MEDELLIN, Colombia—The seven men arrived in the tiny hamlet of Carra, in the western Colombian state of Choco, just as darkness was falling on the evening of March 25. They were dressed in camouflage and were armed with rifles. According to witnesses, on their arms they wore bands bearing three letters: ELN, which stands for Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, the National Liberation Army.
Witnesses described how they shouted, threatened, smashed up boats and kicked over tables. They called the terrified residents “paracos”—slang for paramilitaries—as they searched the houses. And then they raised their rifles and opened fire. Four people died from bullets to the head, and one more drowned trying to escape; all the victims came from the same family. By the next day, every one of Carra’s 15 houses stood abandoned.
Such stories were supposed to have been consigned to Colombia’s past with the historic peace deal struck last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The deal brought an end to half a century of war with the largest insurgency in the western hemisphere.
However, optimistic predictions of peace and stability overlooked the next largest insurgency: the ELN. And in territories where the ELN holds sway, episodes like the attack in Carra have become more frequent, not less, since the deal with the FARC was finalized.
The ELN has long fought in the shadow of the FARC. The group currently has approximately 2,000 guerrilla fighters compared to the more than 7,000 that were in the FARC ranks. Additionally, it has always been confined to territorial niches, whereas the FARC at its peak occupied approximately a third of Colombian territory. But with the FARC disarmed and demobilized, the ELN is now the principal standard-bearer for armed revolution in Colombia.
This newfound position represents both a risk and an opportunity for the rebels. They are now the principal target for the counterinsurgency operations of a battle-hardened military. Yet the FARC has also left an underworld vacuum that could make the ELN stronger than ever, provided the group figures out how to fill it.
So far, the ELN has responded with a dual strategy: peace talks with the Colombian government held in neighboring Ecuador, and a military expansion into former FARC territories in Colombia. Until recently, the ELN’s military campaign was progressing far more rapidly than the problematic negotiations. But then, on Sept. 4, the government and the rebel leaders announced they had agreed to a cease-fire.
“This is an action of historical significance: the first agreement of its kind signed by the national government and this guerrilla group in over 50 years,” read the official statement. “This constitutes the first step toward a definitive peace with the ELN that will take us to the end of the conflict.”
A cease-fire between Colombia and the ELN rebels is due to last until January, and much hinges on its outcome.
The cease-fire is due to last from October to January, and much now hinges on its outcome. A successful silencing of arms will build confidence in the fragile peace process and ease doubts about the ELN’s ability to control its unruly ranks. Continuing violence, though, could strike a fatal blow to the credibility of both peace and the rebel leadership, which could ultimately lead to new horrors for long-suffering regions such as Choco.
A Complicated Road to Peace
The ELN, like the FARC, was born out of the revolutionary maelstrom of Colombia in the 1960s. The FARC emerged as a peasant army demanding land rights, while the ELN drew from radical student and religious movements, combining Marxist-Leninist ideology and Catholic liberation theory.
For over half a century, the ELN uneasily shared the revolutionary banner with the FARC. At times the groups cooperated, at times they fought, but mostly they respected each other’s territorial boundaries. Yet the FARC’s decision to end its armed revolution has prompted the ELN to reconsider the future of its own armed struggle.
“The negotiation with the FARC means for the ELN the possibility of taking power in Colombia has got much more distant,” says Alirio Arroyave Marin, a former ELN guerrilla who was part of a breakaway peace process in the 1990s, and now works on peacebuilding initiatives. With the FARC no longer fighting, a large part of the Colombian army will be freed up and redirected toward the ELN, he adds.
“If they don’t come to an agreement with the government then the response is going to be very strong.”
The ELN rebels are insisting on a very different process from the one that led to the FARC deal. The rebels’ commitment to different political ideals has created an agenda and methodology that are proving difficult for negotiators to handle.Ecuador’s foreign minister, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, stands between ELN rebel leader Pablo Beltran, right,
and Colombian government representative Juan Camilo Restrepo after announcing a cease-fire,
Quito, Ecuador, Sept. 4, 2017 (AP photo by Dolores Ochoa).
“The ELN has wanted to go deeper in the sense of modifying the state’s economic model, military doctrine and the issue of nationalizing natural resources, as these have been the banners they have rallied around all their lives,” Arroyave explains.
The Colombian government, however, has made clear that such profound changes are not up for discussion, which has left the ELN leadership in a bind: Should they back down from their ideals, or continue to pursue an impossible dream?
“The conditions are obliging them to abandon various principles because they do not have the capacity [to force the issue],” Arroyave says. “Deep down they already know they are going to have to lower their demands.”
The ELN’s principles have also led to a far more complicated negotiating process. While the FARC talks had a six-point agenda addressing specific issues, such as rural development, the ELN has insisted on a far more open-ended process in which the negotiating teams respond to the petitions of civil society.
