The United States government is "committed" to "dismantle" Colombia's remaining significant guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), federal prosecutor Zachary Terwilliger said Aug. 8. The US attorney for the Eastern District of Virgina made the comment after he and six other federal prosecutors met with President Ivan Duque on a visit to Bogotá to discuss cooperation "to fight narco-terrorism," as Terwilliger put it in a tweet. Terwilliger said the Colombian government "counts on the full support of the United States Department of Justice in the common cause to destabilize, decimate and ultimately dismantle the ELN." The guerilla group has been active since 1964 and is currently believed to have 4,000 fighters. The ELN was engaged in peace talks with Duque's predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, but the talks were suspended by Duque when he took office a year ago.
In a Dec. 21 ruling that was formally announced last week, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) found the Colombian state responsible for several extrajudicial executions carried out under the practice of "false positives"—random civilians claimed as guerillas killed in action. The six cases examined took place in the departments of Arauca, Santander and Casanare between 1992 and 1997. Although individual soldiers had been sentenced by the Colombian courts in some of these cases, the Costa Rica-based IACHR ordered the Colombian government to carry out further investigations and prosecutions, provide reparations to the families of the victims, and commit to a "public act of acknowledgement" of responsibility. The Colectivo José Alvear Restrepo, which brought the case, hailed the ruling as a "very important precedent" to bring accountability in thousands of cases of "false positives." (Proclama del Cauca, Jan. 19; El Heraldo, Barranquilla, Jan. 17; Contagio Radio, Jan. 16)
Following up on his pledge to address the matter within 30 days of taking office, Colombia's new right-wing President Iván Duque spoke this week about his conditions for resuming his predecessor's peace dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country's last significant guerilla group that remains in arms. Duque listed three conditions: the concentration of guerilla fighters in pre-determined areas (akin to the "concentration zones" used in the FARC demobilization), the liberation of all captives held by the guerillas, and a firm time-table for the dialogue process. The president spoke just days after the ELN freed three soldiers who had been taken captive the same week Duque was inaugurated last month in Arauca department. But some 20 other captives remain in the guerillas' hands, including six soldiers who were also seized a month ago in Chocó department.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on March 27 issued a statement calling on the government of Colombia to "take urgent measures" to protect social leaders and human rights defenders in response to the wave of assassinations over recent months. The statement asserted that 22 rights defenders had been killed in Colombia in the first two months of the year, and over 100 more threatened with death. The assassinations come in an atmosphere of violence across much of the country's rural areas, with some 2,500 displaced in recent months. Just three days after the IACHR statement, on Good Friday, community leader and local rights advocate Belisario Benavides Ordóñez was slain by unknown gunmen on motorcycles as she was leaving her home accompanied by her two young children in the town of Rosas, Cauca department. Benavides was a leader of the Rosas Victims' Table, made up of local residents displaced by political violence over the past generation and now demanding restitution for lost lands and property. In a second case that same day, a community leader in Cauca's village of Corinto, Héctor Janer Latín, was slain in a road ambush while riding his motorcycle to an outlying hamlet. These attacks spurred renewed calls from the National Confederation of Communal Action (CNAC) for a response from the government and IACHR. (El Tiempo, April 2; El Colombiano, March 27)
Colombia's ELN guerillas carried out a string of attacks in a new offensive aimed at shutting down the South American country, mostly targeting transportation infrastructure. According to authorities, roads were bombed in Norte de Santander and Cesar departments, and a bus and a truck were incinerated in Antioquia. Vehicles were also set on fire in Arauca, and two trucks torched in Cauca, although authorities could not immediately confirm that these attack was carried out by the ELN. The four-day "armed strike" was called Feb. 10, weeks after a ceasefire broke down and days after the government suspended peace talks with the ELN. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 12; EuroNews, Feb. 10)
Colombia's government is under pressure from both the United Nations and impacted communities in the conflict zones to rebuild a ceasefire with the ELN guerillas and return to the dialogue table. A 100-day ceasefire that began in October ran out Jan. 10, and ELN fighters within hours attacked the Caño Limón oil pipeline in Casanare department, forcing a suspension of pumping operations. The guerillas also attacked a military base in Arauca department. President Juan Manuel Santos immediately responded by recalling his peace negotiator Gustavo Bell, who had been in Quito to begin the fifth round of talks with the ELN delegation. Santos said Bell was recalled to Bogotá "to evaluate the future of the process." ELN chief negotiator Pablo Beltrán reacted in an official statement, pledging: "We maintain our determination, previously expressed, to agree on a new bilateral ceasefire." (El Colombiano, Jan. 11; Al Jazeera, El Tiempo, Reuters, BBC News, Jan. 10; El Teimpo, Dec. 1)
The FARC guerillas on March 1 began the process of turning over their weapons at the 26 "transitional camps" established for the purpose around the country. The UN Mission in Colombia reported that some 320 guerilla fighters surrendered their weapons, initiating the disarmament process that is slated to continue through May. (El Tiempo, March 2) There is a palbable sense of de-escalation in many areas of Colombia long plagued by war and political violence. The mayor of Ituango, Antioquia department, Hernán Álvarez, reported that there is "an atmosphere of peace and tranquility" for the first time in many years in the municipality that has seen horrific human rights violations at the hands of paramilitaries and other armed actors over the past generation. (Prensa Rural, Feb. 28) Afro-Colombian residents of Cacarica, Chocó, a self-declared "peace community" that has for the past 20 years refused cooperation with all armed actors, held a ceremony in the village Feb. 24, celebrating the return of some 6,000 displaced community members to their homes, and honoring those slain over the past years of bloodshed. (Contagio Radio, Feb. 28)
Business and transportation across much of Colombia's eastern plains and mountains were paralyzed this week in an "armed strike" called by the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerillas. Roads were blocked and commerce ordered suspended by the guerillas starting Sept. 12 in the departments of Arauca, Vichada, Norte de Santander and Casanare. Most affected was Arauca, where vehicles were burned at guerilla roadblocks and authorities suspended school classes. The paro armado was officially lifted after four days, but the ELN has threaetened to resume the strike and expand it to other departments. A recent increase in ELN violence is seen as a guerrila strategy to increase the group's leverage in peace negotiations with the administrations with President Juan Manuel Santos. The talks were announced in 2014, just before Santos' re-election, but have yet failed to enter the formal stage. (Caracol Radio, Sept. 14; Semana, Colombia Reports, Sept. 12)