Colombia’s government launched peace talks with the nation’s largest-remaining rebel group this month, as newly elected President Gustavo Petro tries to disarm violent groups and bring “total peace” to the nation of 50 million people.
The National Liberation Army was founded in 1964 by activists inspired by the Cuban revolution. It has an estimated 4,000 troops that control drug trafficking routes and illegal gold mines in remote areas of Colombia and Venezuela.
Talks with the rebels started on Nov. 22 in the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas where delegates from both sides fielded questions from journalists.
Analysts say negotiations with the Marxist group could take years, and there is no guarantee they will succeed. But government representatives said the talks were a sign that the country is “changing.”
“We can’t shy away from the responsibilities we have to future generations.”
“This is historic, and it’s a unique moment for our country,” Danilo Rueda, the government’s peace commissioner, told journalists. “We can’t shy away from the responsibilities we have to future generations.”
Colombia’s government signed a peace deal with a larger guerilla group in 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. More than 14,000 fighters laid down their weapons under the deal, which helped to reduce kidnappings, attacks on military bases and homicides and also resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
But violence also increased in some pockets of the country — including parts of Colombia’s border with Venezuela — as the ELN, the Gulf Clan and several more drug-trafficking groups moved into areas that were abandoned by the FARC.
Earlier this year, leftist Sen. Gustavo Petro won Colombia’s presidential election and promised to peacefully disarm the nation’s remaining rebel groups in order to bring prosperity to rural parts of Colombia that have long been affected by drug violence. During his youth, Petro was a member of another rebel group that made peace with the government in the early ’90s, the M-19.
For the ELN, it will be the sixth time they sit down with a Colombian administration for peace talks. The latest round of talks was held in Cuba and ended in 2019, as both sides failed to agree on terms for a ceasefire. The Colombian government broke off the talks shortly after the ELN bombed a police academy in Bogotá and killed more than 20 people.
ELN leaders in Caracas said that they feel more optimistic about this new round of negotiations.
“There is a progressive government now, that promised during the election that they were committed to peace,” said Pablo Beltran, the ELN’s top commander at the talks. “We have someone who can understand us.”
But many in Colombia are skeptical about these talks — they say that making peace with the ELN will be harder than with the FARC rebels.
“I think that for many reasons, the negotiation is not going to be successful,” said Sergio Guzman, a political risk analyst in Bogotá. “The ELN is a fragmented organization. It’s unclear if they have full mandate of all of their units and are able to implement whatever decision they negotiate on the table.”
ELN commanders have said that they want the government to invest more in anti-poverty programs, nationalize oil, and revise Colombia’s electoral system.
And that’s just one part of the talks. The rebels also want community groups in remote areas to participate in the process and come up with their own proposals, which could make it tougher to reach an agreement.
To meet international treaty obligations, the rebels will have to provide reparations to their victims and serve some sort of punishment for war crimes.
Guzman said that this could become a sticking point. The rebels have already said they do not want to be placed in the same transitional justice system that is currently investigating crimes committed by FARC commanders and members of Colombia’s military.
“They may want more lenient judicial sentences even than the FARC obtained during their agreement. And that’s going to be a very difficult item for the government to overcome,” Guzman said.
If the ELN ends up disarming, it would be a huge victory for Petro.
But Petro’s government hasn’t scored any military victories against the ELN that might pressure the rebels into signing a deal anytime soon.
When the FARC negotiations started in 2012, the rebels had suffered a string of major defeats at the hands of Colombia’s military, including a raid in the jungle in 2010, where the group’s second-most important leader at the time was killed. In another attack by the military in 2011, the FARC lost Alfonso Cano, their commander-in-chief.
The government also pressured the FARC by encouraging its fighters to defect, with programs that provided them with protection and jobs. And even then, it took Colombia’s government more than four years to sort out a peace deal with the FARC.
The clock is already ticking for the Petro administration, which must leave office in the summer of 2026.