ELN Talks Announced Last Week; Havana Talks Resume Today

April 5, 2016

Last Wednesday, March 30, representatives of the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) met at the Foreign Ministry offices in Caracas, Venezuela, to sign a framework agreement that would serve as the basis for launching formal peace talks between the two groups.  The joint agreement, read by the delegation leads–Frank Pearl for the government and Antonio García for the ELN–laid out the agenda for peace talks to be launched in Ecuador on an unspecified date. Ecuador, along with Brazil and the countries that currently accompany the FARC process in Havana (Venezuela, Chile, Cuba, and Norway), will serve as guarantors for the talks. The Latin American nations among them will host the different sessions.  (See the framework agreement here in Spanish.)


Delegates of the Colombian government and the ELN meet in Caracas, Venezuela to announce formal peace talks to begin in Ecuador. (Photo Courtesy of Presidency of Colombia)


The March 30 announcement came just before the Colombian government and the FARC returned to Havana, where they are meeting today to begin their next ten-day cycle of talks. (See my previous post.)  At the end of their last session, each of the delegations in Havana met separately with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was accompanying President Barak Obama on his historic visit to Cuba.  In the visit with Sec. Kerry, which was viewed as productive by the various parties, Kerry offered assistance in ensuring security for demobilizing ex-FARC, an offer which was viewed as productive.

After postponing their self-imposed deadline of March 23rd for reaching a final peace deal, FARC and government negotiators now have before them the final two agenda items–ending the conflict, and defining procedures and mechanisms for ratifying, verifying and implementing the accords.  Sunday, government negotiators met in Bogota with President Juan Manuel Santos and yesterday, with the jurists’ commission that helped to craft last December’s agreement on victims, to “advance their work on themes relating to ending the conflict and setting aside weapons.”  (See Santos’s statement here.)  During this next cycle, their job will become increasingly complex as they work to craft a quality peace agreement, persuade an impatient public that the process is on track, and navigate a new  relationship with the peace table being established with the ELN.

As President Santos noted, “The processes with the FARC and the ELN are different, but there is only one end of the conflict.”  The March 30 framework agreement for talks with the ELN thus states explicitly that there will be coordination mechanisms established between the two tables.

Challenges at Home

While many recognize that postponement of a final agreement with the FARC was the best move given the differences that still remained to be negotiated at the table (see my prior post), the delay exacerbated skepticism about the peace process, and contributed to a generalized crisis of governability in the country. Following a national strike in mid-March, President Santos’s popularity rates have dropped to unprecedented lows—24 percent according to one poll released this week. (View more here.) Corruption, taxes, health care, access to education, inflation, crime, and generalized discontent over economic issues have sparked a series of national and regional strikes, and demonstrations have polarized parts of the country.  Paramilitary activity is on the upswing, as are attacks and threats against human rights defenders. (See more here.)

Furthermore, opposition to the peace talks is once again gaining traction. On March 31st, paramilitary forces that call themselves the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (aka the “Clan Úsuga” or the “Urabeños”) shut down parts of Antioquia, Chocó and Córdoba with an armed strike.  They reportedly sought to intimidate citizens into supporting rallies that had been called for Saturday, April 2, by former President Alvaro Uribe and the Centro Democrático party.  The Colombian press reported that between 60,000-300,000 Colombians participated in rallies throughout the country, often calling for Santos’s resignation and casting aspersions on the peace process.

An Integrated Peace

While the delay of the March 23 deadline for a peace deal has cost the government politically, it has nonetheless bought time for the negotiators to craft a more integrated peace, “una paz completa”. While peace processes with the FARC and the ELN will not resolve all of Colombia’s problems, if quality peace deals with both insurgent groups are achieved and implemented, and if the broader public can be brought along to support them, these agreements could ensure that fifty years of armed conflict comes to an end. The engagement of the populace will be key.

