Colombia’s former Inspector General and designated mediator with the country’s second largest rebel group ELN on Tuesday pressed the government to open formal dialogues with the guerrillas.
According to former IG Jaime Bernal, who mediated the release of two German hostages in April, Colombia will only have peace after holding peace talks with the ELN.
In an interview with weekly Semana, Bernal said “the presence of the National Liberation Army [ELN] is necessary [in Cuba, where the government is currently negotiating peace with larger rebel group the FARC], not at the same table because in Havana there are issues that already have been agreed upon or at least have been discussed.”
While the former official said to prefer separate tables because of the difference in advances in negotiations, Bernal stressed that peace talks with the ELN could be easier as some of the rebel groups political demands have already been discussed with the FARC.
“Just like there are ideological differences between the Liberation Army and the FARC, [there also exist] a common denominator between them, which are certain changes regarding the economy, politics, society and the problem of land, et cetera. There are similarities that require a consistent solution for both groups,” Bernal argued.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on several occasions has expressed interest in also talking with the rebels, but demands the rebels cease hostilities towards civilians first.
According to Bernal, the ELN’s ongoing kidnapping of civilians, including foreigners, complicates progress in peace talks. While he argues that ceasing kidnapping should not be a condition to begin peace talks, it would be a clear sign of good faith on behalf of the guerrillas.
“This is a sign of goodwill there exists an interest in dialogue. In my opinion they should return the Canadian [miner Jernoc Wolbert] and the soldier [Carlos Fabian Huertas] and all hostages to freedom, not as a condition, but as a sign of good faith in dialogues,” said the former government official.
The ELN, who like the FARC have lost most of their military strength in a US-back military offensive earlier this century, repeatedly have called for the beginning of formal peace talks. In their most recent statement, rebel commander “Gabino” said the government’s silence on the matter is causing uncertainty.
The ELN, with some 2,000 to 3,000 armed members, has been fighting the Colombian state for almost half a century. The rebels were initially inspired by liberation theology and the Cuban revolution. The Colombian government has accused the group of being heavily involved in the country’s illegal drug trade, a claim denied by the ELN’s top leadership.