Although the administration of left-wing President Gustavo Petro has voiced confidence regarding the forthcoming negotiations, hostilities between Bogota and the ELN have increased since the previous round of negotiations came to an end in December in Caracas, Venezuela.
After the ELN denied that any such agreement had been struck, the Colombian government was obliged to retract its New Year’s Eve declaration that a truce had been reached. A ceasefire was instead only “a proposition to be discussed,” according to the rebels.
Now, as the second round of talks is to begin on Monday in the Mexican capital, experts have questioned how the government’s apparent misstep will affect the prospect of ending decades of armed conflict in Colombia and how reliable any potential ceasefires will be going forward.
“Expectations in affected communities were sky-high after [last year’s] elections,” which brought Petro to power, said Kyle Johnson, co-founder of the Conflict Responses Foundation, which studies armed conflict and peacebuilding in Colombia.
“But now we’re starting to see doubt,” he told news reporters. “Residents in militarised conflict areas ask, ‘If there is a ceasefire, why are there still soldiers and tanks in my community?”
Violence in Colombia has risen in recent years, particularly in rural areas, despite a 2016 peace accord that saw members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group lay down their weapons after decades of conflict.
Petro, a former rebel fighter who took office in August, promised on the campaign trail to move away from the militarised strategies of previous Colombian administrations, which seemed to have only exacerbated the violence.
He also pledged to engage all criminal groups in direct negotiations with the goal of reaching disarmament agreements, a plan he calls “total peace”.
The government said this month that it has reached informal ceasefires with four armed groups: the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces, which the state calls “Clan del Golfo”; two FARC dissident groups that rejected the 2016 peace deal, Segunda Marquetalia and Estado Mayor; and a paramilitary group on the Caribbean coast called the Self-Defence Conquistadors of the Sierra Nevada.
But heading into the new round of talks between Bogota and the ELN, which is believed to have 3,000 to 5,000 members, recent statements have reflected ongoing tensions between the two sides.
“It seems that ‘total peace’ is being compromised by other business,” Antonio Garcia, a high-ranking ELN commander, said in a series of tweets on February 6. “The peace process cannot be used as an ‘umbrella’ for other issues,” he said, referring to government ceasefire declarations that the ELN has described as motivated by political ambitions.
“The government has not been in tune with what was agreed to at the [negotiating] table,” Garcia said.
The rebel leader also rejected the government’s classification of the ELN as an organised armed group, which puts it in the same category as the non-political, narco-trafficking groups that are also negotiating long-term peace deals with Bogota.
Otty Patino, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator, responded to the criticism at a news conference the next day, saying Garcia had “not understood the significance of what total peace is”.
“There are different procedures for the different [armed groups] and the ELN,” Patino said.
The comments, according to experts, highlight the difficulties Bogota encounters when trying to undertake concurrent discussions with numerous armed groups, many of which are at open war with one another.
According to Carlos Velandia, a former ELN commander who now serves as an adviser to the Petro administration, “some of this is just posturing ahead of [the next round of] peace talks.”
“The ELN has made it quite obvious that they intend to negotiate their own peace agreement from the start. They reject being included in deals with other organizations, according to Velandia.
However, he continued, “in such a complex and ambitious negotiation process, hiccups were inevitable.”