There are numerous reasons why a peace process with the ELN is needed to end Colombia’s internal armed conflict:

  1. A peace agreement with the ELN would eliminate a potential landing spot for FARC recalcitrants. Colombian experience shows that the territories of those who demobilize are usually taken over by those who remain armed.  Similarly, the remaining armed actors also take over the illicit activities that financed demobilizing armed groups.
  2. Historically, the demobilized themselves end up being targeted by those who remain in arms. Thousands of demobilized FARC were killed following peace accords in the 1980s; likewise with demobilized members of the M-19 and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and later, the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). (See article by León Valencia on this point.)
  3. The presence of an active ELN will make it difficult to provide security for those who demobilize and the communities where they relocate.
  4. If all of the insurgencies agree to give up their arms, the Colombian government could begin to shift its counterinsurgency priorities toward investments that will address the drivers of conflict. This will provide the best guarantee that war will not return.
  5. The FARC and the ELN each have a discourse that reflects a political agenda favoring greater justice. War long ago distorted these early visions with abductions, violence, drug trafficking, disappearances, and a trail of harmful consequences. If the insurgents set aside their arms and assume responsibility, as both sides say they are prepared to do for their crimes, and if they are allowed and encouraged to work toward the changes they purport to desire for Colombia within the political system, they have the potential to help transform Colombia into a more pluralist and democratic society.
  6. Finally, as long as the ELN remains active, social movements and advocates for change will continue to be viewed with suspicion by Colombian security forces, which have been trained to fight the internal enemy.  It will prove difficult to change this mindset  with an active insurgency at large.  Once peace with the insurgencies is achieved, however, the Colombian state will be freed up to re-conceptualize its national security strategy and the role of its armed forces, as well as its attitude and practice toward non-violent social protest and opposition politics.

In sum, peace agreements with both the FARC and the ELN, while adding complex new logistical and political challenges, will make it possible to end Colombia’s internal armed conflict once and for all. (See my previous posts for more background to the exploratory process with the ELN.) The establishment of a peace table with the ELN is a critical first step.


A Table of Their Own  

Past government efforts to bring the ELN to the table on the coattails of a FARC process have all proven unsuccessful, and the ELN has consistently maintained that it wants its own peace talks. As organizations, the FARC and the ELN have different ideologies, origins, structures, constituencies, decision-making processes, geographic roots, demographic origins, and ways of working with communities.  In a speech to announce the first stage of formal peace talks with the ELN, President Juan Manuel Santos referred to the unique identity of that insurgency.  “As you know, the ELN was born more than 50 years ago.   It is an organization with its own history and its own identity. … And just as we have confronted the ELN in the military field, we also believe that it can and must play a role in the construction of peace.” (See Santos’s speech here.)

With an estimated 1,500 members and many more followers, the ELN is about one-fifth the size of the FARC. Both insurgent groups were founded in 1964, and the current membership is just one-third of the members each had at their height. The ELN has complex urban roots that draw from liberation theology, the Cuban revolution, Marxist theory, and a profound sense of Latin American sovereignty and solidarity. On the other hand, the FARC’s rural base and ideology has shaped its organizational priorities. Unlike the ELN leadership, FARC leaders participated in electoral politics during the Patriotic Union. The FARC’s rigid hierarchy and highly disciplined command-and-control structures contrast sharply with ELN decision-making processes that are more consensual in nature and guided by collective decisions taken at their National Congresses.

These differences impact both the form and substance of each group’s engagement in a  peace process.   The agenda for the ELN process is novel in that it seeks to open the peace table to the broader participation of civil society on each of the agenda items, in effect, promoting a national dialogue that will complement the peace table with the FARC. Ironically, such spaces have been insufficient in the Havana process, and part of the reason that the Colombian populace has felt itself alienated from the talks in Havana.  As a Colombian colleague once told me, “Hay que darle pueblo a la paz,” roughly, “You’ve got to put people into the peace.” The consultative processes being encouraged by the process with the ELN should complement the peace-building processes envisioned in the preliminary peace agreements already reached with the FARC.  They could also build on the engagement that was initiated during the various forums and regional meetings that have taken place throughout the Havana process.  These forums in general served more as consultations, but could be reconfigured to generate dynamics of dialogue.

The Process with the ELN

Between January 2014 and March 2016, the government and the ELN engaged in some two dozen rounds of secret exploratory talks in Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela.  On the brink of a formal peace process, the ELN and the government have now resolved a number of impasses.  Antonio García, the lead negotiator for the ELN, noted that the government and the ELN had reached agreement on the agenda late last year, but that there were key elements relating to the functioning of the peace talks and where the talks would be held, as well as the structure for the participation of the international community.  These issues  were decided only at the end of March and have now allowed the parties to move forward to formalize talks. (See video interview here.)

