Colombia’s peace talks with ELN and FARC

Colombia is moving closer to a future without armed guerrilla groups. Talks with the 52-year-old and 7,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are well advanced, though they missed a March 23 deadline for a final deal. Government and FARC negotiators in Havana have reached agreements on most of the negotiating agenda, and they are likely weeks away from a UN-verified bilateral ceasefire.

The FARC, however, is not the only guerrilla organization in Colombia whose origins date back to 1964. The National Liberation Army, or ELN, has approximately 1,800 fighters as well as a wider support network and is active in some regions of the country. But it has not been the subject of formal peace talks, despite more than two years of “exploratory talks on talks” with Bogota. The prospect of continued war with the ELN has threatened to dampen the impact of a FARC peace deal: if still at large, the small guerrilla group could recruit former FARC combatants and settle in territories previously dominated by the FARC.

It is therefore significant that the Colombian government and the ELN announced on March 30 that they were finally launching formal peace talks. The negotiators must start working on a six-point program in about 60 days in Ecuador. From time to time, the negotiating table will move to Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Venezuela. Norway also serves as a guarantor state.

This is good news, but the next steps will be complicated. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos, whose term ends in August 2018 and whose current approval rating has fallen to around 20%, is currently negotiating with two very different guerrilla groups with their own long histories. The top leader of the ELN, Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, known as “Gabino”, joined the group in 1965at 14. He’s 65 now.

The ELN has a looser structure than the FARC, which presents difficulties in the talks. Founded by radical intellectuals and clergy following a strategy inspired by the Cuban Revolution, the ELN often issues statements that read like academic treatises. His leadership follows a consensus decision-making model, which means he is slow to decide things. The group favors the search for clandestine links with social movements in its areas of influence. “My impression is that the ELN is itself a lively debate on basic ideas, because it is very rooted in the provinces, among the peasants,” said Francisco De Roux, the Jesuit provincial of Colombia who led a peacebuilding program for 13 years in an area with a strong ELN presence, said in a recent interview.

At times, FARC and ELN guerrillas joined forces. For a while in the early 1990s, they even negotiated together in a series of failed peace talks with the government. At other times, the two fought, including a mini-war from 2006 to 2010 in an oil-producing region near Venezuela that reportedly killed 1,000 guerrillas on both sides. Since then, the main leaders of the FARC and the ELN have met several times, including in recent low-key meetings in Havana with the consent of the Colombian government.

These meetings do not mean that the Santos government, the FARC and the ELN will soon be sitting at the same table. The negotiating agenda for talks with the ELN announced last week bears only passing resemblance to the one the government and the FARC have been working on since 2012.

Four of the six agenda items are completely new. Entitled “Social Participation”, “Democracy for Peace”, “Transformations for Peace” and “Implementation”, they present, in often vague terms, a plan for social movement leaders to help identify the priority political reforms to be negotiated. The means to select and integrate these civic leaders are unclear, but analysts like De Roux have said they are there. “Look for the people you trust there in the territories,” he noted, referring to rural areas in Colombia where the ELN is often influential.

Both the FARC and the ELN are expected to prepare to extend negotiations until 2018, when Santos’ term ends.

Yet the two remaining items on the agenda of the talks with the ELN resemble those of the FARC talks. They cover the victims of human rights violations and the “end of the armed conflict”, which is very similar to the ceasefire, disarmament and demobilization measures that the FARC and the Colombian government are currently discussing. The ELN’s agenda also includes elements that appear to have been covered by a 2013 agreement between the FARC and the government on opposition political participation.

No one knows how long the negotiations will last. The process will be more inclusive than hermetic FARC talks, but if civil society participation is truly broad, the talks are unlikely to be ordered. Still, the FARC and ELN should prepare to extend negotiations until 2018, when Santos’ term ends. By then, Colombians could come to regard the ongoing talks as a never-ending quagmire and could elect a candidate who promises to pull the plug and return to war.

Although neither of the negotiating teams has said so explicitly, it is likely that in the event of an overlapping agenda, the ELN will use existing FARC-government agreements as the basis for its own agreements – as with the transitional justice framework, the product of 19 difficult months of negotiations with the FARC that the government will not want to see again. But given the differences, it makes no sense to expect the two peace talks to merge. This would unnecessarily prolong the negotiations, especially those with the FARC, which are nearing their home stretch.

“If the final peace agreement with the FARC is signed in the last week of June – as some sources familiar with the negotiations believe –[the FARC] must start laying down their weapons in early September,” journalist Marisol Gomez, who has been covering the talks since their inception for the rather optimistic Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, recently wrote. If the ELN talks begin in 60 days, as negotiators predict, in September, they would just be finishing their third month of actual negotiations. This makes synchronization impossible.

Instead, the ELN would ideally join the FARC as soon as possible in a trilateral ceasefire, with UN verification under a Security Council resolution adopted in January. Yet even that is unlikely in the near term. The agenda for talks with the ELN puts the ceasefire towards an end. The group claims to want a bilateral ceasefire now, but the government is reluctant. As was the case at the start of the FARC talks, government negotiators do not want to lift military pressure on ELN fighters, or risk seeing the talks become bogged down with lengthy and complex discussions over the terms of the ceasefire, such as how to concentrate the ELN. fighters in specific areas.

The ELN would do well to declare and observe its own unilateral ceasefire, as the FARC has done since last July – a period that has been the less violent in the FARC conflict since the 1960s. This would bolster public support for the talks in Colombia, where supporters of the talks are in the majority, but not overwhelming.

A unilateral truce would not put an end to all illegal activities of the ELN, such as recruitment, laying of antipersonnel mines, extortion and drug trafficking. This should, however, end the kidnappings, which are a government precondition for the talks to begin. And the absence of violence would build the confidence needed to further defuse, save lives and improve the climate at the talks’ traveling negotiating table.

Adam Isacson is senior associate for regional security policy in the Washington Bureau for Latin America.

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