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Colombia: The ELN’s Long and Slow March to Peace
Colombia: The ELN’s Long and Slow March to Peace
Tackling Colombia’s Next Generation in Arms
Tackling Colombia’s Next Generation in Arms
Picture taken from a video posted on the National Liberation Front (ELN) guerrilla’s website “Portal Voces de Colombia” on 7 January 2015. AFP/Portal Voces de Colombia

Colombia: The ELN’s Long and Slow March to Peace

When the big moment finally came on 7 January, it was hard to avoid the feeling that an opportunity has been lost. Some two weeks after an enigmatic statement had promised a “special announcement”, a video posted on the website of the National Liberation Army (ELN) celebrated at length the Fifth National Congress of Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group. An accompanying “political declaration” ratified the ELN’s support for peace talks but lacked specific commitments. This was certainly an announcement but it did not seem all that special. Nonetheless, the outcomes of the Congress still represent valuable progress toward a definitive political settlement of the Colombian conflict.

Deflated Hopes

Politicians, peace activists and analysts had expected much more. There was talk about the ELN renouncing kidnapping — mirroring the gesture made three years ago by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that helped to pave the way for ongoing peace talks in Havana — or announcing a unilateral ceasefire, similar to the one declared by the FARC in late December 2014. There was even speculation that the ELN would declare its year-long exploratory talks with the Santos administration successfully concluded and that formal negotiations would begin soon, although such an announcement was always unlikely to be made unilaterally.

But the announcement fell short. Instead of concrete steps, the political declaration was buoyed by revolutionary rhetoric and symbolism. It quoted at length the manifesto issued after the ELN’s first military action in Simacota (Santander) on 7 January 1965, and claimed that, fifty years later, the situation in Colombia remains unchanged. This made it easy for critics to dismiss the announcement as mere empty talk or to slam the ELN for its “anachronistic language”.

The gap between expectations and actual content was partly beyond the ELN’s control. The messages were pre-recorded during the Congress that was held late last year. The guerrillas thus had little chance to respond to developments such as FARC’s ceasefire declaration. But the ELN must take part of the blame. Its media strategy, including a Twitter countdown preparing the country for “important news”, pumped up expectations.

This succeeded in capturing public attention for a moment, but could have long-term costs. The ELN is much less demonised than FARC, but it hardly has the political capital to risk being perceived as manipulating public opinion. Chances are that, come the time for the next announcement, many people will be even less inclined to take the ELN seriously.

Difficult Progress

That would be a mistake. The Congress marked substantial progress in at least two areas. First, it endorsed the idea that peace talks should result in the ELN “leaving behind weapons” (dejar las armas). As a decision, this carried particular weight because it was taken by the first full guerrilla Congress to be held since 2006, which brought together combatants from all war fronts as well as members of the ELN’s social base.

This is a significant step forward. Not unlike the FARC, the ELN fears that abandoning weapons will leave it defenceless and diminish its leverage over the implementation of possible peace agreements. But keeping weapons would be non-starter in the Colombian context. The commitment to discuss disarmament with the government thus brings the ELN closer to a politically acceptable negotiation framework and should help to unblock the stalled exploratory talks.

The second important outcome of the Congress has been the nomination of Pablo, the leader of the Eastern War Front and one of the organisation’s most powerful members, to the Central Command (COCE), the ELN’s highest decision-making organ. It is so far unclear whether this means that one of the COCE’s five members has stepped down or that COCE has been expanded. The inclusion of Pablo, however, should quell concerns regarding whether the ELN’s strongest and best financed unit backs the current negotiations efforts.

All this should not be misread as demonstrating a newly found unity. Just as speculations over leadership rifts are probably exaggerated — the allegedly insubordinate Pablo has since 2012 publicly recognised the authority of the COCE to seek talks with the government — the Congress has likely not ended all internal discussions. ELN leaders have made it clear, for instance, that they have elaborated a “Plan B” should the political solution not prosper. Similarly, the ELN’s roundabout statement that it “might have the disposition to consider not using the weapons anymore” in the event of successful peace talks is a reminder of how fragile the progress still is.

The success of a future peace process with the ELN will depend on the continuing mediation of internal divisions. The greatest achievement of the Fifth Congress may be that it has significantly improved the chances that the ELN will close ranks behind the process. The main question for the ELN is no longer whether to seek a deal with the Santos government, but under what conditions ending the conflict would be internally acceptable. And the Congress has provided new space for potential spoilers to shape the process rather than attempt blocking it from outside.

