On March 30, the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group announced they would engage in peace talks with the Colombian government, following in the steps of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who are in advanced talks with a negotiators meeting in Havana, Cuba.
The civil war in Colombia, which began in the early 1960s, is the Western hemisphere’s longest running conflict. So far, over 200,000 people have died and an estimated 5.7 million people have been displaced, according to the United Nations, making Colombia the country with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world after war-torn Syria.
The ELN was created in 1964 in the mountains of central Colombia by a group of students, peasants and Catholic priests. Their objective was to seize power and carry out a socialist revolution that would put an end to a two party system's long hegemony over the Colombian government. At its start, the powerful ideological influence of the Cuban revolution supported its justification for an armed struggle.
Although its number of fighters has fallen in the last decade, from 4,000 to around 2,500 fighters, according to the Fundación Ideas Para la Paz – Ideas for Peace, a think tank that studies the Colombian conflict. It also has a militia of 7,500 members focused on political work and connections with social movements and organizations. According to official estimates ELN guerrillas are active in 109 municipalities in 10 of Colombia's 32 departments (provinces).
In contrast to the purely rural character of the FARC, the ELN found sympathy among industrial workers in some urban areas and put down stronger roots in the country's oil-producing regions. The ELN has harshly condemned the exploitation of energy resources by multinational companies, accusing them of violating the national sovereignty. A large portion of its financing traditionally comes from the “taxes” the ELN extorts from national and foreign companies that exploit Colombia's oil and mineral resources.
The ELN has long advocated for the nationalization of Colombia's natural resources and the inclusion of the majority of Colombians who are marginalized from the country's economic and political life – demands that become more important in the peace talks about to start.
In the ELN's case a cumbersome negotiation process has been agreed which will take place in five different countries. The ELN relies on a consensus-based decision making structure, with a central committee instead of a top-down hierarchy, although Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, known by his nom de guerre “Gabino”, is considered a de facto leader of the ELN, alongside Antonio Garzia, who is leading the peace talks.
Critics of the process argue that the ELN finances its activities with kidnappings and drug trafficking and has used hostages to press its political demands in clear violation of international agreements on human rights. Colombia's attorney general's office announced on Wednesday that it is i nvestigating five top ELN leaders for nearly 16,000 war crimes and crimes against humanity. The 15,896 crimes included in the case cover murders, kidnappings, forced recruitment, displacement, bombings and gender-based violence.
”Making peace isn't just about ending war but how to pacify areas which are under the control of the narco-trade," says Gustavo Petro, former M19 guerrilla and later mayor of Bogota, told a recent symposium in New York on revolution in Latin America.
The ELN leaders are also looking for assurances that their lives will be respected if they give up the armed struggle. In the 1980s when another guerrilla group, the M-19, gave up its weapons and converted into a political party, many of its leaders were assassinated.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos rekindled formal peace talks with Colombia's rebel groups in 2012, moving away from predecessor Alvaro Uribe's uncompromising counter-insurgency campaign which treated the guerrillas as “terrorists” and offered them no viable way out. Since then, the state has recognised the FARC and ELN as official combatants, though the United States continues to list them as “terrorist” groups, as well as indicting them for kidnapping and drug trafficking.
But the Obama administration is taking a backseat and allowing Colombia to manage the process itself. “The U.S. knows that it cannot win purely by might anymore,” said Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami. Colombia has relied on U.S. military support - $10 billion in the last 16 years – though increasingly makes its own arms purchases.
The peace process is very much the initiative of Colombia president, Juan Manuel Santos, adds Bagley. "Santos wants the Nobel peace prize,” he says.
There have been other important players too, including the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, institutional and financial support from Norway, and finally, Cuba, in its role as mediator and host of the talks.
The ELN has been involved in at least four different rounds of peace talks with the government in the past. Each time peace negotiations fell short, unable to overcome Cold War geopolitics and the war on drugs, as well as a lack of political will by all sides.
This time, many say, is different.
“The Colombian peace process has been very innovative in its consultations with civil society… and particularly in the presence of the victims (from all sides) in Havana,” says Mariano Aguirre, director of the Norwegian Peace Building resource Center (NOREF).
Now that the Cold War is over and the war on drugs appears more and more futile, U.S. foreign policy has taken a different trajectory, adds Bagley.
"So there is hope,” he says.