BOGOTA -- Colombia’s largest guerrilla group on Tuesday said it will try to help the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, join ongoing peace talks with the government.
During a press conference in Havana, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said “we will do everything we can so that talks between our sister organization and the government begin.”
Government and FARC negotiators have been meeting for more than six months, as they hope to broker an end to the country’s 50-year civil conflict. If the ELN were included in the negotiations it would be a boost for President Juan Manuel Santos, who has suggested he may seek reelection next year.
The FARC and ELN have often acted as rivals, fighting for control of territory. But on Monday, the guerrillas announced that they held a secret summit last month and agreed on the “importance of working for the unity of all political and social forces that are dedicated to making deep changes in society and Colombia’s economy, politics and institutions.”
In Tuesday’s statement, the FARC Commander known as Pablo Catatumbo hailed the meeting and said “Colombia’s insurgent forces are more unified than ever.” But he said it would be up to ELN commanders whether they joined the ongoing talks or established their own venue with government negotiators.
The ELN are thought to have between 1,500 and 3,000 active members – compared to the FARC’s 9,000. Over the last several months the smaller group has increased attacks and kidnappings amid speculation that they’re trying to force their way into talks.
In April, Santos said he hoped conversations with the ELN would begin “sooner rather than later,” but the government has not said if those talks are underway. And Santos did not mention the issue Tuesday.
Both the FARC and ELN began in the 1960s as Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups. But analysts say the rebels have resorted to extortion and drug-running to finance their survival. While the FARC vowed to give up kidnapping as a prerequisite to beginning peace negotiations, the ELN still rely on the practice. The United States and Colombia consider the groups terrorist organizations.