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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Latin America & Caribbean > Andes > Colombia > Left in the Cold? The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks

Left in the Cold? The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks

Latin America Report N°51 26 Feb 2014

This report is also available in Spanish.


Whether the National Liberation Army (ELN) joins the current peace process is one of the biggest uncertainties around Colombia’s historic opportunity to end decades of deadly conflict. Exploratory contacts continue, and pressure to advance decisively is growing, as the Havana negotiations with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) approach a decisive point. However, hopes fresh negotiations with the second insurgency were imminent were repeatedly dashed in 2013. Agreeing on an agenda and procedures that satisfy the ELN and are consistent with the Havana framework will not be easy. The ELN thinks the government needs to make an overture or risk ongoing conflict; the government believes the ELN must show flexibility or risk being left out. But delay is in neither’s long-term interest. A process from which the ELN is missing or to which it comes late would lack an essential element for the construction of sustainable peace. Both sides, therefore, should shift gears to open negotiations soonest, without waiting for a perfect alignment of stars in the long 2014 electoral season.

Paramilitary violence and, to a lesser degree, military action have greatly reduced the ELN’s military capabilities, but the smaller of Colombia’s two insurgencies is not on the brink of collapse. It has taken advantage of a boom in natural resources to extract new rents from the oil industry in its Arauca stronghold and to fight for control over mining zones in Chocó and elsewhere. It has also broken in some regions its longstanding restriction against engaging in the illegal drugs economy in order to buy weapons and recruit fighters. All this has cost it dearly in its relatively strong local support, but the ELN has taken care not to totally sacrifice relations with communities in the run-up to a possible political endgame. It is maintaining its links to local politics in Arauca, and cooperation with FARC has much improved since 2009, as both groups have taken steps to repair often distrustful and at times violent relations.

The ELN is a regionally confined threat, but its capacity to adapt and resist, together with accrued social and political capital and its strategically important rear-guard in Venezuela mean a military defeat is unlikely in the near term. An intensified offensive would trigger another humanitarian emergency in guerrilla strongholds and might also be counter-productive over the long run, as it would risk breaking the already strongly decentralised ELN into autonomous criminal groups. A negotiation, therefore, is the pragmatic and best choice. Postponing it until a deal is struck with FARC might appear easier to manage than parallel talks with the two insurgencies that would likely take place in different countries. However, sequential talks would have their own problems. Given the territorial overlap between the two groups, implementing a ceasefire with FARC could be problematic if the ELN remains in the conflict, and the ELN’s ranks could grow if it offered a harbour for FARC fighters unwilling to demobilise.

This allows the ELN to punch above its weight, but it should use its bargaining power wisely. Even more than the government, it would pay a high price for failing to open talks soon. The longer it remains on the sideline, the less it will be able to shape issues such as transitional justice and political participation and the more it will be under pressure to simply accept the outcomes reached with FARC. The guerrillas risk breathing thinner air in a possible post-Havana context, in particular if accords with FARC initiate a process of social transformation that further undermines the case for armed struggle and reduces the appetite for negotiating a substantive policy agenda with the ELN. Even if it believes it could survive a government military escalation, therefore, a settlement remains its best strategy to exit the conflict.

While both sides have incentives to move expeditiously to formal negotiations, the way forward will not be easy. Before the May presidential election, the government may shy from opening talks with a guerrilla group widely but inaccurately seen as a negligible threat. The ELN may be tempted to gamble against the odds that the election produces a new president ready to negotiate on more favourable terms. There are also questions about the solidity of the ELN’s internal consensus to negotiate. Unsuccessful processes with the last five administrations ran into trouble in part because of the group’s internal divisions. Demands for a wide agenda and broad social participation in the negotiations are at odds with the narrow focus and confidential nature of the Havana talks and the stated goal of ending the conflict rather than constructing the peace. There is only limited room to diverge from the Havana model unless the government is prepared to jeopardise the progress made to date with FARC.

But the parties should not let this opportunity slip away. For all the difficulties there is scope to agree on a basic agenda that includes narrowly defined topics related to exploitation of natural resources, the ELN’s core grievance, alongside transitional justice and political participation, as well as on an innovative participation scheme with a stronger territorial focus. The broader context has also arguably never been so favourable. Improved relations between FARC and ELN should facilitate parallel talks. Some civil society actors still have influence with which to strengthen moderate elements within the smaller insurgency. They, as well as regional countries with leverage, should be supportive. Audacity, creativity and pragmatism are needed from all if the ELN is not to miss what could be its last chance to exit gracefully from the armed conflict, and Colombia is to have a good chance to sustain peace.


To open fresh peace negotiations expeditiously

To the government of Colombia and the National Liberation
Army (ELN):

1.  Intensify existing preliminary and direct contacts in order to agree without delay to an early opening of formal peace talks.

2.  The ELN should accept that talks will concentrate on ending the conflict and that the broader effort to instigate political, economic and social reforms will only get under way in the subsequent post-agreement transition.

3.  The government should recognise the ELN as a negotiation partner equal to the FARC, including being prepared to accept some modifications to the Havana model to reflect differences between the two insurgencies; it should also strongly defend the strategic importance of negotiating with the ELN before a potentially indifferent or sceptical public and reassure the private sector over the reach of the agenda.

4.  Show flexibility and creativity to agree on an agenda and a methodology that adequately balance the ELN’s need to construct a sufficiently robust internal consensus with the basic architecture behind the Havana process and public expectations for swift and efficient negotiations. The agenda and methodology should include the following elements:

a) narrowly defined issues related to exploitation of natural resources, leaving a comprehensive discussion of mining and oil policies for the post-conflict period;

b) transitional justice, political participation, demobilisation, disarmament, reintegration and other issues related to the termination of the conflict already included in the Havana talks with FARC; and

c) an innovative scheme for civil society participation with a stronger territorial focus, taking the forums organised by the UN and the National University in connection with the Havana process for FARC talks as examples and reference.

To Colombian civil society:

5.  Build on the peace advocacy that has been intensifying since 2013, using its influence with the ELN to strengthen moderate elements within it.

6.  Intensify efforts with both government and the public to build the case for a quick start to negotiations, including by raising awareness of the ongoing security threat the ELN poses and of the continuing adverse humanitarian impact of the confrontation in conflict-affected regions.

7.  Make clear that the legitimacy and sustainability of talks with the ELN depends significantly on the willingness of both sides to embrace an encompassing transitional justice agenda.

To the International Community, including regional states with influence on the ELN, such as Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Brazil, and regional institutions, such as CELAC and UNASUR:

8.  Be prepared to provide facilitation or any other form of direct support for the peace talks, including an adequate venue, technical advice and financial support.

9.  Use influence with the insurgency to encourage pro-negotiation elements within it and foster confidence in the process.

10.  Continue to prepare for a post-conflict scenario by renewing commitments to contribute to securing peace in a variety of ways, ranging from monitoring and verifying bilateral ceasefires to supporting transitional justice measures and building stronger civilian institutions in peripheral zones of the country.

To build confidence between the government and the ELN,
and within the wider Colombian society

To the government of Colombia and the ELN:

11.  Use current contacts to swiftly adopt a set of unilateral measures. In particular, the ELN needs to announce the end of kidnapping and the immediate release of all victims it might still hold; the government should encourage this step by permitting third-party review of confinement conditions of jailed ELN members.

To the ELN:

12.  Demonstrate commitment to International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights norms by advancing local humanitarian agreements regarding demining, sexual violence and recruitment of minors.

Bogotá/Brussels, 26 February 2014
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