The Way Forward

Despite such advances, the path to formal peace talks with the ELN will probably remain difficult. A statement from December 2014 claimed that exploratory talks had so far only shown “profound differences” between the parties over the meaning and goals of a future negotiation. The guerrillas also remain deeply unconvinced of the government’s willingness to do what it takes to end the conflict. In particular, Santos’s longstanding refusal to discuss military reform remains a source of distrust. For its part, the ELN will continue to face demands for concrete good-will gestures signalling its resolve to end the armed campaign.

This suggests that additional confidence-building measures will be necessary before the negotiations can really gather steam. Given its disapproval of unilateral moves, this will perhaps not lead to the ELN joining FARC’s ceasefire, as Santos has invited it to do. But current talks in Havana over the de-escalation of the conflict could provide an alternative route. Linking the ELN to this discussion would probably provide a promising framework for prodding it into long overdue steps, such as ending kidnapping. At the same time, improvements in the conditions of jailed guerrillas, among other state measures, could increase the ELN’s trust in the government’s commitment to peace.

Opening talks with the ELN remains essential if Colombia is to seize its unprecedented opportunity to end the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running conflict. But this window will not stay open indefinitely. Despite the shortcomings, the results of the Fifth Congress should revitalise the exploratory talks. This would be crucial. As talks with FARC continue to make strides toward a final deal, neither the ELN nor the government can afford to lose much more time.

This blog post by Crisis Group’s Analyst for Colombia/Andes, Christian Voelkel, was published with permission from Razón Pública, where a Spanish version of the blog post was published on 18 January.  

Tackling Colombia’s Next Generation in Arms

Armed conflict in Colombia is escalating in rural areas, with some communities reporting higher levels of violence or coercion than before the peace agreement. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to encourage the implementation of the 2016 peace accord and help Colombia find substitutes for the coca crop.

Colombia’s hard-won peace is withering in the countryside. Following the signing of the 2016 accord between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), levels of violence dropped across much of the country. But armed conflict is now escalating in a small but growing number of rural pockets, where communities report that violence and coercion are as bad as or worse than before the peace agreement. Competition between armed groups, criminals and the military in certain areas seems likely to worsen in 2022, and the homicide rate across the country is on an upward trajectory. More seemingly stable regions risk being dragged back into a cycle of conflict. 

Rather than ideology, the ebbs and flows of the illicit economy define localised violence in enclaves found along the Pacific coast, near Colombia’s borders with Venezuela and Ecuador and close to the Atlantic. Armed and criminal groups strong-arm communities for resources and recruits, often disproportionately harming women and families with their coercive tactics. In some affected communities, mothers have become the last line of defence against child recruitment and face brutal punishment for speaking out against this practice. 

The coming year could well place additional strains on conflict-affected communities. Presidential and congressional elections are due between March and June, with local elections scheduled for early 2023. As in past electoral contests, armed groups and sometimes also political and business interests may use or commission violence to consolidate their influence, particularly in regions with a history of conflict and where institutions have little capacity to resist co-optation. 

In this context, the European Union (EU) and its member states should: 

  • Publicly and privately urge all candidates to recognise that implementation of the 2016 peace accord remains a priority for the international community. Of particular importance are reforms to the rural economy and political system that were intended to take place over the medium to long term but in many cases have not yet begun. 
  • Advocate for and devote aid programming to the gender focus and ethnic chapter of the peace accord, implementation of which is lagging.
  • Expand support for the Attorney General’s Office in an effort to lower rates of impunity for crimes against social leaders and ex-combatants.
  • Drawing on experience in Bolivia and Peru, help Colombia craft a new path for coca crop substitution, which is vital to sparing poor farmers from involvement in the drug economy.

Security Divergence

Colombia’s present security challenges date to rapid changes in territorial control that started in 2017, when the FARC laid down its arms. The 2016 peace agreement had envisaged the state moving to establish control over former FARC bastions, but armed groups proved far swifter and nimbler along key trafficking routes and in far-flung regions. Without the FARC controlling lucrative markets, “the territory was left naked”, as one social leader in Nariño put it. In a rush to capture illicit rackets, armed groups swept in, including the remaining leftist insurgency the National Liberation Army (ELN), so-called dissident groups initially formed from a small number of former FARC who resisted demobilisation, post-paramilitary outfits that trace their origins to right-wing groups that fought the FARC, and local criminal syndicates. The dissidents in particular are emblematic of this new phase in Colombian conflict. Rather than forming one organised insurgency, the dissidents comprise dozens of separate local fronts largely focused on controlling area businesses, from coca to marijuana to illegal mining, and routes for illicit goods. Local frustration over the government’s failure to meet pledges it made in the peace accord to jump-start rural development, sponsor programs for coca substitution and protect former FARC combatants have facilitated the dissidents’ co-optation of certain communities.