As the parties announced last week, talks are anticipated to begin in Ecuador, but the cycles are expected to move among the four other Latin American guarantor countries once a schedule has been defined. The ELN had been pushing hard for Venezuela to be the site of the talks, in recognition of the support provided to the Colombian insurgents by Hugo Chávez and later Nicolás Maduro, who as Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, had supported the exploratory talks between the government and the ELN.  Chávez had long argued that armed struggle was no longer the proper revolutionary path and been providing the Colombian insurgents from both FARC and ELN with protection and security. The Colombian government, for political reasons, did not want Venezuela to host the talks. Agreeing that Venezuela would launch the talks but that other nations would provide future venues has allowed both sides an acceptable alternative.

Other impasses that appear to have been overcome include agreement on the primary goal of the talks.  Both parties for the first time have explicitly manifest that the goal of the talks will be “a final agreement to end the armed conflict and agree on transformations in the search for a Colombia in peace and equity.”  (See my previous post.)  A transition from bullets to ballots is part of this mutual commitment.

Perhaps the major challenge in the exploratory talks was to develop a workable agenda.  Despite vast differences over what should be negotiated in the talks, the parties have now  developed a common agenda of six points–the participation of society in peace building, democracy for peace, transformation for peace, victims, end of the conflict, and implementation.  The ELN had long sought a broader agenda that would address the social and economic inequities of the country, as well as issues of national sovereignty, natural resources, extractive industries, mining and energy policies, and economic development models.  The government for its part, has had a number of red lines, which they also have  in the Havana talks, namely, that negotiators will not tackle Colombia’s economic or political system, the issue of private property, or themes related to military doctrine or the armed forces.  In the talks with the ELN, the compromise appears to be that these taboo topics will be taken up by civil society in their discussions, but not at the table itself. Theoretically, other mechanisms for addressing the broader social justice agenda could be created outside of the formal talks.

Agenda for Talks with the ELN

The first three of the six agenda items–the participation of society in peace building, democracy for peace, and transformation for peace—complement the FARC agenda. Rather than focusing on concrete substantive themes, these are broad process questions—still somewhat undefined—and they could provide a vehicle for communities to assist in developing, grounding, and fleshing out the concept of territorial peace and potentially help build a stronger constituency for peace in the country. In a press conference in Caracas, ELN leader Antonio García noted, “The ELN is interested in being able to link the whole society to a peace process that carries with it implicit changes, transformations in politics and the life of Colombians.  A negotiations process is not an accord that is signed but a process that takes time and that must introduce to the whole society new dynamics for searching for postponed solution.  This is why the ELN is mainly interested in generating dynamics for political participation.” (See video interview below.)

One of the first items on the agenda when the parties meet in Ecuador will be to define how society will participate in this process. “Instead of spending a lot of time at the [Peace] Table drawing up detailed accords point by point, we want to promote participatory processes in the regions that will serve as a basis for agreements with the ELN on measures that will contribute to the construction of peace,” noted President Santos. Frank Pearl, who will be the government’s lead negotiator in the process, underscored this point at a press conference at the Casa de Nariño, noting, “[T]his will not be a process in which we sit down to write pages and pages of agreements, rather it will give priority to citizen participation and to social organizations so that they might state their positions on the items on the agenda.”

The government was clear nonetheless that the mechanisms for civilian participation would be limited, and there are likely to be some differences here that have yet to be negotiated. Government negotiator General (ret.) Eduardo Herrera Berbel explained, “We must make clear that it is not a tripartite table, it is a table of direct conversations between the National Government and the Army of National Liberation,” he said. (Read statement here.)

The ELN and FARC processes are likely to be quite complementary.  The ELN clearly has its own imprint to give to the talks and to the process of engaging Colombia in a peace-building process, but there is likely to be a fair amount of convergence that can build on some of the agreements that have already been made with the FARC.   The final three agenda items—victims, ending the conflict, and implementation of the agreements–are topics on the agendas of both the FARC and the ELN.  Frank Pearl, the lead for the government negotiating team with the ELN, noted that the first item of agreement in the exploratory phase was that victims should be at the center of the process, as they have been in Havana.  “Ending the conflict … we won’t have more victims in Colombia.  We must recognize the victims, restore their rights, and that is why we are establishing in the accord the principles of truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition.”  (See Pearl’s statement here.)

President Santos has stated that the two processes would converge around issues of transitional justice and the path to citizenship for ex-combatants.  He has also implied  that there will not be a new Truth Commission, or a second Peace Tribunal, separate ceasefires or cessations of hostilities, or separate international verification mission, though presumably the ELN will also need to agree to this.  (See Santos statement here.)  As with the FARC, the ELN has also insisted that they will not negotiate their way into prison, but that they will accept responsibility for crimes committed.

