Colombia and its second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, will begin formal peace talks on Oct. 27 in neighboring Ecuador, even as this Andean nation struggles to reach a deal with its most powerful guerrilla force.
In a brief statement from Caracas, Venezuela, government and ELN representatives said the talks would begin addressing two points: public participation in the negotiations and “humanitarian actions and gestures” to build support for the process.
The news comes as the country has been in negotiations with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in Havana, Cuba, since 2012.
If the country manages to conclude these twin pacts, it would effectively bring an end to a half-century struggle against the hemisphere’s last viable guerrilla armies.
Shortly after the announcement, President Juan Manuel Santos said the inclusion of the ELN means the country can achieve a peace “that is complete.”
The news is an additional boost for Santos, who won a Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, even as he finds himself on the defensive trying to renegotiate a deal with the FARC.
“The eyes of the world are on us, and they’re expecting the best,” he said.
The ELN talks have come in fits and starts.
On March 30, the guerrillas and the administration announced they had reached a framework agreement for conversations but said formal talks would only begin as soon as the group released all of its hostages.
Shortly after, however, the ELN — thought to number between 1,200 and 1,500 fighters — only seemed to increase hostilities, including kidnapping.
In the last two weeks it has released three hostages, including a rice farmer on Monday who had been held captive since August. On Thursday, the group released Fabio León Ardila, a former small-town mayor, who had been held since June 30.
During Monday’s announcement, ELN Commander Pablo Beltrán said his group would release two more hostages before the talks begin. Odín Sánchez, a former congressman, has been held since April.
While the preliminary talks were held in Venezuela, the public phase will take place in Ecuador. Cuba, Chile, Norway and Brazil will act as guarantor countries.
The news comes after voters on Oct. 2 narrowly rejected a deal with the FARC that many had taken for granted. That has forced the administration to revamp the deal to appease critics — led by former President Alvaro Uribe — who feared it was too lenient on guerrilla commanders who have committed serious crimes.
On Monday, Santos asked his opponents to work in good faith to revise the deal quickly and asked them not to shoe-horn “impossible proposals” into the negotiations.
The FARC and the administration have had a bilateral ceasefire in place since Aug. 29 and since then there hasn’t been a single death or injury due to clashes with the guerrillas, Santos said.
But foot-dragging could risk the peace.
“The biggest enemy we have right now is time,” Santos said.
The ELN was founded in 1964, the same year as the FARC, and combined Marxist-Leninist ideology with liberation theology. Some of its initial recruits came from the Catholic Church, including Camilo Torres, a charismatic priest who died in 1966 during his first battle.
While the group initially shunned the drug trade in favor of kidnapping and extortion, analysts say the ELN has increasingly turned to trafficking to finance itself.