The Colombian government has made headlines once again regarding potential peace negotiations with guerrilla movements. However, the news does not concern any kind of breakthrough between Bogota and FARC insurgents, as negotiations have stalled for weeks.
Rather, the newest development is that the Colombian government has announced that it is ready to begin negotiations with Colombia’s other rebel movement, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN – National Liberation Army).
A short history of the ELN
The smaller of the two current Colombian left-wing insurgent organizations, the ELN has had a violent history since its creation in 1962 when six Colombian students created a movement called the “Brigada Jose Antonio Galan” –in 1964the group began training in Santander and 1965 it carried out its first operation.
Characterized by a Marxist-Leninist ideology inspired by the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the ELN aspires to create a Marxist government in the country.
The ELN is concentrated in the Norte de Santander, Arauca, Cauca and Valle del Cauca regions and, according to estimates, the group hasless than 3,000fighters (significantly less than the FARC’s estimated 8,000 fighters).
Nevertheless, one important factor to keep in mind is that while the FARC has lost several senior commanders over the years, the ELN has largely maintained its leadership structure—since 1998 its leader has been Nicolas Rodriguez (alias Gabino).
Likewise, it is worth noting that while the ELN has lost a lot of its fighting force over the past years, this was not simply due to successful operations by Colombian security forces, but also because of voluntary demobilizations. For example, this past July, 30 ELN fighters of the “Compañia Lucho Quintero Giraldo” laid down their weapons in a ceremony in which President Juan Manuel Santos was in attendance.
However, even with a reduced strength, the ELN remains an impressive foe, and has continued to launch high-profile attacks and kidnappings. For example, in January 2013, five civilians that worked for the Canadian company Braeval Mining were kidnapped by ELN fighters while they were in a mining site in the Bolivar department.
The incident made international headlines as the victims included two Peruvian citizens as well as one Canadian.
The ELN negotiations: A wider geopolitical context
In aSeptember 6 commentary for VOXXI, I discussed whether President Santos deserved a 21% approval rating, according to the latest polls. In the article, I explained the reasons and setbacks that Santos has faced over the past year that have prompted this sharp decline in his popularity.
The protests by Colombian peasants that started in June and which quickly expanded throughout major cities are a major reason for this decline.Moreover, after much optimism, the ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC, which are taking place in Cuba, have stalled.
Only one partial agreement has been reached from a five-point peace plan, and it is highly unlikely that a full agreement can be reached before the end of the year.
Moreover, in the international arena, Santos received another blow when the International Court of Justice passed its 2012 ruling over a maritime dispute betweenColombia and Nicaraguaregarding an archipelago in the Caribbean.
The ruling was bizarre as Colombia maintained control of the islands, but Nicaragua obtained control of some of the Caribbean waters around them. The Santos presidency is crying foul over the ruling and has protested plans by Nicaragua to explore for oil in the disputed waters.
If the Colombian head of state hopes to be re-elected in the upcoming May 2014 elections, he needs a fast win. Santos’ September 24 speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations was riddled with references to peace.
For example, he stated that the Colombian guerrilla must understand that “it is time to exchange bullets for votes […] that the time has come to continue its struggle but via democracy.” (It is worth noting that Santos gave UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a letter during the UN meeting to protest Nicaragua’s “expansionist” plans).
Hence, it comes at little surprise that he seems to have accepted a proposal by Uruguayan President Jose Mujica to have Montevideo host a potential round of negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government.
If the (very unpopular) Colombian president wants to rebrand himself as a “champion of Colombian peace” by managing peace negotiations with both the FARC and ELN at the same time, this is certainly an ambitiously strategic endeavor.
But whether any of them will be successful is an entirely different matter. Peace agreements are possible, as exemplified by agreements with the M19 insurgent movement in 1990, and the demobilization of AUC paramilitaries between 2003 and 2006. Nevertheless, negotiations with the ELN were unsuccessful as recently as2002 and 2007.
While seeking to end warfare and achieve peace via negotiations is certainly commendable, history and security analyses do not count towards Santos’ favor. For the time being, it is difficult for Colombian society to be optimistic that negotiations with the ELN may be more successful than they have been with the FARC.