by Robin Llewellyn, Colombia Reports
BOGOTÁ — A week in which Colombia's peace talks were suspended might not seem the most opportune time to advocate initiating peace negotiations with Colombia's second largest guerilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). But a new book, launched Nov. 20 at Bogotá's Center of Memory, Peace and Reconciliation, argues for exactly this.
Why Negotiate with the ELN? is a compilation of works by various authors, edited by professor Victor Currea-Lugo of the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, and was presented with Liberal Party Senator Horacio Serpa Uribe.
Given the FARC's recent capture of two soldiers, its killing of two indigenous guards, and its capture of General Ruben Dario Alzate, what are the prospects for such a negotiation?
Political commentator Felipe Pineda wrote the chapter "The ELN and the Political Exit of the Armed Conflict" with Luis Sandoval, El Espectador columnist and co-chair of conflict monitoring NGO Redepaz. We asked him whether the timing of the launch was unfortunate given the breakdown in negotiations in Havana.
"There will always be emergencies and crises surrounding peace negotiations when these are carried out without a ceasefire," Pineda said, "but that doesn't change the fact that both the ELN and the government currently both need to talk and to create a substantial peace agreement. The government has built a level of support for pursuing peace; it needs to realize that even if they could exterminate the ELN after possibly concluding a deal with the FARC, it would not succeed in ending armed conflict in the countryside."
Pineda is not convinced that the Colombian army could easily defeat the ELN's guerilla warfare, and adds: "However disgusting the methods of the ELN, their professed claim for a fairer control of natural resources is one that has support in a number of regions. The government needs to find ways for these ambitions to be realized democratically. If they don't then any military triumph would be short-lived and merely followed by renewed violence—undermining the central promise of this administration, to finally bring peace to Colombia."
The ELN originated in Santander department in the mid 1960s, initially following a Marxist-Leninist ideology combined, among some followers, with religious beliefs. It has since turned to kidnapping, extortion and forming links with drug-trafficking to finance itself. The organization has specialised in attacking oil infrastructure in its areas of influence. ELN and FARC attacks succeeded in costing the Colombian oil industry $521 million between January and July this year.
The past failures or only-partial successes of previous peace negotiations with guerillas and paramilitary groups leave many skeptical about the hopes for a peace agreement, but Pineda insists that the ELN are serious about being prepared to lay down their arms.
"For one thing it's increasingly clear that their policy of military struggle has lost the element of support it once enjoyed with some members of the public in the 1970s and 1980s. The number of fighters went from 5,000 in the late 1990s to 2,500 nowadays. The idea of the armed political project is finished and now a political ending of the armed conflict is essential for the ELN."
With the FARC's agreement on Nov. 19 to release Gen. Alzate, talks in Havana are expected to quickly resume. Would talks with the ELN follow a similar program to those with the FARC? Pineda sees one obvious difficulty: "The challenge for the ELN is that their aims have always been related to the economic model—a subject which the government has refused to discuss with the FARC."
But given the current political reality Pineda says that the group would consent to seek more "social investment in mining and oil areas, and areas of influence such as Catatumbo, Arauca, Casanare, south of Nariño and the Montes de María region; the democratization of oil revenues; an energy policy more sensitive to communities; and with a more balanced approach to social and environmental costs. Another goal that the ELN would seek to achieve is to strengthen their social and political base throughout the dynamics of the process."
Pineda also points out that the ELN's activities are more scattered than those of the FARC. "It's operating in the northeast, the far south and west of the country, and this regionalism is one of its key characteristics. It's not unrealistic to imagine a government-ELN treaty being concluded following negotiations carried out simultaneously in the different regions where the ELN is active."
The challenges to creating a meaningful peace have been made particularly clear this week, but Pineda is anxious that resignation and cynicism do not take hold. "I am deeply hopeful that the book, despite the date of the events, becomes a platform for the sectors of civil society who are committed to peace," he says. "It is in these troubled moments Colombia most needs the involvement of those who way or another want to end the historical conflict."
This story first ran Nov. 20 on Colombia Reports.
Photo: Parker Crooks via Colombia Reports.
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