Peace talks with Colombia’s last standing rebel group, the ELN, should have started two weeks ago today, but are stuck still. A hostage for prisoner exchange should end the impasse.
After more than two years of preliminary talks and a mere three hours before the ceremonial inauguration of talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suspended the ceremony on October 27.
The ELN had failed to release ex-congressman Odin Sanchez, whose release was a precondition for negotiations to begin, according to the government.
“The commitments established by the teams in the last round in Caracas were precise for both sides. It has always been clear that the effective release of the former congressman was necessary to begin the public phase,” government chief negotiator Juan Camilo Restrepo said.
The problem is that the commitments in writing were not precise at all and the release of Sanchez is unmentioned in any of the released agreements.
On October 6, negotiators signed an agreement requiring the ELN to release two hostages before October 27, without specifying which hostages would be released.
3. Initiate the process of liberation of the hostages/retainees with two cases before the October 27. In addition, each party will make, as of the date, other actions and humanitarian dynamics for the creation of an atmosphere favorable to peace.
Agreement between Colombia govt and ELN
The ELN released Leon Fabio Ardila, the former mayor of Charala, Santander on the day the agreement was signed.
A rice farmer named Alejandro Alarcon was released less than a week later, well before October 27.
According to the ELN, with these releases they had complied with the conditions to start the talks.
While the agreement released by the government makes no more mention of hostage release, clauses from a more detailed agreement published in the ELN’s magazine said that one hostage will be released during the first round of negotiations. This has been neither denied nor confirmed by the government.
The ELN will make the release of one of the hostages/retainees in the course of the first round of negotiations.
Extract from agreement published by ELN
The ELN began the preparation for the safe return of Sanchez a few days before the talks’ inauguration, but have refused to release Sanchez until after the talks.
Instead, the rebels are now demanding the release of two guerrillas before the release of the politician, a condition not explicitly mentioned in either version of the agreement.
“Everything is ready … [to release the lawmaker] as long as the government complies with what has been agreed, which is to give amnesty to two ELN guerrillas currently imprisoned, exactly as is agreed in writing in the documents” said the ELN’s supreme commander Nicolas Rodriguez, a.k.a. “Gabino,” in a radio interview.
After leaving a meeting with members of Bishops of the Colombian Episcopal Conference on Wednesday, which has been mediating between the government and the guerrillas, Restrepo budged and told press “the government is absolutely willing to enable two [imprisoned] ELN members as peace promoters simultaneous to the release of Odin Sanchez before the beginning of talks.”
To make sure both the government and the ELN keep their word, the Red Cross and the Catholic Church are likely to coordinate and facilitate the simultaneous release like they have with previous hostage release operations.
However, the current impasse shows the deep and mutual distrust between the Santos administration and the ELN, both of whom have imposed provisional conditions that can not be found anywhere in the agreements.