This August 7, when Gustavo Petro takes office as President, he will announce the roadmap for resuming talks with the ELN, which were frozen five years ago after the terrorist attack on the General Santander School in Bogotá.
SEMANA learned that Petro will make official the resumption of talks, which he promised during the campaign. What is new is that it could announce a bilateral ceasefire as a peace gesture. In the case of the largest armed guerrilla group, numbering 6,000 men, the news is enticing, but the scenario is not so simple. At the top is a group that has poked fun at the talks in the past and continues to commit murder, kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining and drug trafficking, among other illicit earnings, and using Venezuela as a haven.
SEMANA learned from various sources that the Petro administration had already made overtures with the ELN Central Command remaining in Havana. “They were legal,” said the new High Commissioner for Peace, Danilo Rueda.
The reconnaissance went no further than news from one side and the other. What the new government will aim for is a different negotiation than that of the FARC, although guided by the same premise: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That said the appointed Foreign Minister Álvaro Leyva.
Likewise, the talks will not start from scratch. Progress will continue until January 19, 2019, when President Iván Duque suspended negotiations with the ELN and reactivated arrest warrants against their top commanders for the killing of 20 police officers in General Santander. “We are also gathering the experience of Iván Duque’s government to see what is there,” announced the new High Commissioner.
In these dialogues, negotiation protocols were discussed, a ceasefire that the ELN had put into effect at the time, and a six-point discussion agenda: society’s participation in peace-building, democracy for peace, transformation for peace, sacrifice, end of the armed conflict and its implementation. In any case, it will be difficult to talk immediately about a possible bilateral ceasefire.
A source in the new government, who asked that his identity be kept secret, told SEMANA that a ceasefire could not be demanded from the ELN when its main enemy was the dissidents of the Farc and Clan del Golfo, with whom it was at war death over drug trafficking routes and territorial control.
“It is complex, but like everything in peace, solutions must be found: that the other groups that are on the territory must also commit. We will look for a comprehensive policy, which means that the groups as a whole understand that the time has come to end the conflict and violence,” Senator Iván Cepeda said.
The Congressman’s proposal from the Polo Democrático refers to the “total peace” that Petro spoke of, which seeks dialogue and the subjugation of all criminal groups in court.
The question is whether organizations like the Clan del Golfo, the Caparros, the Pachenca and others will demand equal treatment with the ELN, which the government could not legally offer. For this reason, a project to dismantle these illegal armed groups could be put before Congress in August for discussion.
The role of the armed forces will be key in the future. The appointed Minister of Defense Iván Velásquez does not go into further details for the time being. Military and police sectors are on guard due to Velásquez’s past strong criticism and support for the Truth Commission report, which many in the armed forces believe is unfair and biased.
One thing to keep in mind is that Petro might encounter an ELN guerrilla who says one thing in public and another in private. Will he come to the table looking to get stronger and gain an advantage in the regions? Do they really have a will for peace? Will they prove it?
Its convoluted composite structure could complicate decision-making. Foreign Minister Álvaro Leyva will be decisive in the negotiations with the ELN. He is a proven man in dialogue with armed groups and has taken part in talks between the Pastrana government and the FARC. On this occasion, it will strive to maintain international support and cooperation from Guarantee Countries. Leyva met with the Catholic Church last week, formalizing the Petro government’s intentions with the ELN and issuing the invitation as sponsor. The closeness and respect that the ELN has for the clergy in some regions is no secret.
Senator Cepeda, perhaps the congressman best informed of the ELN exploration, would also attend the dialogue table on behalf of Congress. “You have to be consistent. First you have to explore and develop openness. Once that is achieved, a determination will be made as to where and for how long the talks will take place.” Senate President Roy Barreras will also play a leading role. SEMANA learned that Gustavo Bolívar wants to be part of the group of congressmen conducting talks with the guerrillas.
Vice-President-elect Francia Márquez and former President Ernesto Samper will participate in the so-called regional humanitarian agreements, which would guarantee the participation of civil society, the first item on the dialogue agenda.
From now on, possible members of the dialogue table will also be discussed, a decision is in Petro’s hands. Mention is made, for example, of academic and political analyst Alejo Vargas, who was involved in the last negotiations with the ELN; the investigator Víctor Correa-Lugo and the priest Darío Monsalve, one of the priests who built the most bridges between the subversive group and the victims of the conflict.
Another issue that appears to have been resolved is the venue. Petro has invited Cuba to host this process and it is taken for granted that the island’s government will agree, all the more so when the ELN delegates have been in Havana for four years. Other options were also examined: Chile’s President Gabriel Boric offered his country as a platform for negotiations and Venezuela was also considered.
Although Leyva met Carlos Faria, his counterpart in Venezuela, in San Cristóbal, in the Petro administration they do not want to politicize diplomatic approaches and the possible peace process. Historic pact senator Alirio Uribe told SEMANA that negotiations should take place in Colombia. Even the governor of Magdalena, Carlos Caicedo, offered the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino in Santa Marta as a setting for talks.
For now, Petro will acknowledge the transcripts of the conversations that Duque failed to produce, and the ELN could eventually leave Cuba if necessary. In the meantime, the fund will be used with international cooperation funds to finance the dialogue table. Despite the failure of the talks, this collaboration has not resumed since 2019. Despite the willingness of all parties, the race for peace with the ELN will not proceed as quickly as Petro is suggesting.
His proposal for “total peace” will be less so because each armed group is different and has its own interests. For example: The Clan del Golfo have murdered 13 police officers in the past few weeks and Senate President Roy Barreras has delivered a powerful message to them. “Want a chance? Stop killing.” The discussion is just beginning.