Intractable conflicts are those considered to have no resolution. The armed conflict in Colombia has often been categorized as such. However, in 2016, then-President Juan Manuel Santos reached his predecessors’ goal; he signed a peace treaty with the largest guerrilla group in the country, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Without any doubt, the peace agreement is far from perfect but that is the subject of a different discussion. Issues regarding the transparency of its application and its compliance with international law and cultural norms have been the source of some disagreement.
While the FARC was the most active guerrilla group in terms of its quantity of members and attacks, it is not the only one present in Colombia. On the contrary, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) is the oldest guerrilla group. Despite decades of attempts, the Colombian government has not been able to reach a peace agreement with this group. Earlier this year, the government and the ELN resumed negotiations once again. Everybody remains attentive to see whether this time would be the charm.
Understanding the ELN
The oldest active guerilla group in the continent was founded in 1964 and describes itself as a supporter of the Cuban Revolution and adherent to Marxist and Leninist doctrines. The ELN had a political and social origin, following a leftist ideology and aiming to become the voice of those affected by neoliberalism. The group claims to pursue the attainment of social needs, especially regarding wealth redistribution and public services. In practice, the means to this goal have been violence. The political motivations behind this guerilla group are what has often caused the failure in past peace negotiations. While the ELN has also engaged in multiple violent incidents throughout its existence, the group maintains that its leftist political ideology makes it different from other violent groups such as the FARC, as their goal is not accumulating wealth or expanding drug markets. Rather, they see their struggle as one for social justice and equality. Thus, any perceptions of the FARC and ELN having the same nature, and receiving the same treatment are inappropriate.
The ELN’s history has been plagued with bombings, kidnapping for ransoms, and paramilitary activity in various areas of the country. In 1999, the organization kidnapped over 100 people at a church in Cali, Colombia, and a commercial flight with more than 40 people on it. In addition to kidnapping, the group has participated in the extortion of businesses and drug trafficking as sources of funding for their activities. Currently, the exact number of ELN militants is unknown but is suspected to be around 3000 individuals with a presence in Colombia and Venezuela.
Attempts at Peace with ELN
As extensive as the Colombian armed conflict has been, so have the attempts at peace. Indeed, the first negotiations with the ELN date back to 1975 and have been a constant campaign offering of many presidents. The most recent effort started in 2014 under President Santos and was formalized in 2016 as negotiations with the FARC were taking place. These negotiations seemed to be progressing and continued during Ivan Duque’s presidency, which implemented some of ELN’s requirements regarding social assistance. However, further negotiations were canceled in 2019 by President Duque after the guerrilla group bombed a police academy killing more than 20 people. After the attack, Duque’s government closed the door to further negotiation.
Is this Time Different?
The Colombian government and the ELN are sitting around the negotiating table once again, this time in Venezuela and under the presidency of Gustavo Petro. There are two factors that seem to differentiate this round of negotiations and bring hope into achieving the long-awaited peace. First, Petro’s character. Second, a state of ripeness of the conflict.
Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s new president follows a leftist ideology and was himself part of a guerrilla organization, M-19, known for stealing Simon Bolivar’s sword from a monument in Bogota. Although M-19 and the ELN are completely different organizations and have behaved differently in terms of their links to criminal activity and violence, Petro’s membership in a guerrilla group makes him closer in identity to ELN militants than any other president.
As soon as he initiated his mandate, Petro lifted the arrest warrants and extradition requests established by the previous government against certain ELN members. By October 2022, only two months after the start of his presidential mandate, the Colombian government had begun negotiations with the ELN. The first formal round of negotiations took place between November 21 and December 12, 2022, in Caracas. However, not everything has gone perfectly. At the end of 2022, Petro shared an end-of-year tweet that could have catastrophically damaged the peace process. On the evening of December 31, the president announced through his social media account that the government had reached a six-month-long bilateral cease-fire agreement with the ELN and four other armed groups. However, three days later, the ELN publicly denied the government’s statement, clarifying a cease-fire had not yet been discussed nor agreed. The Colombian government responded by saying the cease-fire proposal is just that and will be brought into discussion in the next round of negotiations.
Without any doubt, this mistake on the government’s side could have provoked feelings of distrust, suspicion, and disappointment on the ELN’s side. However, the guerrilla group is still participating in the process after a short pause. Negotiations resumed at the beginning of March and have established a new agenda with six items called the Agreement of Mexico. This document was signed on March 10, 2023, by the representatives of the government and the ELN in the negotiations. The agenda items are public participation in the peacebuilding process, democracy for peace, transformation for peace, victims, end to the armed conflict, and a general plan for the execution of agreements between the Colombian government and the ELN.
There is no doubt that President Petro’s tweet could have paused indefinitely or even put an end to the peace process at hand. Nonetheless, the fact that the ELN is still actively participating and negotiating could be a sign of this conflict’s ripeness. William Zartman, International Studies professor at Johns Hopkins University, defines this moment in conflicts as one in which enough suffering has taken place, and parties have reached a mutually hurting stalemate. Thus, there is no other option than seeking a resolution, as continuing the conflict is more damaging to each party’s interests which have already reached their threshold for suffering and loss.
The willingness shown and steps taken by both sides in this conflict, in addition to Petro’s past and particular approach to the issue, seem to be shedding some light of hope for peace. However, just as a conflict, negotiations, and peace processes are volatile. Whether an agreement is reached this time will only depend on the parties’ continuous commitment to the process.
- What means of accountability should be created to guarantee an effective peace process?
- What lies behind the ELN’s willingness to continue negotiating despite Petro’s tweet?
- Which of the items on the new agenda of negotiations would be the hardest to reach an agreement on? Would that be different if it was a different government negotiating?
Zartman, I. William, with “:Current Implications” added by Heidi Burgess. “Ripeness.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. September, 2020