Colombia’s ELN Peace Talks Explained

by Geoff Ramsey and Sebastian Bernal

After a months-long delay, today the Colombian government is finally starting formal talks with the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The negotiations are sure to raise questions about Colombia’s post-conflict future, the implementation of the peace accords with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and ongoing human rights issues. With today’s launch of the peace negotiations’ public phase in Quito, Ecuador at 5:00 p.m. local time, here is an overview of the process.

Talks with the ELN were first announced in 2016. Why the delay?

While a joint statement announcing the beginning of talks was released in March 2016, the beginning of the Quito negotiations was delayed over the government’s insistence that the rebels release all hostages and kidnapping victims. (The government held the FARC to the same standard in 2012; the larger group renounced kidnapping months before the announcement of formal talks.) This included Odín Sánchez, a former lawmaker and member of a political family dynasty that has been linked to paramilitary and corruption scandals in the department of Chocó. Until his release from captivity last week, Sánchez had been held since agreeing to swap places as an ELN hostage with his brother, former Chocó Governor Patrocinio Sánchez Montes de Oca. Odín Sánchez’s February 2 release, on top of the February 6 release of a soldier taken captive by the group in January, removes a final barrier to the formal start of talks.

Why are the ELN talks important?

While most attention on Colombia’s armed conflict has focused on the roughly 7,000-strong FARC, the ELN—with up to 2,000 members—retains an active presence in the country, mostly in northeastern Colombia though their influence also extends to Chocó and other parts of the Pacific coast. With the FARC beginning to demobilize, there is concern that the ELN, along with criminal organizations and neoparamilitary groups, could move to fill territorial and economic power vacuums that the FARC leave behind. Reaching a peace accord with the ELN would help ensure that the group does not expand its area of influence or recruit disenchanted FARC deserters. And it would offer an opportunity for improved governance in ELN-controlled areas that have long suffered from a lack of state presence and strong democratic institutions.

For the United States, a peace deal would ultimately mean the effective dissolution of another group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, as well as a potential boost to anti-drug efforts at a time when authorities are slowly taking steps toward a new strategy to address coca production in rural Colombia.

What will the negotiations look like?

It has taken more than two years of intricate exploratory talks—a period marked by setbacks like the kidnapping of Odin Sanchez as well as that of Spanish journalist Salud Hernández—to finally reach a point where both the government and the ELN can pursue dialogues with a formal agenda.

Moving forward, the two negotiating teams will be headed by former Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo and the ELN’s Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” who is viewed as a moderate among the ELN’s five-member Central Command. On paper, the talks’ agenda and methodology remain quite vague. However, from the joint statement on the negotiations (PDF) it appears the process will seek to include the perspectives of civil society and community actors. According to the negotiating parties the agenda will cover the following points:

  • Participation of society in constructing peace
  • Democracy for peace
  • Transformations for peace
  • Victims
  • The end of the armed conflict
  • Implementation

How will talks with the ELN differ from the accords signed with the FARC?

From a practical standpoint, negotiating with the ELN will be a different experience than with the FARC. Unlike the larger guerrilla group, the ELN’s command structure is not as centralized. While it is headed by a five-person Central Command, and a 31-member National Directorate below that, ELN columns operate with a high degree of regional autonomy. This means that decision-making processes and internal deliberations could take longer, and the risk of dissenting factions—or subordinate units that simply ignore orders—is higher.

Although the last two points of the agenda echo items discussed in the FARC talks, it remains to be seen how already agreed-upon elements of justice, reparation, non-repetition, and truth will be harmonized with the accord reached with the FARC in Havana. The government would be wise to avoid revisiting these areas after undergoing a long and unfinished process of designing a new set of transitional justice institutions. Reopening themes covered with the FARC would delay a process that is already destined to face the pressures of an upcoming presidential election in 2018, after which President Juan Manuel Santos will leave office.

The challenge the parties will face during the negotiations’ initial phase is to decide who will participate in this process, and what will be the mechanism to receive thousands of proposals and ideas generated by Colombia’s diverse civil society. As Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank has pointed out, a key difference between the ELN and FARC talks will be the former’s insistence on expanding talks to include a broader social base. And the government, for its part, appears to recognize that: Juan Camilo Restrepo has assertedthat “dialogue with the remote communities of Colombia will be decisive in the negotiations with the ELN.” In this process, groups like the Ethnic Commission and other victim’s organizations who were heard in Havana may play a large role in organizing communities in rural Colombia for participation in the talks.

International facilitation of this process will be provided by Ecuador as a hosting country. Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela pledged to serve as guarantors and will reportedly also host subsequent negotiating rounds, while Norway will play the same guarantor role it played during negotiations with FARC.

What would a constructive U.S. role in the ELN process look like?

The U.S. role in this peace process will likely be drastically different than with the FARC talks, which hosted a full-time special U.S. envoy who played a constructive role in moving the accords along. By contrast the Trump administration has been relatively quiet on the peace accords in Colombia so far, although on February 6 a State Department spokesperson issued a statement confirming U.S. support for the search for peace in Colombia, as well as praising “advances in demobilization.”

This is a welcome remark following recent statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in written responses to questions submitted for his nomination hearing process expressed an intent “to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement [with the FARC], and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”

WOLA is confident that a review of the Havana accords will in fact give the administration every reason to support them. We also believe that the talks with the ELN are worthy of support, though we caution that they will require much patience. In the meantime, we call on both sides in the talks to move quickly toward a bilateral, verified ceasefire, or at least a series of gradual de-escalation measures. While the guarantor countries have already pledged to provide key support, the United States can play a positive role by refraining from opposing or making destructively critical statements about the ELN process, and encouraging a discussion that is both inclusive of civil society, as the ELN wants, and carried out with discipline, clarity, and purpose, as the government and most stakeholders want.

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