Pending Issues for the Parties

No start date has yet been specified for the talks.  Antonio García noted that the logistical and security arrangements, as well as the selection of delegates to the talks could take a few weeks, but will likely be less than two months.  President Juan Manuel Santos for his part said that the process with the ELN would begin “as soon as some humanitarian issues, including kidnapping, have been resolved.”  (See Santos’s speech here.)  Likewise, Frank Pearl, head of the government delegation, reiterated that it would not be acceptable to talk with the ELN while it continued to hold kidnapped persons.  “We are trying to resolve this issue and it is a condition that must be met to be able to advance in the public phase.”  He added that he believed the ELN would show its “true vocation for peace” in “acts of peace.”  (See Pearl’s statement here.)

The issue of kidnapping, which has been a critical source of funding and political leverage for guerrillas in Colombia, has long been an obstacle to political solutions.  The Colombian Center for Historical Memory documents 6,789 victims of ELN kidnappings from 1978-2015, and it is not known how many people might be currently in custody by the ELN.

On the other side, the release of those who have been captured can help move negotiations forward.  When the FARC released the last of its military and police retainees and announced in February 2012 that they would renounce the practice of kidnapping, the exploratory phase of the peace process with the FARC was launched.  Last month, the ELN’s release of officer Óscar William Calvo, and a few days later, its release of the civilian Ramón Cabrales, appeared to be key in helping the parties break through an impasse.  A few hours after the government and the ELN signed the framework agreement, Pablo Beltrán, one of the ELN negotiators, announced that the ELN would be releasing police guard Héctor Germán Pérez Monterroza, who was kidnapped on March 20 in the south of Bolívar.  This should be seen as a good faith gesture, and an ELN announcement of a policy shift to reject kidnapping could help foster support in the incipient peace process with the ELN.

As talks move forward, we should not be surprised to see more releases.  Nonetheless, the negotiators should also be prepared for more kidnappings, attacks, and efforts at self-enrichment through kidnapping and extortion.  The current rules of the game are that the talks will take place within the context of a war and without benefit of a ceasefire.  The ELN would be wise to consider a unilateral ceasefire–if they have the capacity to reign in their troops and the potential spoilers within the ELN who have much to lose from a peace deal.  A coordinated and decisive response on the part of the negotiators when violations occur, and strong verification processes, will be necessary to help ensure that such incidents, when they occur, do not derail the process.

Civil Society Support

Many groups in civil society had been urging the ELN and the Colombian government to formalize talks.  Colombianos y Colombianas por la Paz and Clamor Social por la Paz, which have been playing a good offices role since the secret talks were made public on June 10, 2014, issued a statement welcoming the announcement of the launching of talks with the ELN as an event of national and international importance.  (See their statement here.)  Academics and think-tanks have been working both publicly and privately to identify and help address impasses between the government and the ELN and create solutions.  A public campaign– “For a Complete Peace!”–heightened its activities in recent weeks, with numerous seminars and a march in front of the Apostolic Nuncio in Bogotá calling for the Pope’s intervention to get the parties to the table.  Fundación Nuevo Arco Iris and the Javeriana University have been promoting discussions to identify the blockages and move peace talks with the ELN forward.  Likewise, a group of ELN political prisoners has sought to build consensus for formal peace talks.  Quiet diplomatic efforts from the international community have also encouraged the parties to move toward a political solution to their differences.  All of these efforts appear to have contributed to President Santos’s conclusion that, “With this new step, we are advancing in a decided way toward a complete peace. …This complete peace is finally showing itself to be possible.”


About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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3 Responses to ELN Talks Announced Last Week; Havana Talks Resume Today

  1. Mark Schneider says:

    In case you missed. I was in Bogota last week and we put out this statement. http://www.crisisgroup .org/en/publication-type/statements/the-colombian-government-s-first-official-peace-talks-with-the-eln.aspx

    *p.s. We have changed our email system and so if you want to continue to automatically receive notice of our publications you have to subscribe here and indicate which reports you want to receive. http://eepurl.com/bAvyyH *

    Mark L. Schneider Senior Vice President International Crisis Group Main: 202.785.1601 Direct: 202.785.1638 Cell: 202.299.6602 1629 K St. NW #450 Washington, DC 20006 Crisis Group — the conflict prevention organization

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Pingback: Formal Talks with ELN Set to Begin in Quito | COLOMBIA CALLS

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