Colombia and ELN begin talks to reach “total peace”

Colombia's Peace Commissioner Danilo Rueda shakes hands with the ELN's Pablo Beltran in Caracas./Presidencia
Colombia's Peace Commissioner Danilo Rueda shakes hands with the ELN's Pablo Beltran in Caracas./Presidencia

The peace delegations of the Colombian government and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla sat down on Monday, in Caracas, Venezuela, to formally resume talks at ending the internal conflict. The meeting led by Colombia’s High Peace Commissioner Danilo Rueda marks an important step towards demobilizing the last Marxist insurgency in the country, after the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla. The ELN was co-founded in 1964 by Fabio Vásquez and Catholic priest Camilo Torres.

The first round of peace talks with the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional were initiated in March 2016 during the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, but suspended by his successor, Iván Duque, after the organization detonated a car bomb inside a police academy in Bogotá in 2019 killing 22 cadets. The bombing of the Escuela de Cadetes General Santander, as well as several attacks against police command posts along the Colombian coast, justified the right-wing president’s decision to issue arrest warrants for the 13 members of ELN’s Central Command, and who, since the bombing, have been residing in Cuba.

After fully reopening diplomatic and trade relations with the government of Nicolás Maduro, Colombia’s first leftist President, Gustavo Petro, reinstated Venezuela as a guarantor nation of the talks, and host of the first round of talks that will last 20 days in the Venezuelan capital. Both negotiating teams welcomed the opportunity at ending the conflict, and part of Petro’s promise to deliver “total peace” to the country during his administration. Petro, a former combatant within the ranks of the M-19 guerrilla, lifted the arrest warrants against the ELN commanders in order to secure the talks in the neighboring country.

In a document signed between both the negotiators, and known as Waraira Repano, Commissioner Rueda highlighted that the start of a “political dialogue” must be accompanied by “permanent and concrete commitments.” The ELN’s top commander, alias Pablo Beltrán, noted that the organization hopes “not to fail in the expectations for change.” The ELN is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S and European Union, and operates along Colombia’s Pacific coast, and the 2,200-km porous border with the Venezuela.

The ELN’s main source of revenue derives from drug trafficking, kidnapping and extorsion, and illegal gold mining. “To make real change in the country is only possible with the full participation of society,” remarked one of the Colombian negotiators and former guerrilla, Otty Patiño. “The talks are not the vision of one government, nor the vision of ELN,” stated Beltrán. “We hope not to fail in our search for change,” he added.

The start of the peace talks occurred on the same day, at least 23 combatants from two illegal armed groups were killed in a confrontation in Colombia’s southeastern department of Putumayo. Gruesome images surfaced on social media Monday showing bodies being dumped in the municipal cemetery of Puerto Guzmán. According to sources, FARC dissidents and Comandos de Frontera are in a violent turf war for control of drug trafficking routes.