Formal Talks with ELN Set to Begin in Quito

October 12, 2016

After more than five failed efforts at peace negotiations between Colombia’s second largest guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Colombian government, and after two years of exploratory talks that included more than 22 rounds, the parties announced on Monday, Oct. 10 the start of the first formal peace talks.  The peace table will be installed in Quito, Ecuador, on October 27, 2016, and the first cycle of talks will begin on Nov. 3rd.  (Read their statement here, or view it below.):

Hurdles Surpassed

The ELN was launched in 1965, and is said to have some 2,500 members with a presence in 99 municipalities of the country.  Its influence is greatest in the eastern departments of Colombia, especially Arauca, Norte de Santander, and the Arauca-Boyacá-Casanare triangle.  Chocó, Bolívar, Cauca and Nariño are also ELN strongholds. (See more here.)

In June 2014, the Colombian government announced that secret exploratory talks in Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil had been underway with the ELN since January 2014.  A public phase of the talks was announced last March 30 along with a framework agreement to guide them.  The “Accord for Peace Talks between the Government and the ELN”  indicated that the goal of the talks would be to “put an end to the armed conflict, eradicate violence from politics, put the treatment of the victims in the center, and advance toward national reconciliation through the active participation of society in the building of a stable and durable peace.”

Nonetheless, the formal talks hit turbulence before they could be launched.  The impasse was apparently due to the issue of ELN kidnapping/retention practices.  Subsequent to the March announcement, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had insisted that the release of all hostages would be a pre-condition to the talks.  The ELN balked, noting that it had agreed to no pre-conditions and that these were added belatedly.  Talks stalled, and new kidnappings, including of three Spanish journalists, temporarily torpedoed progress.

In July, the government named two ex-ELN guerrillas–‘Francisco Galán’ and ‘Felipe Torres,’ as peace promotors (gestores de paz)– to move the process forward.  Both had been engaged in prior efforts to bring the ELN to the peace table.

The impasse appears now to have been resolved.  On Sept. 27, the day after the signing ceremony of the peace accord with the FARC in Cartagena, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that he was prepared to begin formal negotiations with the ELN within a week if it agreed to release all of those individuals that they held hostage.  The ELN accepted his invitation.

Within days, the Domingo Laín Front of the ELN released Diego José Ulloque, a young entrepreneur from rural Arauca. Shortly thereafter, the ex-mayor of Charalá (Santander), Fabio León, was freed after being held for more than three months.  Then, last Monday, the ELN released Nelson Alejandro Alarcón in Fortul (Arauca).  Five more civilians are said to be held, but these three releases have sent a clear sign of interest in moving forward, particularly since ‘Pablito’, the powerful ELN commander in the Arauca region, has long been seen as opposed to peace talks, and the liberations of the aforementioned civilians are seen as an indication of his readiness to negotiate.  President Santos’s announcement that the peace talks would officially begin at this month’s end responded to these positive actions, as well as to the ELN’s call for a unilateral ceasefire during the plebiscite to vote on the Accord with the FARC on Oct. 2.

Agenda for the Talks

Monday’s joint announcement indicated that the government and the ELN will initially take up two of the points from the six-point agenda the parties laid out in March of this year.  (For the full agenda, see my earlier post here.)  These items include three unique issues–social participation in the process, democracy for peace, and transformations for peace– and three issues shared with the FARC agenda, namely, victims, end of the conflict, and implementation of the accords.

There is hope that the ELN negotiations will be able to build on much of the groundwork set in place with the FARC in Havana.  In an interview in El Tiempo, ‘Felipe Torres’ (Carlos Velandia) expressed hope that a unilateral ceasefire might be announced, and that the process could be expedited if the ELN agrees to begin with the agreement already reached with the FARC.  (See article here.)   In any case, the parties have agreed to move judiciously to end the conflict.

While there is overlap on key issues between the FARC and ELN agendas, most experts readily admit that the process with the ELN is likely to be much more difficult than the one with the FARC has been.  Perhaps the main reason is that the ELN does not have the kind of tight command-and-control for which the FARC is known.  The distinct origins of the two groups have also defined quite different agendas.  The FARC’s agenda has historically centered around rural, agrarian issues, while the ELN agenda has been more urban and with an intellectual and progressive social bent–a product of the Cuban Revolution, Liberation Theology, and Marxist philosophy.  The demands of the ELN –for social justice, national sovereignty over natural resources (including extractive industries)–have  traditionally been harder to pin down in a negotiations setting.

The agenda agreed on with the ELN in March is indicative.  The parties agreed that they will start their discussions on the issue of social participation, the first of the six points.  In November, they expect to establish mechanisms for civil society to participate in the peace process on the agenda that has been achieved.  In a Q&A issued by the government, the latter noted, “Through participatory mechanisms that will be defined, citizens will be able to contribute with their initiatives around substantive themes such as the restitution of victims’  rights, a central axis of the conversations; the peaceful and constructive treatment of conflicts, and the construction of citizenship.”  (See Preguntas-y-respuestas.)  Such citizen engagement is expected to lead “to the end of the armed conflict, the eradication of violence in politics, and to offer the ELN a transition to legal politics, without arms.”  Similarly, the parties have each committed themselves to undertaking “other actions and humanitarian dynamics in order to create an environment favorable to peace.”

As with the peace talks with the FARC, the agreed agenda with the ELN will not include any discussion about the economic development model, private property, military doctrine, or the future of the Armed Forces.

El Espectador reports that each round of talks is expected to last for six weeks without interruption, at the end of which time a joint report will give an accounting of the cycle. (Ver Alfredo Molano, “Todo está listo para sentarse con el ELN.”)

Delegates

In a speech to the nation on Monday evening, President Santos noted that he would be announcing the members of the negotiating team in coming days.  Each side will have up to 30 members, including 5 plenipotentiaries and 5 alternates.  Signatories on yesterday’s statement for the government side included Mauricio Rodríguez (head delegate),  (ret.) Eduardo Herrera Barbel, José Noe Ríos and Julián Arévalo. Pablo Beltrán (chief of the delegation), Aureliano Carbonel, Gustavo Martínez, Bernardo Tellez and Consuelo Tapias signed for the ELN.  Frank Pearl, who had led the government negotiations with the ELN for many years beginning in the era of President Alvaro Uribe, and ELN delegation head during the exploratory phase, Antonio García, were conspicuously absent.

Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Chile, Norway and Brazil will serve as international guarantors for the talks, and will host the talks as determined by the negotiating teams.  International delegates who signed the agreement and have been engaged in the exploratory talks included Ramón Rodríguez Chacín and Carola Martínez (Venezuela), Juan Meriguet (Ecuador), Rodolfo Benítez Verson and Abel García (Cuba), Raúl Vergara Meneses and Luis Maira (Chile), Torleif Kveim (Norway), and José Solla (Brazil).

 

Back in Colombia, the prospect of a return to war has lit a fire under civil society, and the granting of the Nobel Peace Prize has energized the efforts to bring the peace project to fruition.  See my recent analysis in the press, especially:

 

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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