“The agenda is more of a methodology for negotiations that includes the participation of the communities,” says Maria Victoria Llorente, director of the Ideas for Peace Foundation, or FIP, a Bogota-based institute that studies Colombia’s conflict. “This adds an enormous factor of uncertainty in a process that is already uncertain.”
The somewhat haphazard quality of the talks also reflects the guerrillas’ organization and structure. While the FARC maintained a rigid military hierarchy and had a history of strong, largely united leadership, the history of the more decentralized ELN is littered with internal divisions, leadership struggles and unruly local factions.
“The ELN is not a vertical organization where a cabal of commanders takes all the decisions, but something much more complicated, more federated, so it is never clear which ELN you are negotiating with,” Llorente says.
Barriers to a Breakthrough
Though there are many differences between the successful FARC process and the struggling ELN talks, the two share one thing in common: persistent criticism from a determined opposition in the form of the Centro Democratico, or Democratic Center, the hard-right political party created by controversial former President Alvaro Uribe.
Publicly, the party’s opposition to both processes is based on the idea that the state is giving in to terrorism, and that guerrillas responsible for countless crimes will only be lightly punished. However, much murkier interests are also at play, including the fact that the FARC deal will likely lead to many leading figures in the Centro Democratico and their supporters facing prosecution for war crimes.
While the FARC maintained a rigid hierarchy, the history of the ELN is littered with internal divisions, leadership struggles and unruly local factions.
“The government has been too soft, not demanding enough in these talks, and it has not corrected the mistakes it made with the FARC, it has not learned,” says Alfredo Rangel, a Centro Democratico senator.
For Rangel and his party, the negotiating agenda cedes too much to the guerrillas. While they are not opposed to the idea of talks, they insist any discussion of economic or social issues should be off the table.
“It is a generic agenda; it has no limits, no precision,” Rangel says. “We think the agenda should be limited to simply the conditions for their demobilization, reinsertion into society and handing over of arms.”
While the opposition remains steadfast, the broader political context for the talks has shifted dramatically since the FARC deal. President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for reaching the deal, is entering the final months of his administration—the vote to replace him is scheduled for next May. He has already exhausted every drop of his political capital by pushing through the FARC accords, which remain far more popular abroad than they are in Colombia.
“The government is coming to an end with a leader that has extremely low popularity levels,” Llorente says. “Obviously this generates doubts among the ELN in the sense of whether this is the moment to sign a peace deal, whether this is the right government to do it with, if this is the government that is going to deliver [on an agreement].”
Meanwhile, the Colombian population has been largely indifferent to the ELN talks. The five-year grind of the deeply divisive FARC peace process has left many Colombians weary, and the comparatively confined nature of the threat from the ELN has made this latest initiative easy to ignore, especially for the majority of the population that lives outside the ELN’s mainly rural areas of influence.
“No one cares except those of us involved in the issue of peace,” Llorente says. “For the rest of the Colombians it isn’t on their agenda.”
The ELN’s Opponents
Even as the ELN explores the possibility of peace, the end of the FARC as a rebel movement has created new wartime opportunities, especially when it comes to the criminal activities that finance the group’s armed struggle.
In the ELN’s early years, the leadership refused to finance themselves through such activities, and fiercely denounced the drug trade. However, over the years those principles were eroded by financial necessity. Today, the ELN runs lucrative criminal networks, controlling the coca trade and drug trafficking routes, profiting from illegal mining operations, and engaging in kidnapping and extortion, targeting in particular the oil companies operating in their territories.Presidential guards carry the coffin of a soldier killed in an ambush by ELN rebels, Bogota,
Oct. 29, 2015 (AP photo by Fernando Vergara).
The Ideas for Peace Foundation has traced the ELN’s military expansion in the northwest, southwest and east of the country, as well as the recruitment of ex-FARC fighters disillusioned with the peace process into the ELN ranks. “They have to move into these spaces because otherwise others, their enemies, are going to take them,” Llorente says.
The principal enemy of the ELN is the Gaintanista Self-Defense Forces, or AGC, a network of former counterinsurgent paramilitaries now dedicated to controlling drug trafficking and other criminal economies. This group has also been on the offensive, looking to stake a claim to the post-FARC spoils.
Choco, in the west, is the site of the longest-running and most violent clashes. Ever since it became clear that the FARC peace process would actually happen and a deal would be struck, the ELN and the AGC have been fighting for control over a territory that contains a key drug trafficking artery connecting coca production zones to coastal dispatch points and lucrative illegal mining operations.
In the case of the Carra massacre last March, witnesses told authorities they believed the slaughter was the ELN’s way of retaliating for their “collaboration” with the enemy, as the attack came shortly after an AGC unit spent a night at the settlement.
