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The National Liberation Army (ELN) Joins Colombia’s Search for Peace
The National Liberation Army (ELN) Joins Colombia’s Search for Peace
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
Frank Pearl (L), head of Colombian government delegation and Antonio Garcia, head of National Liberation Army (ELN) delegation, shake hands after signing a joint statement to begin formal peace talks in Caracas on 30 March 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The National Liberation Army (ELN) Joins Colombia’s Search for Peace

The Colombian government announced on 30 March the beginning of the formal phase of peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second largest guerrilla group in Colombia. These talks, together with those nearing completion with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, are the country’s greatest opportunity yet to end 52 years of armed conflict. But how different will this peace process be compared to the one with the FARC? What lessons can be learned from the latter, and what incentives do ELN leaders have to achieve a substantive agreement? In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Colombia Senior Analyst Kyle Johnson explains why the history of the ELN and its horizontal political structure make it such a unique negotiating actor.

How would you describe the ELN as a group, and where does it operate?

The ELN is a leftist guerrilla group founded in 1964 that operates mostly on the Colombia/Venezuelan border, where it controls many informal border crossings. It is also present along the Pacific coast and in north-central Colombia. It is involved in illegal economic activities such as kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining and drug trafficking. Its principal strategy is to carry out “armed resistance” against what it terms the oligarchies from Bogotá and multinational corporations that want to extract or exploit Colombian natural resources without supporting local communities. The group has about 2,000 fighters, but its real strength comes from unarmed activists and communities who are somehow connected with the ELN. It is a very horizontal organisation and it makes decisions based on internal consensus.

Generally, it is said that the FARC is an armed group with a political agenda, while the ELN is a political group with arms. What does that mean?

That’s a common way to explain how different the two groups are. The FARC has a vertical hierarchy, with a leader heading a seven-person Secretariat and a somewhat larger High Command, and it has long prioritised military tactics over politics, without completely ignoring the latter. The ELN, by contrast, has high-level decision-making bodies, which make decisions based on consensus, and below them, everyone at a certain level gets an equal voice. The ELN sees political action as the best way to strengthen the organisation. It also sees political action as a way of strengthening their military side. For three decades, the ELN has focused on building local “popular power”, while the FARC has aimed to take power in Bogotá. Also, the FARC is larger, with close to 8,000 fighters and perhaps 20,000 militia members, and it controls more territory. Despite their differences, both groups have had a good enough relationship historically. However, there were costly military confrontations between them between 2006 and 2010.

Why did the FARC enter into peace negotiations with the Colombian government before the ELN?

Policies toward the FARC – whether to pursue its defeat or make peace with it – have been a central factor in the election of almost every Colombian president since the 1980s. The current government was no exception. Benefitting from the weakening of guerrilla forces by the military campaign pursued by President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) yet recognising the state’s inability to secure an end to the armed conflict by military means alone, President Juan Manuel Santos has pursued negotiations with both groups, but with priority given to the FARC process.

This focus makes sense. FARC has inflicted the most political pain on Colombia’s central government, and in the past has been perceived as threatening to take over the country. Whether that is true or not, the existence of this perception is important. Nobody has ever thought that the ELN could seize the capital.

Meanwhile, although both the FARC and ELN have realised they will not win the war, their response to this new awareness has been quite different. The FARC, which experienced a generational shift in its leadership after the death of its founder, Manuel Marulanda, in 2008, made a strategic decision to negotiate. The ELN adjusted its strategy to one of “armed resistance” on a local level, where winning the war is no longer the goal, and so peace negotiations were not as necessary from their perspective. Also, while the FARC seized the opportunity presented by Santos’ determined pursuit of a negotiated solution, the ELN saw Santos as just another member of Colombia’s oligarchy: they argued nothing had changed politically in Colombia and therefore negotiations were not justified.

It took six months for the Colombian government and the FARC to work out a peace agenda, while with the ELN, the same process lasted almost three years. Why so?

The FARC’s clear decision to pursue negotiations meant that in many respects the process was simpler with the FARC. It was a question of agreeing to the points to be discussed, the right language to define the issues and a methodology. Also, it was fairly clear which issues were important to the FARC and where common ground could be found. The group was ready and had the political will to quickly define an agenda and take important early steps like ending economically-motivated kidnappings. The ELN, on the other hand, took almost two years just to arrive at a very weak and fragile internal consensus that negotiations with the government were a good idea.

