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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
Colombia’s Returnees Infographic
Colombia’s Returnees Infographic
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.