Another question that could affect the length of the peace talks with the FARC is the matter of Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla movement, the “National Liberation Army” (ELN), which says its date of founding was July 4, 1964, a couple months after what the FARC says was its own creation, though the ELN had stirrings before that. Quite some time ago, the FARC’s chief peace negotiator “Ivan Marquez” told me that he envisioned one possible scenario that once the ELN started its own formal peace negotiations with the Colombian government and once this matured to a sufficient point, then the ELN talks could be perhaps merged with the FARC talks before an overall peace agreement would be signed.
If this were to be the case, it could take months or years. The ELN, whose maximum commander is Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, known by his nom de guerre “Gabino,” and Pres. Santos’ government started a preliminary exploratory dialogue in 2014 (with “feelers” reportedly beginning in 2013) trying to set a frame-work and operational details for eventual formal peace talks. The inauguration of formal talks between them had been expected to happen in the first half of this year, but acrimonious moments of finger-pointing between the Colombian government and ELN and a recrudescence of their mutual war-related actions have put this in doubt and the exploratory talks are now the rocks.
After the ELN was imputed to firing improvised mortar projectiles February 7 that reportedly exploded causing minor damage on the grounds of the Army’s 18th Brigade base in Arauca, the capital of the department (province) of the same name, Pres. Santos demanded that for any peace negotiation to take place, the ELN would first have to free all those held captive by it, including an Army corporal who was reportedly snatched in early February at an ELN check-point as he was unarmed, dressed in civilian clothes and riding a motorcycle. Moreover, Pres. Santos ordered the military to re-intensify its efforts against the ELN. The ELN’s response: a three-day “armed stoppage” in mid-February aimed at road traffic in remote areas of ELN presence, during which three police members were reportedly killed, an undetermined number of people wounded, and at least a couple of buses burned in some 35 ELN violent actions. On February 20, the Colombian security forces reported that they had killed a half-dozen ELN guerrillas in combat.
The tension between the Colombian government and ELN had been building for quite some time. Responding at the end of January to an exhortation two days earlier by the Colombian government’s chief peace negotiator with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle, for the ELN to take the necessary steps to enter formal peace negotiations promptly, the ELN replied in a communique that it has been ready and waiting since November for the government to meet with it again to set a date and place.
Pres. Santos responded February 1 in a public statement, saying: “They [the ELN] know that that is not true, we are asking them for some time already that a series of meetings be facilitated that we still have ahead, to go from the confidential phase to the public phase. We are in wait of them for making those dates concrete.” Venezuela and Ecuador have been facilitating the exploratory talks. But turmoil in Venezuela has gone against consideration of it hosting Colombian government-ELN formal talks, at least in the perspective of the Santos’ administration, which reportedly would prefer Ecuador over Venezuela. However, the ELN reportedly would like to give a boost to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and homage to Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez by having the formal talks in Venezuela, at least part of the time. It is an “open secret” to Venezuelan inhabitants in border areas with Colombia that the ELN has safe havens inside Venezuelan territory, which the Venezuelan government denies. Besides Ecuador and Venezuela, possible options reportedly mentioned for hosting potential formal negotiations between the Colombian government and ELN could be in Cuba, Brazil or Holland.
According to Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas in an El Tiempo interview January 31, “The grave point with the ELN is its federation; the interlocution on a topic so complex as is the peace negotiation results very difficult, because it [the ELN] is atomized. I believe that those federated commanders of the ELN have to think in seriousness that this is not the country that motivated its creation in the 60s and 70s.” The ELN, which has proposed to include somehow representatives across the spectrum of society in the negotiations, says it is unified, with its own consensus-building, decision-making process, and that it has been the Colombian government trying to force things or not replying promptly that has caused delays to start formal peace talks, which the government denies.
What are frame-work topics planned for possible formal peace talks between the Colombian government and ELN? While this was apparently understood to be confidential by the Colombian government, the ELN’s Central Command (COCE) member “Antonio Garcia” revealed to Argentine media in 2015 that topics on the agenda are participation of society, democracy for peace, necessary transformations for peace, victims, end of armed conflict and ratification and implementation of accords.
A question would be if the FARC and ELN might see advantages in a possible scenario where the FARC signs an overall peace accord first and starts its reintegration into civilian society while the ELN is negotiating its own peace accord with the Colombian government (or not in negotiations). Why? It could perhaps be seen by the FARC as a sort of “insurance policy” that a Colombian government-FARC overall peace agreement is honored, and if not, the FARC would have an option (as remote as it may seem) of returning to its guerrilla operations, with assistance from the ELN. One of the ELN’s top combat commanders, “Pablito,” promoted to the COCE last year, has been cited as supposedly saying that the ELN could be “the active reserve” of the insurgency.
In line with such speculation, some wonder if the FARC could maybe even choose to store covertly some of its weapons with the ELN for such a possible contingency. The FARC and ELN have had some rough patches in their relationship over the decades—some of their respective units even reportedly exchanging gunfire on odd occasion—but both talk of fraternal revolutionary links between each other. Some may think that a downside for the ELN in this hypothesis would be that the ELN would face the brunt of Colombian military actions, if the FARC laid down its weapons and the ELN stayed fighting; but it appears that the ELN is already getting the brunt of military actions, given the FARC’s unilateral “indefinite” cease-fire.
There are already questions of whether or not the FARC, being in its unilateral cease-fires, has had or may have had some private tacit interaction with the ELN on ELN military actions, presumably to keep pressure on the Colombian government to continue to take the guerrilla groups seriously and to keep government troops distracted away from FARC areas. It wouldn’t be hard for guerrillas to take off their FARC armbands and temporarily put on ELN ones, or not to wear any identifying insignia at all, to carry out attacks, say military observers.
Former president/now Senator Alvaro Uribe, in a statement posted on his Centro Democratico opposition party website, said that in the southwestern department of Cauca “the citizenry complains that many members of the FARC break the law today with the uniform of the ELN, while in the south of Bolivar [department] it is also noted that the FARC has given the order that they break the law with the ELN uniform, and they are recruiting children in Montecristo and all that area.” The FARC denies this.