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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 FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency
Colombia’s FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency
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.

FARC guerrillas carry a white flag symbolising peace as they march toward a camp where they will disarm and reintegrate into civilian live after more than five decades of conflict. Bogotá, Colombia on 8 February 2017. NOTIMEX / Presidency of Colombia

Colombia’s FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency

With the official disarming of its main rebel organisation, Colombia has passed a remarkable new milestone in its peace process. But major challenges remain: the destruction of remote arms dumps, reintegration of ex-combatants, and progress towards peace with other armed groups.

The International Crisis Group celebrates the most significant achievement of the Colombian peace process to date: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has now finished handing over 7,100 weapons to the UN Mission, putting an end to its 53-year insurgency. Now the parties must focus on implementing the rest of the peace agreement, which will require overcoming several major challenges.

The first is to ensure security. Peace with the FARC has ended Colombia’s largest insurgency but other armed groups remain active. The National Liberation Army, or ELN in Spanish, continues its war against the government despite the ongoing Quito-based peace process. The government and ELN have announced a plan to reach a ceasefire in early September, and should intensify their efforts at the negotiating table to do so. Other armed groups, including criminal organisations and FARC dissidents, control important parts of Colombia’s periphery. The government should increase its military and police efforts in the short term to effectively regain control of areas under their influence. Finally, the remaining 872 FARC weapons caches registered by the UN mission must be destroyed by 1 September, as agreed.

The second challenge will be to reintegrate FARC combatants into civilian life.

The second challenge will be to reintegrate FARC combatants into civilian life by allowing them to participate in economic cooperatives, perform political work and receive educational support. The FARC hopes it can do this while maintaining its internal cohesion and collective lifestyle. But planning is behind schedule as key details are missing on the projects the FARC hopes to help carry out in order to generate income and sustenance for its fighters. The FARC’s proposal that its fighters remain in extremely remote areas of Colombia, where the group has been present for decades, may stumble because these parts of the country are characterised by poverty, lack of markets and poor infrastructure. Recently, the Colombian Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, or ARN – the state institute in charge of ex-combatant reintegration since 2006 – was put in charge of FARC “reincorporation”. It will need increased financial resources to guarantee a successful process.

Finally, the peace agreement still faces serious political resistance. Opposition political parties have vowed to change certain aspects of the agreement and, with congressional and presidential elections scheduled next year, they will soon have the opportunity to make their case. The successful weapons handover in theory should give proponents of the peace agreement a boost, but much will depend on developments on two important fronts. The government and FARC will need to show that their coca substitution agreement yields results – namely, a decrease in coca production and a transition to an economy based on sustainable, legal economic activity. Current trends are not promising. Colombia is likely witnessing record-high coca cultivation levels, which critics have linked to the peace process and an overly-soft drug policy.

Moreover, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP) – the transitional justice mechanism designed to both render justice and shed light on what occurred during the insurgency – needs to demonstrate it is making a difference and enforcing accountability, particularly against guerrilla commanders, in order to counter the perception of FARC impunity.

[T]he FARC’s violent insurgency has come to an end and the organisation has ceased to exist as an armed group.

The weapons handover is a milestone: the FARC’s violent insurgency has come to an end and the organisation has ceased to exist as an armed group. For all the challenges that remain, and for all the uncertainties that lie ahead, this is a remarkable achievement for the Colombian people. At a time when faith in peacemaking and conflict resolution is at a low, it is also a welcome and inspiring example for the rest of us.