On March 29, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla group announced a month-long, unilateral ceasefire that will begin on April 1 and end on April 30. The Colombian government subsequently announced that two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Carlos Velandia, would serve as “peace promoters” (gestores de paz)—a small but critical first step in restarting peace negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government that have been stalled since January 2019.While these humanitarian actions will help bring a temporary peace to some conflict-ridden communities in Colombia, securing a lasting peace requires using this ceasefire as a starting point for reinitiating dialogue between ELN and the government.
The Duque administration has tried to control the spread of COVID-19 through a nationwide quarantine. Yet, despite enhanced public health and security measures all over the country, killings, displacements, and violent actions by illegal armed groups targeting ethnic, indigenous, and rural communities have continued at an alarming rate. Since the quarantine, hostilities between armed groups have exacerbated humanitarian emergencies and led to the confinement of civilians in Nariño, Chocó, and Cauca. In Putumayo, forced coca eradication has prompted conflicts with rural farmers, while it has led to an extrajudicial killing in Catatumbo. Four ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) were recently murdered: two in San Vicente del Caguán, one in La Macarena, and one in Bogotá.
All over the country, social leaders have seen their protection diminished even further since the quarantine, and several have been assassinated. They include feminist leader Carlota Salinas of Bolívar, Ángel Ovidio Quintero of Antioquia, leaders of the Emberá indigenous group Omar Guasiruma and Ernesto Guasiruma of Valle del Cauca, and several other leaders and community members in Awá territory and Afro-Colombian communities in Jiguamiando, Chocó. Jhon Restrepo, director of Casa Diversa and a well-known LGBT activist suffered an assassination attempt.
In response to the violence during the pandemic, more than 100 Colombian ethnic, indigenous, and rural communities wrote letters to all the armed groups in Colombia urging them to stop bellicose operations during the pandemic in order to minimize violence and public health risks.
Though the ELN’s chain of command is loose, the group has generally observed past ceasefires. In zones under the group’s influence, populations interviewed by WOLA recall the group’s 100-day 2017 ceasefire with some nostalgia, as an unprecedented period of tranquility. WOLA encourages the ELN to continue its ceasefire after April 30 if, as is likely, the public health emergency is continuing.
All armed actors in Colombia should implement ceasefires at least for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, refraining from offensive tactics or other actions that might leave populations vulnerable to infection. All should use the temporary pause to explore paths for sustained peace. In the case of the temporary ELN unilateral ceasefire, the Colombian government should take steps towards a bilateral ceasefire and reestablishment of talks with the guerrillas. It should increase protection for social leaders in addition to taking measures to protect vulnerable communities from the COVID-19 virus. All belligerent groups should respect the Humanitarian Accord Now in Chocó (Acuerdo Humanitario ¡Ya! en el Chocó)—a 2017 humanitarian accord proposed by dozens of Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups in Chocó—and international humanitarian law.