Colombia’s ELN guerrillas inch toward peace talks

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Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group announced Wednesday that it’s open to peace talks with the government and would consider a ceasefire if negotiations begin in earnest.

In a video statement, National Liberation Army (ELN) leader Nicolás Rodríguez said it was time for the 50-year-old guerrilla group to pursue their aims of social justice without weapons.

“The government has said it’s willing to put an end to the conflict and has called the insurgents to the table,” he says in the video posted on the ELN’s website. “We will attend this dialogue to examine the will of the government and the Colombian state. If we conclude that arms are no longer necessary, we would consider quitting using them.”

While the statement fell short of the outright endorsement some were expecting from the group, the context was important, said Fernando Hernandez, the head of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris think-tank and a former ELN member.

The statement was made after the ELN’s top commanders had met to mark the group’s anniversary. “The fact that there’s a consensus around a peace deal and the idea of putting down their weapons — that’s significant,” he said.

Eventual talks would be a win for the Juan Manuel Santos administration, which has spent the last two years in Cuba hammering out a deal with the largest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Those talks got a boost on Dec. 20 when the FARC declared a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire.

The ELN and the government have been in “exploratory” talks for a year, and it’s still unclear where an eventual negotiation might take place. Both Ecuador and Uruguay have said they would be willing to host negotiations.

The ELN began in the 1960s with Marxist roots, but has increasingly relied on kidnapping, extortion and sabotage to support its estimated 2,000 fighters.