Colombia: Prospects for Peace with the ELN
Colombia: Prospects for Peace with the ELN
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Atrapados por el conflicto: cómo reformar la estrategia militar para salvar vidas en Colombia (Bogotá, 27 September 2022)
Atrapados por el conflicto: cómo reformar la estrategia militar para salvar vidas en Colombia (Bogotá, 27 September 2022)

Colombia: Prospects for Peace with the ELN

Alvaro Uribe was inaugurated President of Colombia on 7 August 2002 with a strong electoral mandate to fulfil his pledge to enhance the state’s authority and guarantee security.

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Executive Summary

Alvaro Uribe was inaugurated President of Colombia on 7 August 2002 with a strong electoral mandate to fulfil his pledge to enhance the state’s authority and guarantee security. In his inaugural address, Uribe promised to search for a negotiated solution to the long-standing armed confrontation with both insurgent groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN)[fn]Ejército de Liberación NacionalHide Footnote  and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)[fn]Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de ColombiaHide Footnote  as well as with the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).[fn]Autodefensas Unidas de ColombiaHide Footnote However, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, he conditioned new negotiations on a ceasefire and complete suspension of hostilities.

Uribe’s first announcements dealt with both the conflict and related longer-term governance issues. In a setting of general insecurity, epitomised by the FARC’s mortar attack on the inauguration ceremony in the centre of Bogotá, he imposed an emergency “state of public unrest” for 90 days, decreed a “security tax” to fund an expanded war effort, and submitted a far-reaching constitutional reform proposal to parliament. The latter would provide authority for election or presidential appointment of representatives of the irregular armed groups to local government chambers and the national parliament if they are seriously engaged in a peace process. The new president also requested the UN Secretary General’s good offices to help establish peace negotiations with the FARC - an offer the FARC rejected. However, confidential, direct ceasefire talks have been resumed with the ELN in Cuba.

Both the Uribe administration and the ELN are aware of the shortcomings of the unsuccessful peace process under Pastrana (1998-2002). The talks with the FARC in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) overshadowed and prejudiced those held simultaneously, and by the same High Commissioner for Peace, with the ELN, mostly in Cuba and Venezuela. Substantially smaller and militarily weaker than the FARC, and under sustained attack from the paramilitaries, the ELN was possibly perceived as less of a danger. In the Pastrana government’s media-oriented peace process, the ELN component was mostly treated as a sideshow. This compromised the progress, however limited, made in previous talks between representatives of Colombian civil society and the ELN under the auspices of the German and Colombian Conferences of Bishops in Germany at the end of the Samper administration (1994-1998). The ELN’s demand for its own demilitarised zone became the critical obstacle to an agreement.

The Pastrana administration was never able to commit the ELN to a ceasefire or a permanent halt to kidnapping, and it did not respond appropriately to ELN gestures of goodwill, such as two unconditional releases of numerous hostages. Third party domestic and international actors, including the UN, could potentially have played a more decisive role had they been allowed.

If he learns from past errors, President Uribe has the opportunity for a strong new start. Several points are key. Firstly, his government should adopt the stance that peace with the ELN is at least as important, and more feasible, than peace with the FARC. It would produce an important breathing space for Colombia and an encouraging example for the AUC and FARC. Secondly, while the ELN has suffered battlefield reverses, the government should not treat it as if it were close to defeat. Thirdly, the government should pursue a carefully structured process, with appropriate third party facilitation to follow as quickly as possible the confidence-building talks already underway.

Since the end of the Cold War, the ELN has demonstrated a more political vision than the FARC. Some of its more conciliatory leaders, including its chief commander Nicolás Rodríguez, appear to be relatively realistic about the need to adjust maximalist demands in a negotiation. As substantive negotiations under conditions of ongoing warfare are unsustainable, the current talks in Cuba should aim primarily at a ceasefire, humanitarian accords, security guarantees for the insurgents and perhaps some initial consensus about a new substantive peace agenda. The Colombian and German Catholic Churches could, if requested, help create an appropriate environment of trust during this initial stage. The UN and other neutral third parties could, if requested, play important roles in detailed negotiations over monitoring, verification, logistics and safeguards. Once a ceasefire is in place, substantive talks could begin with some optimism. However, continuing ELN violations of international humanitarian law and criminal activities would seriously jeopardize them, as would continued complicity and coordinated operations between some army brigades and paramilitaries and human rights violations by regular army personnel.

To stress the new approach and make full use of the good offices of important domestic and international actors, the administration should consider eventually broadening the support structure of the negotiations. Without abandoning Cuba as a location for the ceasefire talks or radically altering its confidentiality policy, it would appear beneficial for the government gradually to integrate other countries and mediators into the peace effort. Flexibility is advisable because the different stages of the peace process require the assistance – financial, logistical, political and technical – of a changing set of third parties. However, for continuity and coordination, the government and ELN should consider selecting one such party to facilitate the entire process. Result-oriented convenience of location and facilitation should therefore be the order of the day.

The more time passes without decisive progress toward peace, the more likely it is that hard-liners on both sides will gain the upper hand. This could produce deeper ELN involvement in criminal activities, including drugs, and military cooperation with the FARC. Government advocates of a military solution would be strengthened, as would the FARC’s conviction that the only solution to the conflict is military victory.

While ICG believes that a negotiated settlement with the ELN is achievable in the short to medium-term, this cannot happen unless the government has a clear strategy for the control and, ultimately, disbandment of the AUC. A combination of measures, including enhanced law enforcement and continued military pressure, appears advisable. Any existing ties between army and paramilitaries must be severed.

If any of the three irregular armed groups fail to cut ties to the drug business and other criminal activities, the government and the international community should treat them as criminal organisations or drug cartels. The final goal of the peace process must be to protect the lives and expand the opportunities of all Colombians by democratic, inclusive and legitimate politics. Refusing to tolerate drugs, kidnapping, and crime in the name of “revolution” or “the defence of the state” must be part of that equation. This will also require Colombia to make substantive reforms in health and education and citizen security as well as profoundly reassess its counter-drug, national security and environmental policies.

Bogotá/Brussels, 4 October 2002

Atrapados por el conflicto: cómo reformar la estrategia militar para salvar vidas en Colombia (Bogotá, 27 September 2022)

Launch event of Crisis Group’s report Trapped in Conflict: Reforming Military Strategy to Save Lives in Colombia, based on extensive fieldwork in different regions of Colombia and dozens of interviews with the military and communities. It was held in Bogotá on Tuesday 27 September 2022 at 8:30 am. In the report, Crisis Group analyses why military strategy in Colombia’s rural areas has failed to contain the conflicts that arose following the 2016 peace accord with its largest guerrilla movement (FARC). Crisis Group also proposes new civilian government leaders to prioritise community protection in rural areas and embrace new indicators for gauging the military’s success. The panel was composed of Martha Maya, Latin America Program Director at the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFI), Elizabeth Dickinson, Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for Colombia, and Ivan Briscoe, Crisis Group's Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. Alberto Lara Losada couldn't attend. 

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