Peace talks between Colombia’s government and rebel group FARC have dominated media public attention for the past year and a half. However, a report released on Wednesday emphasizes the importance of also engaging the country’s second largest rebel group, ELN, to negotiations.
The report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), entitled “Left in the Cold? The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks,” underscores the dangers of dismissing the ELN as a “negligible threat,” and the urgency of initiating a dialogue.
Yet is the option of “leaving the ELN out” even a debatable one? The ICG discusses whether the country can consider peace as a prospect for the near future if, should an agreement be reached in Cuba, the country’s second most important guerrilla group is not equally addressed.
As the report states, “delay is in neither’s long-term interest.” Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict has already destroyed innumerable communities, and violently ended the lives of at least 220,000 of its own citizens.
The ELN, which has been blamed for untold damage to the civilian population and the country’s infrastructure, has repeatedly reached out to the Colombian government to receive only vague comments or insubstantial commitments.
Take them out by force?
The continuation of Colombia’s internal conflict is evidently not a desirable option neither for political leaders nor for the rebel chiefs. The report highlights the unlikelihood of military defeat against the ELN who, although bashed by their paramilitary rivals and to a smaller extent by national security forces, remain strong.
There is a dangerous possibility that forceful action against the rebels may backfire violently. In addition to the undetermined number of civilian casualties that could be caught in the crossfire, the potential fracturing of the guerrilla organization may bring about the formation of smaller, more dispersed and less centralized groups.
Indeed, Colombia has a painful antecedent with the disassembling of the paramilitary umbrella organization AUC in 2005. The Justice and Peace agreement sealed by then-president Alvaro Uribe gave rise to a variety illegal groups known as BACRIMs, composed largely of pardoned combatants, and which became the most powerful criminal organizations in the country today.
FARC first, then the ELN
When asked earlier this month whether government talks with the ELN were an imminent possibility, Colombia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace told Colombia Reports that the state’s priority at the present time was to concentrate first and foremost on the peace talks taking place with the FARC.
A lack of concrete indication from the state suggests that Colombia could postpone talks until after the FARC have been dealt with. Nonetheless, this could lead to a series of problems, with the territorial overlap of the two groups hindering the possibility of a successful ceasefire with the FARC.
Since relations between the two have been improving since 2009, those FARC members who will inevitably reject any accord with the state could seek allegiance with the ELN and consequently increase the rebels’ manpower.
“Even more than the government, [the ELN] would pay a high price for failing to open talks soon.”
The leverage that the ELN currently possess to drive the government into discussions could be lost should this be delayed. Although at this moment in time they have a good chance of a balanced dialogue, and a post-FARC scenario could create better social conditions and remove the urgency for new talks.
The government’s potential flexibility regarding, for example, political participation and transitional justice for the ELN, could quickly evaporate once an agreement has been consolidated in Cuba. The risk that the ELN could be given little flexibility from decisions settled with the FARC may worryingly result in a peace accord of small appeal to a number of rebels. Those left unsatisfied may refuse to demobilize or even engage in criminal activities.
Rocky journey ahead
The future of relations between the government and the ELN is already precarious due to the unpredictable outcome of May’s presidential elections.
The ELN’s inability to unite within its own ranks includes the topic of abandoning their weapons. For many of the rebels units weapons are central in sustaining their profitable criminal activities, such as kidnapping and drug-trafficking.
This internal fracturing was one of the reasons for which the three-year long talks between the ELN and former president Alvaro Uribe went up in smoke in 2007.
The Colombian government’s rigidity could also hinder peace efforts. The ELN seeks for more than citizen participation and a broader focus for talks than those currently taking place with the FARC, while the state has so far limited its aims to ending the conflict rather than the discussion of a subsequent peace scenario.
While the rebels must realistically accept that constructing this peace might only be possible once they have laid down their arms, the government also needs to acknowledge the ELN as a legitimate military force and consider their requests.
Thus comes the paradoxical choice for the Colombian government – whether to allow more leniency with the ELN than was permitted with the FARC, while at the same time putting all progress made with so far the FARC at risk, or jeopardize the fading opportunity to seal the only successful negotiations in the past few decades and perpetuate the conflict.
Same game, different rules
It would be a mistake to consider the journey to conciliation with the ELN and the FARC to be the same. Despite similar political ideologies and social conscience, their origins and motives reveal a deep divide between the two groups.
In accordance with these differences, there needs to be a corresponding shift away from the negotiation tactics used with the FARC and a more openness when addressing the demands of the ELN.
While the FARC are essentially peasant self-defense forces that over time saw many factions corrupted by the steep profits of the illegal drug trade, the ELN is rooted in oil laborer and student movements. The ELN not only has its roots in Catholic influences, but also a tendency to fight over the country’s energy infrastructure and mining industry.
The second largest rebel group has illegally tapped into a significant part of Colombia’s oil and mining industries – mainly in the states of Arauca and Choco, and widely condemned the alleged exploitation of these industries by the state and multinational companies. It is reported that work on Arauca’s hugely important Bicentenary pipeline was only allowed to advance following an agreement with the ELN.
Much like the FARC’s emphasis on rural development, ingrained by their origins as a peasant movement, the ELN’s historical links to the natural resources and energy sectors seem to be one of the key reasons for its strong presence in their agenda.
Turning a new page
The government’s intentions to steer any potential talks away from the past are reflected in their rejection of Cuba as a possible location for the negotiation tables, where the talks between the ELN and Uribe were once held. Ecuador is currently the most likely option at the moment, following a meeting late last month in which Santos and left-wing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa met to discuss the proposal.
“Audacity, creativity and pragmatism”: these, the report states, are the three crucial points to keep in mind if Colombia is to enter a new era of peace.
Neither group can afford to limit itself to mirroring the process with FARC, despite it being the most successful strategy so far.
The ICG suggests that both parties be willing to lower their defences somewhat and build bridges of confidence – the ELN, for example, by refraining from kidnapping as a form of funding; and the government, by allowing external organizations to investigate the incarceration conditions of detained ELN guerrillas.
Should the two parties find a way of balancing human rights and citizen security with the ELN’s specific demands, then there is hope for both the FARC and ELN talks to close the door on 50 years of brutal civil war, and finally move forward.
- Left in the Cold? The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks: Report (International Crisis Group) (PDF)