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Why has Colombia’s government ended peace talks with Marxist rebels ELN?

The new right-wing administration has cancelled talks and demanded the arrest of the insurgents' negotiating team - but the guerillas aren't beaten, writes OLIVER DODD

SINCE 2017, Colombia’s government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) have been publicly engaged in peace talks to end 54 years of armed conflict.

But following the inauguration of right-wing president Ivan Duque in August 2018, a man who vowed to end peace talks during his presidential campaign, Colombia’s new government has since cancelled negotiations and called for the arrest of ELN’s negotiating team.

This reactivation of an Interpol notice ignores security protocols mutually agreed to by the negotiating parties, which promised the safe return of ELN’s political leadership to their units in Colombia in the event of the collapse of peace talks.

This demand also created a diplomatic dilemma for Cuba’s government – the facilitator of Colombia’s peace negotiations – although Cuba has declared that it will abide by the prearranged protocols.

Peace negotiations were cancelled after the ELN claimed responsibility for a bombing against the country’s largest training academy used for the National Police, killing 20 police officers and injuring dozens more. While ELN’s negotiating team in Cuba claimed that this attack was coordinated without their knowledge, they admitted that it was organised by a local ELN guerilla front.

The ELN said that after agreeing to a unilateral ceasefire over the Christmas and New Year period, the security forces expanded into rebel held territories and killed many of its members and supporters – acts of aggression which have not been reported by Colombia’s corporate media.

ELN claims that as the National Police and its training academies are employed for counter-insurgency purposes, the bombing was aimed at a legitimate military target. In a statement released officially, it further declared that it is “very disproportionate that, while the government is attacking us, it then states that we cannot respond [militarily]...”

The offensive has been exploited by Colombia’s right wing as a pretext to dismantle peace talks. Still, despite his emphasis on a military rather than a negotiated solution to the armed conflict, President Duque has so far failed to gain the political support for waging all-out war indefinitely.

Duque and his party – the Democratic Centre – are an isolated minority in the National Congress and are struggling to unite the dominant classes behind their militaristic agenda, particularly in relation to the exporting sectors.

Many such capitalists and their business associations supported Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement with Farc, Colombia’s other (now demobilised) left-wing revolutionary group. The peace agreement permitted some of these capitalists the ability to access and exploit land and resources previously prohibited to them by leftist insurgents.

As former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced in 2015, “A Colombia in peace will attract more investments that will create more and better jobs.” What is more, cocaine production has skyrocketed since the signing of the peace accord with Farc because the insurgent groups’ demobilisation allowed narco-capitalists to take over territory once governed by leftist rebels.

The return to an openly militarist strategy by the Colombian state may not be necessary, however. Paramilitary forces, sponsored largely by landowners, are continuing to murder trade unionists, social leaders and human rights activists in significant numbers. Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2016 with Farc, at least 85 former Farc insurgents have been murdered.

Likewise, according to the campaign group Justice for Colombia, as of January 17 2019 “163 killings [of trade-unionists, social leaders and human rights activists] have been verified with 454 cases reported in total.” Several more trade-unionists have been killed since and they are being murdered on a regular basis.

Colombia still remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a social activist. This all occurs while US co-operation with Colombia’s government and armed forces grows.

In reality, ELN’s attack in the capital, Bogota, serves to conceal the underlying reasons for Duque’s desire to end peace talks. The ELN, unlike the former Farc, is more federally structured and incorporates social rights groups as well as trade unions into its organisation. The ELN contrasts with many other left-wing insurgent movements in Latin America in that it depends less on military activity and more on community grassroots structures.

For example, ELN has insisted from the outset that civilian entities should be integral to peace negotiations, while holding that the discussions should be conducted publicly. Negotiating with the ELN, as such, entails having to compromise with civil society, not merely a small political elite or a seven-man “secretariat” based in the jungles.

The ELN appears to fear another accord with Colombia’s government whereby the rebels disarm, but state terrorism continues to be employed against the socialist movement. The ELN and its political allies have sought to use the peace negotiations as an opportunity to change the conditions that give rise to civil war, calling the objective “peace with social justice.” 

Yet Duque has ruled out socio-economic reforms demanded by Colombia’s social activists and dismisses the ELN as a “terrorist group” – regarding it as nothing more than a “criminal entity.”

Rather than reveal a willingness to compromise politically during the recent talks, Duque made ambitious demands on the ELN. He insisted that before talks can be allowed to progress, the ELN would have to cease its practices of “extortion” – what the organisation calls “revolutionary taxes.” 

But if the ELN put into practice this demand, it would cut off its main source of funding. Having to feed thousands of combatants three meals a day, provide clothing and equipment for continuing the armed struggle, alongside having to cater to civilian needs and grievances, is an expensive political project. Subsequently, if the ELN agreed to halt its practices of “extortion”, it would quickly go bankrupt and would not be able to carry on fighting if attacked.

Ultimately, despite Duque’s rejection of negotiations, the ELN still has numerous bargaining chips. Pablo Beltran, one of ELN’s senior political leaders, recently declared that in the event of a possible US invasion from Colombia into Venezuela the ELN would defend Venezuela’s sovereignty and conduct guerilla operations against US troops.

Furthermore, the ELN depends on a reserve force numbering several thousand demobilised combatants – ELN combatants based in the mountains are normally permitted to demobilise as civilian “reservists” after a three-year period. These civilian members and supporters are then liable to be called back up to join the armed units if the conflict intensifies.

Additionally, the ELN has a significant base of support in strategic sectors of Colombia – for example, along the oil-rich border with Venezuela. With no lack of influence or of peasants wanting to join the movement, the ELN can continue to threaten the Colombian state and ruling class infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

Oliver Dodd is a PhD Candidate at Nottingham University working on Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement. He can be found on Twitter @olivercdodd.

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