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Left in the Cold? The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks
Left in the Cold? The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
Report 51 / Latin America & Caribbean

Left in the Cold? The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks

Bringing the National Liberation Army (ELN) into the current round of negotiations is vital for durable peace.

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Executive Summary

Whether the National Liberation Army (ELN) joins the current peace process is one of the biggest uncertainties around Colombia’s historic opportunity to end decades of deadly conflict. Exploratory contacts continue, and pressure to advance decisively is growing, as the Havana negotiations with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) approach a decisive point. However, hopes fresh negotiations with the second insurgency were imminent were repeatedly dashed in 2013. Agreeing on an agenda and procedures that satisfy the ELN and are consistent with the Havana framework will not be easy. The ELN thinks the government needs to make an overture or risk ongoing conflict; the government believes the ELN must show flexibility or risk being left out. But delay is in neither’s long-term interest. A process from which the ELN is missing or to which it comes late would lack an essential element for the construction of sustainable peace. Both sides, therefore, should shift gears to open negotiations soonest, without waiting for a perfect alignment of stars in the long 2014 electoral season.

Paramilitary violence and, to a lesser degree, military action have greatly reduced the ELN’s military capabilities, but the smaller of Colombia’s two insurgencies is not on the brink of collapse. It has taken advantage of a boom in natural resources to extract new rents from the oil industry in its Arauca stronghold and to fight for control over mining zones in Chocó and elsewhere. It has also broken in some regions its longstanding restriction against engaging in the illegal drugs economy in order to buy weapons and recruit fighters. All this has cost it dearly in its relatively strong local support, but the ELN has taken care not to totally sacrifice relations with communities in the run-up to a possible political endgame. It is maintaining its links to local politics in Arauca, and cooperation with FARC has much improved since 2009, as both groups have taken steps to repair often distrustful and at times violent relations.

The ELN is a regionally confined threat, but its capacity to adapt and resist, together with accrued social and political capital and its strategically important rear-guard in Venezuela mean a military defeat is unlikely in the near term. An intensified offensive would trigger another humanitarian emergency in guerrilla strongholds and might also be counter-productive over the long run, as it would risk breaking the already strongly decentralised ELN into autonomous criminal groups. A negotiation, therefore, is the pragmatic and best choice. Postponing it until a deal is struck with FARC might appear easier to manage than parallel talks with the two insurgencies that would likely take place in different countries. However, sequential talks would have their own problems. Given the territorial overlap between the two groups, implementing a ceasefire with FARC could be problematic if the ELN remains in the conflict, and the ELN’s ranks could grow if it offered a harbour for FARC fighters unwilling to demobilise.

This allows the ELN to punch above its weight, but it should use its bargaining power wisely. Even more than the government, it would pay a high price for failing to open talks soon. The longer it remains on the sideline, the less it will be able to shape issues such as transitional justice and political participation and the more it will be under pressure to simply accept the outcomes reached with FARC. The guerrillas risk breathing thinner air in a possible post-Havana context, in particular if accords with FARC initiate a process of social transformation that further undermines the case for armed struggle and reduces the appetite for negotiating a substantive policy agenda with the ELN. Even if it believes it could survive a government military escalation, therefore, a settlement remains its best strategy to exit the conflict.

While both sides have incentives to move expeditiously to formal negotiations, the way forward will not be easy. Before the May presidential election, the government may shy from opening talks with a guerrilla group widely but inaccurately seen as a negligible threat. The ELN may be tempted to gamble against the odds that the election produces a new president ready to negotiate on more favourable terms. There are also questions about the solidity of the ELN’s internal consensus to negotiate. Unsuccessful processes with the last five administrations ran into trouble in part because of the group’s internal divisions. Demands for a wide agenda and broad social participation in the negotiations are at odds with the narrow focus and confidential nature of the Havana talks and the stated goal of ending the conflict rather than constructing the peace. There is only limited room to diverge from the Havana model unless the government is prepared to jeopardise the progress made to date with FARC.

