena Buitrago
- Miriam Baron
- Gustavo Martinez
- Tomas García
- Carlos Reyes
- Eduardo Perez
- Alirio Sepulveda
- Alejandro Montoya
- Camilo Hernandez
- Oscar Serrano
- Manuel Cardenas
- Marcos Suarez
Colombia Reports news
- Colombia Peace (WOLA)
- Guide: Colombia’s Peace Talks (AS/COA)
- ELN peace talks: What are the challenges? (BBC)
- Colombian conflict (1964–present) (Wikipedia)
Nations supporting the process
- Ecuador (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
- Norway ( Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
- Cuba (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
- Chile (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
- Brazil (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
- Venezuela (Ministry of Foreign Affairs | in Spanish)