Officials from the Office of the Ombudsman talk to ELN guerrillas during the release of several soldiers and a police officer in rural Arauca, 17 August 2022. Office of the Ombudsman (EFE/Ombudsman)
The National Liberation Army (ELN) has been willing to sit down and talk to any government in Colombia since the late 1980s. It has spent more than half its existence trying to find a negotiated solution, so far without success. From these talks came the idea – with good reason – that it is difficult to reach agreements, so the challenge facing Gustavo Petro’s presidency is to make it work this time and put an end to the myth that cannot be the ELN can agree.
The Petro government is entering this new venture with an advantage. The negotiating agenda has been signed for more than four years, and the process of citizen participation, always demanded by the guerrillas, was advanced in several hearings with civilians before Iván Duque, as president, suspended the process in 2019. This time, the ELN is also helping to make things easier: In one week, they freed 15 people, including six soldiers, who had been kidnapped by them. Petro recognized this act – “The way of peace is the same way of freedom,” he wrote on Twitter – and the Office of the Commissioner for Peace celebrated the releases as a sign of a willingness to move forward. “His humanitarian decision is an important gesture in laying the foundations for resuming the dialogue process,” he said in a statement.
Carlos Velandia, a former ELN guerrilla fighter, says that although the organization is militarily stronger today than it was four years ago, with at least 2,500 men in its ranks, it remains open to dialogue. “The difficult thing for the ELN is not to talk, the difficult thing is to reach an agreement,” admits Velandia, who was in this guerrilla group for 35 years and later became a member of its national leadership. Today he is a peace researcher and looks forward to the chapter that opened with the visit of a delegation to Havana and the recognition by the Colombian government of the guerrilla delegation that remained on the island. “They have always been open to dialogue, which is not the same as negotiation. For them, dialogue is the way to have a political conversation to find solutions to the country’s problems for which they have taken up arms. They do not understand dialogue to end the war or to lay down their arms, but to solve the great difficulties that are being experienced in the regions,” explains Velandia over the phone, who believes that the guerrillas will sit down again . quite comfortably.” , before a government that gave legitimacy to what was advanced in the process with Juan Manuel Santos.
“There are reasons why, now more than ever, the ELN is ready to go further: the government has given legitimacy to the delegation that is in Cuba, has approved the signed agenda, has accepted the established items without conditions and has the protocols ignored by Iván Duque,” says Velandia, for which all governments (from Pastrana to Santos) have so far approached this guerrilla with a “very narrow-minded” view. “They have always sat down with the ELN to try to disarm them rather than engage in dialogue and listen to the changes this guerrilla has sought since birth.”
Iván Cepeda, who has traveled to Havana as a congressman and president of the Senate Peace Commission, has also spoken of the mistakes that the new government must not repeat if it wants to move forward with the ELN, Colombia’s last active guerrilla. “We have spent 60 years debating conditions and requirements that must be met before a dialogue can be held, and the outcome of this is measured in lives lost. It has been debated for four years whether or not the ELN should hand over the hostages, and when we got to the announcement on Friday that talks would resume, the ELN, without any demands from the government, released nine citizens , which she had in her, his safekeeping can. This means that if the dialogue moves forward, we will achieve the exact goal of saving lives and achieving peace,” assured the senator in an interview with the EFE agency.
The ELN is at the best negotiating moment in its history. After more than 30 years of failed attempts, he finds himself with a government that is willing to listen because it knows it needs it if it is to stem violence, particularly in the regions where it operates. Leonardo González, researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace “Indepaz”, assures that this guerrilla has never been stronger than it is now and their presence in areas where other criminal groups are present has strengthened them militarily.
“The ELN is fighting in Chocó with the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (aka Clan del Golfo) and with the FARC dissidents in Catatumbo, Arauca and Cauca. In order to enter into negotiations, it is necessary to ensure that these spaces are not taken over by other armed actors,” says González, who, as a challenge but for the guerrillas, also points out that the command’s guidelines are accepted by the bases. “In recent years, they have been involved in drug trafficking and other illicit income, which may complicate the process in drug trafficking areas,” says the researcher.
It is impossible to envision a process in the ELN in the same way as the FARC because their hierarchical command or control structure, type of members and skills are very different, as shown in the book Why It Is So Difficult to Negotiate with the ELN?, from the research center CINEP. Academic Socorro Ramírez warns in the prologue of this book that that part of the guerrilla that would be interested in negotiations “would not be willing to regroup territorially for the process of reintegrating ex-combatants, nor accept seats for heads of state among other things, for their rejection of the electoral process and the legislature”.
For now, and with the ELN mics off in Havana, Messages from Commander Antonio García via Twitter show that the only way to achieve peace with this armed group is through citizen participation. “Only the ability to mobilize will enable change; Even the reforms that Parliament wants to push forward, if fundamental, will need popular support to confront the sectors involved in building a truly democratic Colombia,” wrote the guerrilla, who has been the top leadership since last year holds . the guerrillas and whose voice will be the key to the process with the new government that is just beginning.
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