But the parties should not let this opportunity slip away. For all the difficulties there is scope to agree on a basic agenda that includes narrowly defined topics related to exploitation of natural resources, the ELN’s core grievance, alongside transitional justice and political participation, as well as on an innovative participation scheme with a stronger territorial focus. The broader context has also arguably never been so favourable. Improved relations between FARC and ELN should facilitate parallel talks. Some civil society actors still have influence with which to strengthen moderate elements within the smaller insurgency. They, as well as regional countries with leverage, should be supportive. Audacity, creativity and pragmatism are needed from all if the ELN is not to miss what could be its last chance to exit gracefully from the armed conflict, and Colombia is to have a good chance to sustain peace.

Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord

Growing distrust of Colombia’s outgoing government combined with deteriorating security in rural areas is undermining faith in the country’s peace accord. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to engage with opposition leaders to discuss the costs of ditching the deal.

This commentary on security and electoral perils for Colombia's peace accord is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Colombia’s 2018 presidential and congressional elections can be understood in part as a second plebiscite on the government’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a crucial test of that deal’s resilience. Although voters narrowly rejected the accord in October 2016, it was then amended to include opposition proposals and approved two months later by Congress.

The outgoing government of President Juan Manuel Santos (who is ineligible to run for a third term) is deeply unpopular. High-level corruption scandals within both the government and the judiciary, as well as anaemic economic growth, have eroded not only Santos’ support, but the legitimacy of the political system as a whole. Partly as a result, about 30 contenders have entered the presidential race, the majority campaigning as independents outside formal political party structures. Opinion polls reveal highly fragmented voting preferences revolving around a group of six to eight main candidates. Sergio Fajardo, a centre-left former mayor who supports the peace agreement, has been leading the polls, followed by Iván Duque, from former President Álvaro Uribe’s party, who staunchly opposes it. Far-left candidate Gustavo Petro and right-wing Germán Vargas Lleras, in favour of and against the peace accord, respectively, are jostling for third place, although the latter has the advantage of a large patronage network.

The peace deal may be the dominant issue in a possible second round of presidential voting. Government supporters rightly point to the accord’s achievements: the FARC’s handover of arms and the establishment of a new, legal political party by guerrillas. Most importantly, violence has clearly decreased since peace talks began in 2012. But implementation of the rest of the agreement has advanced more slowly than expected in a climate of guerrilla mistrust and opposition hostility. Former combatants doubt the government’s commitment and ability to make new institutions effective, or pass about 30 more laws needed to implement the agreement. The government had only been able to get the Congress to approve ten of them by the end of 2017. Congressional resistance to the agreement, above all its transitional justice provisions, has grown with the approach of legislative elections in March 2018.

Following the FARC’s demobilisation, the army, navy and police were expected to quickly establish state presence and stabilise territories where the guerrillas had operated for decades. Instead, other armed groups have seized the opportunity to establish control over rural communities and criminal rackets.

Disappointment with the peace agreement is understandable given the scope of its ambitions. It promised to resolve the underlying causes of the five-decade war through rural reform, offer redress for victims through transitional justice, open up the political system and introduce incentives to reduce cultivation of illicit crops. Following the FARC’s demobilisation, the army, navy and police were expected to quickly establish state presence and stabilise territories where the guerrillas had operated for decades. Instead, other armed groups have seized the opportunity to establish control over rural communities and criminal rackets. These groups are suspected in most of the 170 killings of community leaders during 2017.

These groups include the remaining guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), present mainly along the Venezuelan border and Pacific coast; approximately ten FARC dissident fronts in several regions; and armed bands linked exclusively to drug trafficking activities, such as the Gaitán Self-Defence Forces (AGC), based principally in the north-western Urabá region. In Tumaco, a poor city in south-west Colombia and a hub for cocaine exports via the Pacific, three FARC dissident groups are vying for control, killing suspected rivals or anyone refusing to make extortion payments. Twelve people were murdered there in the first three days of January 2018, most of them killed along main roads in broad daylight.

Challenges to implementing the accord

To implement the peace accords in coming months, authorities face three main challenges: providing security in many rural areas, reintegrating former FARC fighters and convincing farmers to substitute licit for illicit crops.

The government initially planned to improve security with mobile army and police operations, but this half-measure allowed armed groups simply to retreat and wait for state forces to leave. The army announced a new plan in December 2017 (Plan Orus) that would send security forces on a permanent basis to over 500 prioritised villages throughout the country.

