Colombia peace talks with ELN rebels resume amid tensions

Doubts are growing ahead of new round of negotiations, but experts say effort remains ‘best choice among bad options’.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro
Colombia's left-wing President Gustavo Petro is holding negotiations to end decades of armed conflict in the country, but his push for 'total peace' still faces many challenges [File: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters]

Bogota, Colombia – Peace talks between the Colombian government and the largest remaining rebel group in the South American country, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have resumed in Mexico City.

While left-wing President Gustavo Petro’s administration has expressed optimism over the renewed negotiations, tensions between Bogota and the ELN have grown since the last round of talks ended in December in Caracas, Venezuela.

The Colombian government was forced to backtrack on a New Year’s Eve announcement that a truce had been reached after the ELN denied that any such agreement existed. Instead, the rebels said a ceasefire “was merely a proposal to be considered”.

Now, as the second round of talks began on Monday in the Mexican capital, experts have questioned how the government’s apparent misstep will affect the prospect of ending decades of armed conflict in Colombia and how reliable any potential ceasefires will be going forward.

“Expectations in affected communities were sky-high after [last year’s] elections,” which brought Petro to power, said Kyle Johnson, co-founder of the Conflict Responses Foundation, which studies armed conflict and peacebuilding in Colombia.

“But now we’re starting to see doubt,” he told Al Jazeera. “Residents in militarised conflict areas ask, ‘If there is a ceasefire, why are there still soldiers and tanks in my community?”

‘Total peace’

Violence in Colombia has risen in recent years, particularly in rural areas, despite a 2016 peace accord that saw members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group lay down their weapons after decades of conflict.

Petro, a former rebel fighter who took office in August, promised on the campaign trail to move away from the militarised strategies of previous Colombian administrations, which seemed to have only exacerbated the violence.

He also pledged to engage all criminal groups in direct negotiations with the goal of reaching disarmament agreements, a plan he calls “total peace”.

The government said this month that it has reached informal ceasefires with four armed groups: the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces, which the state calls “Clan del Golfo”; two FARC dissident groups that rejected the 2016 peace deal, Segunda Marquetalia and Estado Mayor; and a paramilitary group on the Caribbean coast called the Self-Defence Conquistadors of the Sierra Nevada.

But heading into the new round of talks between Bogota and the ELN, which is believed to have 3,000 to 5,000 members, recent statements have reflected ongoing tensions between the two sides.

“It seems that ‘total peace’ is being compromised by other business,” Antonio Garcia, a high-ranking ELN commander, said in a series of tweets on February 6. “The peace process cannot be used as an ‘umbrella’ for other issues,” he said, referring to government ceasefire declarations that the ELN has described as motivated by political ambitions.

“The government has not been in tune with what was agreed to at the [negotiating] table,” Garcia said.

‘Ambitious’ negotiations

The rebel leader also rejected the government’s classification of the ELN as an organised armed group, which puts it in the same category as the non-political, narco-trafficking groups that are also negotiating long-term peace deals with Bogota.

Otty Patino, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator, responded to the criticism at a news conference the next day, saying Garcia had “not understood the significance of what total peace is”.

“There are different procedures for the different [armed groups] and the ELN,” Patino said.

Experts say the comments illustrate the pitfalls that Bogota faces in holding simultaneous talks with multiple armed groups, many of whom are in open conflict with one another.

“Some of this is just posturing ahead of [the next round of] peace talks,” Carlos Velandia, a former ELN commander who now acts as an adviser to the Petro administration, told Al Jazeera.

“The ELN has been very clear from the beginning that they want to negotiate their own peace accord. They don’t want to be lumped into agreements with other groups,” Velandia said.

He added, however, that “hiccups were inevitable in such a complex and ambitious negotiation process”.

Questions remain

The four armed groups that Colombia said it has reached informal ceasefires with have confirmed in public statements that a temporary armistice is in place, but no written agreements have been signed.

Under these truces, the armed groups have agreed not to fight the Colombian security forces, but they have not promised to stop fighting one another.

How these informal ceasefires will work in practice is unclear, especially during the government’s ongoing negotiations with the ELN, which is in open conflict with all but one of the four groups.

“The vast majority of [the] fighting occurs between armed groups themselves, not with the government,” Johnson told Al Jazeera. “What needs to be negotiated is a truce between armed groups, and it isn’t clear how the government can legally play a role in that.”

Elizabeth Dickinson, the lead Colombia analyst at the International Crisis Group, also explained that while ceasefires are typically the result of months of negotiations, “these ceasefires have been called without any protocols” to define the terms of engagement or enforcement. That means “it isn’t clear how they will function”, she said.

Still, Dickinson said, the ceasefire strategy “merits support as the best choice among bad options”. She stressed that the pattern of violence has shifted since the 2016 FARC peace accord and Colombia’s security strategy has largely “failed to adapt, at times to counterproductive or deadly effect”.

But the “danger is that armed groups use these ceasefires, which were granted without them having to give any concessions in return, to pressure the government amidst ongoing negotiations”, she said.

Meanwhile, residents of violence-plagued areas of Colombia question whether the government’s efforts will translate into concrete changes on the ground or put a stop to deadly violence between armed groups.

Andres Silva Rojas – who campaigns for sustainable farming practices among growers of coca, the key ingredient for cocaine – said he supports peace efforts. He works in Colombia’s Catatumbo region, one of the largest coca-producing regions in the world.

But he told Al Jazeera that a ceasefire between the ELN and the government would be “effectively meaningless for people in our community” because state authorities do not maintain a presence in the area.

“There is no government [presence here], so the ELN promising not to attack something that doesn’t exist wouldn’t represent any change in dynamics,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera