At 5 pm tonight, peace talks opened in Quito, Ecuador, between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The talks will take place at the Cashapampa Hacienda, an estate in the southwestern part of Quito belonging to the Pontifícia Universidad Católica of Ecuador. Ecuador and Venezuela, along with Cuba, Norway, Chile, and Brazil are accompanying the talks as guarantors; there is no international mediator.
The talks are critical to moving Colombia toward what is being called “complete peace”. This week, thousands of FARC troops left the jungles and 5,784 of 6,300 FARC guerrillas began settling into 26 hamlets and centers designated as transitional zones (ZVTN). These will be the first stop before their entry into civilian life. (See more here.) While the State is stepping up its presence in the zones being abandoned by the FARC–frequently lands and corridors of high value for illicit trade– these territories will quickly become contested among the remaining armed groups and criminal organizations. A peace agreement with the ELN would remove yet one more armed group from the playing field.
Long History of Efforts with the ELN
Today’s peace talks have been a long time coming. The governments of César Gaviria, Ernesto Samper, Andrés Pastrana, and Alvaro Uribe have all sought peace talks with the ELN without success. President Juan Manuel Santos and his team have been engaged in exploratory talks with the ELN since January 2014; on two occasions–in March and in October 2016–these talks produced agreements and even dates for formal talks. On both occasions, the peace talks failed to materialize. (See my earlier post here).
On Jan. 18, 2017, the parties again announced that they had reached an agreement to begin formal peace talks, this time on February 7th in Quito. The announcement included the terms under which the talks would take place. The agreement was crafted by a diverse government team that included respected individuals from both civil society and the military. (See their joint communiqué here.)
The specific sequence of humanitarian actions agreed to by both parties have now been completed. First, the government was to facilitate the participation of two ELN members to participate in the talks. Last weekend, the Colombian government released ELN members Juan Carlos Cuéllar y Eduardo Martínez from Bellavista Prison in Medellín to serve as peace facilitators (gestores de paz).
Second, the parties set a Feb. 2 deadline and a series of protocols for the release of Odín Sánchez, an ex-Congressman from the Chocó region. Sánchez had been in custody since April 2016, when he offered himself in exchange for the release of his younger brother, Patrocinio, ex-Governor of Chocó. Patrocinio had been retained by the ELN for nearly 3 years and was suffering medical problems. (See more here.) On Feb. 1, the military ceased all operations in the area of the Chocó where the release was to take place. The following morning, 2 representatives of the Colombian government, 6 delegates from the nations accompanying the ELN process (Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Norway, and Brazil), two members of the ELN peace delegation, and two representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross went to receive the exCongressman, and returned him to his family. (See more here.)
Just hours after Sánchez’s release, a third commitment was fulfilled when the government pardoned two ELN guerrillas serving time for the crime of rebellion. The beneficiaries were Nixon Arsenio Cobos Vargas and Leivis Enrique Valero Castillo. Cobos was serving a 4-year sentence following his capture in July 2015 in Cúcuta, where he was recovering from the amputation of one of his legs, injured in a land mine accident. (See more here.) Valero, for his part, was serving a 7-year sentence that began in Dec. 2014, and is suffering from combat injuries. Neither is known to have charges pending for any crimes other than the crime of rebellion, and both were released on humanitarian grounds.
The negotiation team for the government will be led by Juan Camilo Restrepo, exMinister of Agriculture and Rural Development, of the Treasury, and of Mines and Energy. Among those accompanying him on the team are:
- Luz Helena Sarmiento, exMinister of the Environment and Sustainable Development
- Eduardo Herrera Berbel, Major General (ret.) of the Army
- Alberto Fergusson, psychiatrist and counselor to the Universidad del Rosario
- Jaime Avendaño, presidential advisor, former government delegate to the peace talks with the FARC
- María Alejandra Villamizar, journalist and presidential advisor
- Roy Barreras, Pres. of the Peace Commission of the Senate, and former government delegate to the peace talks in Havana with the FARC.
At least a dozen others, including members of the Santos Administration, the Colombian Congress, and delegates to other peace processes have also headed to Quito to serve on the team and are poised to provide political support for what promises to be a complex negotiation. President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of the negotiating team have extended several invitations to exPresident Alvaro Uribe, a long-time opponent of the peace accord with the FARC, to send a representative to join the government’s negotiating team. (More here.) The ELN has supported the idea, as have members of civil society, who note that negotiations with the ELN are likely to outlast the Santos administration and it will be important to have a broad range of Colombian society behind any peace accord that is reached. Uribe has reportedly not discounted the idea.
The ELN negotiators will be led by “Pablo Beltrán”, also known as Israel Ramírez Pineda. Beltrán is a member of the Central Command (COCE) of the ELN, and third in command of that organization. (More here.) Joining him at the table are:
- “Aureliano Carbonel”, aka Pablo Tejada, linked to the Northeastern Front
- “Bernardo Téllez”, writer for the magazine Voces
- Consuelo Tapias, “Paula”
- Gustavo Martínez
Eduardo Martínez and Juan Carlos Cuéllar, recently released from Bellavista Prison in Medellín, will also be part of the ELN peace delegation. Both are members of the national directorate of the ELN. Five women and ten men have also been named to the ELN peace delegation.
The agenda for talks was set last March in Caracas, Venezuela and includes six points: social participation in peace-building, democracy for peace, transformations for peace, victims, end of the conflict, and implementation of the agreement. The final three points were also on the agenda for talks with the FARC. The formula for a bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities–a priority for much of Colombian society–as well as key humanitarian issues including kidnapping, mining, child recruitment, and attacks on social leaders and infrastructure –will likely be taken up early on. The capacity to create humanitarian agreements that protect the communities as the war continues will be critical to building popular support and credibility for the process.
With social participation as the first item on the agenda and with repeated delays for launching the formal talks, civil society has pushed hard to get the parties to the table and to refine methodologies for its participation in the peace process. In a communiqué issued last week, Por Una Paz Completa, an association of individuals and groups that has pressured for a political solution to the conflict with the ELN, called on the population to participate in a National Dialogue to contribute to peace building. Furthermore, they called on the parties to declare a bilateral ceasefire. (See my previous blog for more information on the role of civil society.)
In an interview with Telesur, Olimpo Cárdenas, representative of the Comité por la Mesa de la Sociedad, said that civil society organizations will present 4 proposals to the negotiating table. These will call for a stage for national dialogue, one phase for a pact for participation, a stage for deliberation or negotiation, and an implementation phase. The process must permeate society–including business sectors, government, and social sectors, he said. (More here.)
“This second [public] phase,” observed President Juan Manuel Santos, “will permit us to achieve a complete peace, not only peace with the FARC, but with the ELN as well.”