In the meantime, peace negotiations with the ELN have been hampered by lack of trust at the negotiating table and a general atmosphere of public scepticism or apathy. The government recently reshuffled its negotiating team to speed up progress, though attacks by the ELN on other armed groups have undermined public support for talks. On 9 January, the ELN failed to extend the ceasefire in place since October, and resumed a campaign of violence including oil pipeline bombings, kidnappings and the killing of members of state forces, principally in the eastern department of Arauca. Efforts to renegotiate the ceasefire are now afoot.

Meanwhile, former FARC fighters must be reintegrated into society to prevent them from reverting to organised violence, but the process has advanced at a snail’s pace. There is still no national reintegration plan, which means that progress generally depends on the initiative of local FARC commanders. There is also no national-level education program for former fighters, except one financed and implemented by the international community. Part of the government would prefer to shift FARC ex-combatants into the highly successful individual reintegration program, which has been used previously for demobilised paramilitary combatants and guerrilla deserters. The FARC, however, wants to pursue a collective integration model, as outlined under the accords. It has set up an economic cooperative, but still has not put any business projects into action.

The government is beginning to implement the peace agreement’s crop substitution program, which provides farmers who stop growing coca with up to $12,000 in financial and technical assistance. Some 123,000 coca-growing families have signed agreements to take part in the program, including about 30,000 who have already received their first financial assistance payment. But the program requires funding beyond what the Colombian state is likely to provide: it would cost about $2 billion to offer assistance to 170,000 families. For international donors, including the EU, to support this program, robust donor coordination around its objectives and methods will be crucial.

Crop substitution should allow the state to establish a presence and legitimacy in remote rural areas. But the effort is undermined by continued forced eradication, which reduces cultivation only temporarily. These coercive efforts sparked protests in Guaviare and Catatumbo in September 2017, and violent clashes in Tumaco, where police reportedly killed seven farmers in October. Neither effort appears to be curbing coca production, which is booming. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there were 146,000 hectares under cultivation in 2016, up from 96,000 in 2015.


Given an electorate that remains divided over the 2016 peace agreement, Colombia may elect a leader in 2018 who opposes implementing the accord in whole or in part. Avoiding such a scenario depends on, first, whether the government can communicate peace dividends to a predominantly urban society unaffected in recent years by conflict; second, whether the FARC accepts transitional justice mechanisms in good faith; and, third, whether pro-peace agreement candidates are able to address other public concerns, especially corruption.

The EU and its member states have long supported Colombia’s peace process, both financially, through the EU Trust Fund for Colombia, and diplomatically, with the EU special envoy. It now needs to adjust to a more adverse political climate. EU engagement with opposition leaders, highlighting the costs of not implementing the accord, would be important, as would EU readiness to adapt its financial support to shore up those parts of the accord that risk being neglected or downplayed by a new government.

Peace talks with the ELN in Quito have so far advanced little and are now at a standstill, which means the next president could halt the process without incurring much political cost. For negotiations to progress, the ceasefire needs to be renegotiated and preferably last at least until the presidential elections. Of the eleven countries accompanying the process as guarantors or “friends”, four are EU members: Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. They should use their influence to encourage the ELN – which appreciates the legitimacy they bestow on the talks – to negotiate a new and improved ceasefire. A complete cessation of violence by the ELN might also shift Colombian opinion in favour of the process and prompt the next government pressured to continue it.

EU engagement with opposition leaders, highlighting the costs of not implementing the accord, would be important, as would EU readiness to adapt its financial support to shore up those parts of the accord that risk being neglected or downplayed by a new government.

Lastly, the Colombian government has considered creating “judicial submission” processes. These would allow other armed groups – such as the neo-paramilitary Gaitán Self-Defence Forces, which has offered to lay down its arms and imposed a unilateral ceasefire with surprising levels of compliance – to surrender to the courts in exchange for more lenient sentences and, potentially, development programs for the regions in which they were based. Congress has yet to draft and pass a law for the voluntary surrender of such groups, which would have to be flexible enough to fit each one’s particular internal hierarchy and interests, while also guaranteeing improved security and economic conditions in the areas where these groups operate.

Colombia has endured armed conflict since 1948. It still has the opportunity to make historic advances toward peace by implementing the agreement with the FARC; negotiating with the ELN; and creating a “judicial submission” process acceptable to other armed groups. But to do so, it needs international support, including EU resources and diplomatic engagement. This will be especially important in 2018, when Colombians will cast votes in elections that could determine whether and how the peace process survives.