ELN Talks: With the agenda almost ready, a bloody setback

Maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino”

(740 words, estimated reading time 3 minutes, 42 seconds)

Sunday’s attack on a military column in Boyacá, in northeastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border, dims prospects that formal negotiations might start soon between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrilla group.

The ELN or National Liberation Army is a leftist group founded in 1964 like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). While the FARC has perhaps 7,500–9,000 members, the ELN today probably has about 1,500–2,500, mostly concentrated in thee or four parts of the country. For three years in Havana, the FARC has been participating in formal peace negotiations with the Colombian government, but the ELN has not.

Government and ELN representatives have been holding “talks about talks,” at least six rounds of them in Ecuador, for over a year and a half. A source close to the talks told WOLA last month that these exploratory meetings have totaled nearly 200 hours. But a formal launch of negotiations remains elusive.

Part of the reason is the ELN’s insistence on a bilateral cease-fire before talks begin. The Colombian government rejects this, and refused to grant a ceasefire to the larger FARC, arguing that the guerrillas would use the resulting “rest period” to recover militarily. Another reason is the ELN’s slower decision-making process: the group’s top leaders do not appear to have reached full consensus on the terms for peace.

The hardest-line leader is believed to be the newest addition to the ELN’s five-member Central Command, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía alias “Pablito.” Giraldo commands the Domingo Laín Front in northeastern Colombia, which may make up one-third of all ELN fighters and is responsible for Sunday’s bloody attack on a military column that was transporting voting materials for local elections.

Observers of the ELN talks have been insisting for months that a launch of formal negotiations is drawing close. “There is 80 percent agreement” on the agenda, maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista alias “Gabino” said in April. And this week, the Colombian investigative website Verdad Abierta published a draft negotiating agenda, citing “sources who have participated directly in the discussions.” The six points reportedly are:

  1. Participation of society in peacebuilding. Here, it must be defined how communities and civil society are going to participate in peacebuilding. A methodology and a means of participation will be defined.
  2. Democracy for peace. This would be a sort of participatory diagnostic, in which communities define a substantive agenda for overcoming violence.
  3. Transformations for peace. From this point would emerge a proposal for social transformations which would make possible a climate for guerrillas’ transition to civilian life.
  4. Victims. The community of victims, not the negotiators at the table, would define, in a participatory manner, the standards for truth, justice, reparations, non-repetition, and memory that the process must have.
  5. End of conflict. A banner issue for the ELN has been that the conversations take place amid a bilateral cease-fire, and not in the midst of the conflict. It must be seen how this possibility could be articulated with that of a pre-accord cease-fire with the FARC. There will be a “leaving aside” of weapons in the sense of not using them for political reasons.
  6. Implementation. Unlike the process with the FARC, this point contemplates evaluations of developments, which will be made public.

This overview is vague, and some of its language (“social transformations,” “participation”) points to areas of disagreement about the scale of the reforms that the agenda will include. The agenda points are notable, though, for their lack of overlap with the FARC negotiating agenda: they don’t specifically address issues from the Havana talks like rural development, political participation, and drug policy, though they may in some way revisit victims and disarmament. It’s also surprising not to see on this draft agenda one of the issues that the ELN has raised most consistently since the 1980s: Colombia’s management of, and foreign investment in, the mining and energy sector.

Either way, these six points’ emergence indicates that a formal launch of negotiations with the ELN is drawing ever closer. Sunday’s attack, though, clouds the outlook. It may have been a misplaced “show of strength” aimed at improving the guerrillas’ negotiating position. Or may have been a message from “Pablito” to the rest of the group’s leadership, discouraging them from rushing into talks on unfavorable terms. Either way, because of the October 25 attack’s political fallout, it would be surprising to hear of a breakthrough with the ELN in the next few weeks.

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