The ELN has denied responsibility for the massacre, even though witnesses say the perpetrators wore armbands featuring the group’s initials. Regardless of who pulled the trigger, there is no doubting the root cause. The incident was another entry in a long catalogue of suffering visited upon local communities in Choco. Violence in the area has taken the form of kidnapping and murders, while residents have also been mowed down in the crossfire of militant groups, cut off from their crops by land mines, and had their children recruited as combatants. As has typically been the case throughout Colombia’s history, the worst affected have been the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that inhabit the region’s isolated rural zones.
Along with the AGC, the ELN is increasingly faced with a different kind of enemy: internal dissent. Several local news reports in Colombia have detailed how an ELN splinter group calling themselves the Guevaristas have already broken away and are attempting to seize control of drug trafficking and illegal mining interests in the southwestern state of Narino. Locals told the news site La Silla Vacia that the ELN has launched a counteroffensive to try and destroy the breakaway guerrillas, leaving communities caught up in combat crossfire once again.
While the Guevaristas are the first ELN faction to openly rebel, they may not be the last. Security analysts and the state have identified several other fronts, or rebel units, that are believed to be against the peace process—all of them in key strategic criminal territories. Among them is the Western War Front in Choco. “The War Front is in some way disconnected from the talks,” Gen. Mauricio Moreno, head of a joint task force that operates in the region, told Colombian media. “It has its own discourse because they are narco-terrorists.”
Even if dissident units do not go rogue, they are the biggest earners, meaning they have the potential to hinder the peace process by using the ELN’s reliance on their criminal wealth for leverage, according to Arroyave. “There are fronts that have a lot of weight. With the resources they control they have managed to in some way condition the political direction of the ELN,” he says. “Those who have the cash lay down the conditions.”
Turning the page on decades of conflict is not going to happen overnight, and there is no guarantee that new patterns of violence won’t emerge.
Breaking With a Violent Past
For communities located in ELN war zones, the beginning of the cease-fire on Oct. 1 has offered the promise of a break from violence and instability. For the negotiators, meanwhile, it has brought something they were in dire need of: credibility. The cease-fire has allowed the government to show a concrete benefit from the talks, while giving ELN leaders an opportunity to deliver on their promises and quiet the dissent within their ranks.
“This is the test that is going to show us whether the ELN that is negotiating in Quito has the power to halt the operations of the ELN that is in [the eastern state of] Arauca or Choco,” Llorente says.
According to the terms of the cease-fire deal, in addition to halting all military offensives, the ELN has agreed to stop kidnapping, using land mines and recruiting underage combatants. It has also promised to end attacks on oil infrastructure, a tactic that earlier this year shut down one of Colombia’s main pipelines for nearly two months.
In return, the government has promised to suspend its own military offensives, as well as improve conditions for around 450 imprisoned ELN guerrillas. Officials have also vowed to step up protection for community leaders and human rights activists, who for several years have been murdered at an alarming rate that has only accelerated since the peace deal with the FARC.
Another aspect of the deal is a special humanitarian agreement for Choco. It includes nine pledges, among them that both sides end displacements, confinements and restrictions of mobility, suspend coca cultivation and mining operations, and facilitate the direct participation of the ELN’s Western War Front in negotiations.
Despite these concessions, the political opposition, as has been typical, says the ELN’s terms do not go far enough, insisting the cease-fire cedes too much to the guerrillas by allowing them the opportunity to regroup. “I look at what they’re doing with the ELN with suspicion and incredulity,” says Rangel. “These truces, which are partial not only in terms of time but also in the terrorists’ commitments to stop the violence, allow terrorism to strengthen, and the state loses ground.”
However, for Llorente, a successful cease-fire could be exactly what is needed to push the ELN talks higher up on the political agenda ahead of next year’s presidential elections, something that could prove critical in determining whether the negotiations continue under a new administration.
“There would have to be something more concrete from the negotiating table for the next government to say ‘we’re going to carry on with this,’” she says. “If the cease-fire works, then this is a gain for the country and then maybe the country will pay more attention to the process.”
Of course, turning the page on decades of conflict is not going to happen overnight, and there is no guarantee that new patterns of violence won’t emerge even as political violence declines. “You have to start to unlearn what you have learned,” Arroyave says. “We wasted 50 years in armed conflict, and we are going to have to dedicate ourselves for at least half that amount of time to unlearning violence.”
Nevertheless, the ELN’s endorsement of the peace process so far has made an end to guerrilla violence in Colombia seem like a serious, if not immediate, possibility.
“Something has happened that seems to me is very important for the country and that is the fact and the recognition that armed struggle has no future in Colombia,” Arroyave says. “It is not viable anymore. This is a reality.”
James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. He has covered Colombia’s conflict and the drug war for a range of publications including Al Jazeera America, the Independent, the Toronto Star, the Miami Herald and Sky News.
Source : https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/23658/colombia-s-other-insurgents-why-peace-with-the-eln-is-proving-elusive