Colombia took another important step toward ending its half-century conflict Wednesday, announcing that it would begin formal peace talks with the country’s second-largest guerrilla group.
In a joint press conference in Venezuela, the National Liberation Army and government negotiators said the rebels, known as the ELN, would enter talks with the aim of laying down their weapons and becoming political players.
Under the framework agreement, “public” negotiations will take place in Ecuador, but sessions will also be held in Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Cuba.
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If the government manages to bring the twin negotiations to a conclusion, it would mark the end of Latin America’s Cuba-inspired guerrilla movements.
“If the ELN joins these efforts and makes its own contributions, we will have the stable and durable peace that all Colombians want,” President Juan Manuel Santos said in a national address. The country’s civil conflict has left at least 212,000 dead and forced millions to flee their homes.
Under the deal, public forums will help set the agenda and provide suggestions for the negotiations. And like the FARC agreement, this framework deal emphasizes victims’ rights and the need for truth. Santos said the ELN would be able to piggyback on the Truth Commission and special tribunals that have been set up under the Cuba negotiations.
Heading off critics who fear the administration is sacrificing too much at the bargaining table, Santos said a series of “red lines” remained.
“From the beginning, we’ve been clear with the ELN, as we have with the FARC, that the agenda to end the war does not include negotiations about our economic or political system, or the system of private property,” he said.
The government has been trying to lure the ELN into the talks with the FARC since at least January 2014, and Santos had warned that they were on the verge of “missing the peace train.”
Among the sticking points had been the site of the negotiations. The ELN had been asking that the conversations be held in Venezuela, but hostile relations between Bogotá and Caracas had made that unappealing to the Santos administration.
Another reason for the delay is the very nature of the guerrilla movement, said Fernando Hernández, who was with the group from the 1970s through 1992.
While the FARC has a vertical, military-style command structure, the ELN’s chain of command is more disperse.
“They had to build an internal consensus before coming to the table,” said Hernández, the director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, which studies the conflict.
In the past, the administration has said the ELN might have between 1,200 and 1,500 members, but Hernández said that was mere speculation.
“What’s important is that it’s a guerrilla group that has a history and deep ties within civil society,” he said. “It was important to bring them into the talks.”
It’s unclear when negotiations will commence, but Santos said it was “unacceptable” for them to begin while the ELN still holds hostages.
Ramón José Cabrales, who was detained by the ELN for more than six months, has told local media that the group is holding other hostages.
Cabrales was released last week in what the government initially said was a “goodwill” gesture ahead of talks. But Cabrales and his family said they paid a ransom for his release.
Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez said it was troubling that the government would even consider engaging the ELN while it’s still committing crimes, and he said it caused “extreme indignation” that the government would present Cabrales’ release as an act of benevolence.
On Wednesday, the Public Defenders office also asked the ELN to cease hostilities, including kidnapping and extortion.
The beginning of the talks are likely fraught with pitfalls. The government’s strategy has been to keep up military pressure even as negotiations proceed. And the talks create incentives for increased violence.
“The ELN had stepped up military actions in the lead-up to the announcement of formal negotiations, and in the coming months is likely to continue to use terrorist attacks to improve its position at the bargaining table,” Oliver Wack, a Bogotá-based analyst with Control Risks, said in a statement. “Despite assurances to the contrary, companies have voiced concern about the extent to which government concessions to guerrilla groups as part of the negotiations will undermine the business environment.”
Founded in 1964, the ELN combined Marxist-Leninist ideology with liberation theology, and some of the group’s initial recruits came from the Catholic Church. Among their most famous was 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 its survival.
“The talks between the ELN and the government, coupled with an imminent peace deal with the FARC, bring hope that more than half a century of conflict in Colombia might soon be over,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, told The Associated Press. “The government and the ELN must ensure that human rights, including measures to put an end to impunity, lie at the heart of the negotiations.”