Since the start of the pandemic, violent groups have moved toward exerting full-fledged control of the regions where they operate.

Since the start of the pandemic, violent groups have moved toward exerting full-fledged control of the regions where they operate. Armed organisations have absorbed more recruits, consolidated their influence with locals and clashed with rivals. Vulnerable communities have few resources to resist them. The Gulf Clan, a post-paramilitary group, used COVID-19 lockdowns to intimidate civilians into staying out of its way while swallowing up its most significant rival, the Caparros. After a brief humanitarian ceasefire in early 2020, the ELN has similarly used violence to impose quarantines and movement restrictions, upped its asymmetrical attacks on state security forces, and spread into areas where it had not had a significant presence before. Two major dissident factions – one under the leadership of Gentil Duarte and Iván Mordisco and another calling itself the Segunda Marquetalia – have begun consolidating dispersed fronts within loose rival alliances. Leaders of the former never entered the peace process and consider themselves the only remaining true expression of the FARC, while the latter emerged after chief negotiator Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich announced they had taken up arms again in August 2019. The two umbrella groups confront each other as mortal enemies when they meet. 

Regions caught in the middle of disputes between armed outfits, or between armed outfits and the military, continue to see the highest levels of visible violence. In Nariño and Cauca on the Pacific coast, the two rival dissident alliances seek to displace one another, while the ELN tries to stay afloat and safeguard its coca and mining enclaves. The military has carried out operations against all three. The ELN and Gulf Clan engage in regular violent clashes in places such as Bajo Baudó and San Juan in the region of Chocó, often in the midst of civilians. Along riverine trafficking routes in Putumayo near the border with Ecuador, post-paramilitary groups, as well as bands connected to the two main dissident strands, are all competing for control. 

Other parts of the country that appear quiet may in fact be under the largely invisible but highly coercive rule of a single armed group. The Gulf Clan runs the show in southern Córdoba, regularly threatening local authorities and social leaders, and demanding extortion fees from nearly all merchants. In southern Guaviare, dissidents allied with Gentil Duarte issue rulebooks for local communities to live by. All these groups capitalise on the economic ruin caused by the pandemic and fading confidence in the government’s willingness to implement the rural reforms contemplated by the peace accord. They urge discouraged and often desperate farmers to plant coca, resulting in consistently rising rates of cultivation nationwide.

Patterns of Violence

The many thousands of Colombians living in conflict-affected zones report that their situation is as bad as it has been at any point in the last decade – and, in some cases, worse. In seeking to control the illicit economy, armed groups need to control land where coca is grown, gold is mined and trafficking routes pass. To do so, they must also control people, which they do through a repertoire of coercive methods. Rising assassinations of local activists (commonly known as social leaders) who have spoken out against armed groups and their practices are one stark example of disciplinary violence. Threatening or killing a community figure often has the effect of silencing an entire sector of the population. Outspoken female leaders are particularly vulnerable. They report receiving threats not only to themselves but also to their children and extended family members. They say they are also targeted for sexual violence. 

Armed groups learned perverse lessons from the pandemic that continue to shape their behaviour. After eighteen months of school closures, they have developed a wealth of strategies for luring children and youth to their ranks, from organising sports and social clubs to throwing parties to running online video game competitions. Their overwhelming success in recruiting minors has shattered social cohesion in some communities. Families in areas with a notable dissident and post-paramilitary group presence say it is nearly impossible to avoid some form of capture by these networks; once inside, children find it hard to escape. Families who report cases of recruitment or approach the group directly for help can face violent reprisal and social ostracism. “Before, mothers published on social media when someone was recruited, saying they were missing, but now they are quiet”, said one female indigenous authority in Cauca.

Armed groups have ... imposed confinement well beyond the scope of COVID-19 quarantines as a means of control.