Talks with the ELN are scheduled to begin at the end of May in Ecuador. President Santos, though, has stated that dialogue will not begin until the ELN stops kidnapping and releases all its kidnap victims. The group has rejected this demand stating that the government should not set conditions for the negotiations, putting this starting date somewhat in doubt.

What incentive does the ELN have to make peace right now?

The ELN has three main incentives to negotiate peace. First, it may simply not get another opportunity for talks in the near future. Second, without the FARC in the picture, the group may not be able to survive a government military offensive. And finally, as the country moves forward with the FARC in a post-conflict arrangement, the ELN risks becoming politically irrelevant. Time is also pressing. The ELN effectively only has until 2018, when the mandate of the Santos government ends, to sign or come close to reaching a peace agreement.

Have there been many attempts by the ELN to negotiate the end of the conflict?

Indeed, there have been many failed attempts to negotiate peace with the ELN, which, because of its relative openness, was often assumed to be a potentially easier negotiating partner than the FARC. The first one started in 1985, when some of the group’s units agreed to a ceasefire with the government, but nothing more was achieved. Later, in 1987, the government negotiated with six guerrilla groups, including the ELN, united under the umbrella of the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Group. But the ELN was very resistant to negotiations, so they missed this opportunity. There were three more attempts in the 1990s: the first one in 1991-92, when the two sides held talks in Venezuela and Mexico, which eventually fell apart; the second in 1994, when a dissident group of the ELN was able to negotiate with the government and join Colombian civil society; and then in the late 90s, there were some attempts at negotiations in Spain and Germany.

Later in the decade and at the beginning of the 2000s, the ELN pushed again for talks with the Colombian government. Those talks never took place because of pressure in Colombia from right-wing political elements including paramilitaries. The last attempt was between 2004-2007 with the government of Uribe, but although they met in Cuba they were not even able to define an agenda. All of these attempts should however be seen as rounds of exploratory talks. Therefore, it is good news that now we finally have a defined agenda that will be formally discussed.

How engaged is Colombian society with the ELN peace process?

One of the agenda points in the ELN peace process is societal participation, and there we will see just how much society at large is engaged beyond the local, rural level at which the ELN operates. In Colombian urban society, little is known about the ELN. An average person from Bogotá or Medellín has not been as exposed to conflict as other parts of the country. For such people, peace is important but it won’t affect their day-to-day lives. In the countryside, where the ELN operates, it’s a very different story. It is hard to imagine how someone from a small community on the border with Venezuela would believe that he/she is in a post-conflict situation because there is an agreement with the FARC, if at the same time there are clashes taking place with the ELN a few kilometres away from their house.

Do you think the talks with the ELN will succeed?

In order for the talks with the ELN to succeed, they will have to overcome some serious challenges. First, the agenda to be discussed is quite broad and imprecise. It is unclear exactly what will be discussed, and how, and the details that can help guide the negotiations are in general missing. The peace talks with the ELN do not have the political importance as do those with the FARC, so they will not be able to withstand as much political pressure if things are not going well. The ELN also has credibility issues, especially regarding the issue of kidnapping. The failure to declare an end to kidnapping weakens the political strength of the talks from the outset, and undermines the ELN’s legitimacy in Colombian society as a whole.

Finally, there is a clear time constraint as Santos will be president of Colombia until 2018, but there is no guarantee right now that the next Colombian president will continue talks with the group. Electoral dynamics in Colombia mean that the talks will have to have advanced quite a bit by mid-2017, simply because time will be running out. Even so, it is too late for the ELN talks to catch up with the talks with the FARC; preliminary talks took almost three years, and it is hard to imagine formal talks going rapidly.

Peace deals with the two groups are therefore unlikely to be reached at the same time. Nonetheless, Colombia’s chances to have a sustainable peace-building process and end its half-century of armed conflict are much improved by the negotiations with the ELN. Despite the challenges, the prospect of signing agreements with both the FARC and ELN heralds great changes for this South American nation.

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.