Armed groups have also imposed confinement well beyond the scope of COVID-19 quarantines as a means of control. With the exception of the ELN and some dissident fronts, most armed groups are neither uniformed nor based in camps, rendering it difficult even for their own members to know who belongs. Confinement is a way to clarify who is a member and to ensure that rivals do not enter an area. Between January and October 2021, well over 50,000 people were subject to confinement imposed by armed groups, ranging from curfews to blanket movement restrictions. According to the UN Refugee Agency, almost all of the victims were from vulnerable Indigenous or Afro-Colombian communities. Throughout the summer and autumn, farmers in Nariño’s Telembí Triangle reported how competing dissident factions planted landmines at the exits of their rural neighbourhoods, warned anyone who considered fleeing that they would not be allowed to return, and in extreme cases prevented residents from leaving their homes even to tend crops. Humanitarian agencies across Colombia have scrambled to respond to this invisible and growing crisis, at times struggling to understand who they should even approach to secure access. Beyond posing a threat to communities’ ability to maintain food supplies and security, forced isolation of these areas often deprives children of access to school and health care.

These conditions are likely to worsen in the months ahead both because the government does not yet appear to have a compelling strategy to address the latest manifestations of violence, and because electoral campaigning in 2022 and 2023 will dampen any immediate prospects for reform. Elections tend to increase violent competition for territorial control in Colombia – a matter of particular concern in the lead-up to local votes in 2023. Mayoral and town council races are vulnerable to manipulation – including through voter intimidation and violence – by both illegal and legal political interests that covet the influence local state officeholders have over who receives lucrative public contracts, who fills key regulatory posts and how funds are allocated. Meanwhile, Colombia’s armed forces have struggled to adapt to the changing configuration of conflict. Their insistence on tactics used to combat the former FARC insurgency – captures, coca eradication and strategic checkpoints – do little to weaken today’s more convoluted webs of criminality or to protect the vulnerable communities forced to live within them. 

Parts of the 2016 peace accord that were meant to short-circuit the illicit economy have stalled. The failure of a coca crop substitution program stands out as especially problematic. Some 100,000 small-hold cultivators voluntarily ripped their crops out of the ground in 2017 and 2018; they have yet to receive promised support for a new livelihood. Four years later, many have reluctantly started replanting coca, faced with the imperative of putting food on the table and, in many cases, compelled to do so under orders from an armed group. Programs supporting rural development that would render legal crops more competitive have moved far too slowly to arrest the strides of the illegal economy. Meanwhile, mechanisms to ensure that these and other aspects of the accord include and respect the autonomy of ethnic communities remain underfunded and peripheral to the policymaking process. A promise to prioritise gender (taking into account women’s particular needs to ensure participation and protection) in program design and policy has today evolved into little more than a box-checking exercise to ensure female attendance at meetings.

What the EU Can Do

The EU and its member states are in the unusual position of enjoying high levels of trust in the Colombian government, civil society and conflict-affected communities. A memorandum of understanding recently signed by Bogotá and Brussels testifies to the strength of the EU-Colombia relationship. The EU has also been a key donor to the peace process, and has been especially supportive of disarmament and efforts to demobilise and reintegrate former FARC members in civilian life. It has also been among the few donors to give priority to meeting the needs of female ex-combatants, whose projects can require different types of technical and logistical support given their specific requirements, such as child care. 

Still, the critically important effort to implement the 2016 accords has been undercut by the failure to deliver on reforms necessary to give communities economic hope and the ability to engage in the nation’s political life. In the run-up to elections, the EU can signal its priorities to useful effect, making clear that international donors continue to insist upon the complete implementation of the peace accord, including politically difficult rural and land reforms that have so far languished, some in congress and others in rollout, often for lack of political will. The Special High-Level Mechanism for Ethnic Peoples – which is meant to ensure that the constitutional rights and prerogatives of Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians, including territorial autonomy, are respected in implementation of the peace agreement – is another example: the body lacks sufficient funding, and has not been included in planning processes linked to the accord’s implementation. 

The EU’s support for the Attorney General’s Office has been essential to its efforts to strengthen investigations of crimes against social leaders and former FARC combatants, the two waves of assassinations that have claimed around 700 lives since the peace accord and have been central to armed groups’ attempts to establish social and territorial control. So long as impunity remains the norm for perpetrators of violent crime in the countryside, the EU should continue and expand this support. 

Finally, the EU remains one of the few international bodies that could credibly help the Colombian government find a new route toward coca crop substitution, based on previous experience in Bolivia and Peru. The peace accord legally prioritises substitution before forced eradication, a confrontational strategy that tends to put the brunt of counter-narcotics efforts on impoverished farmers and has been proven ineffective in reducing crops. Yet more effective, voluntary approaches are underfunded and have never enjoyed broad political support. Colombia needs a new, more viable off-ramp for the thousands of families who grow coca out of necessity. The EU and member states should throw their weight behind efforts to build one.

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