Fabio Andrés Díaz

Despite being one of the oldest armed insurgent groups in the world, the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN) has hardly featured in considerations of peace in Colombia. This is likely due to its being eclipsed by the diversity and infamy of other armed groups involved in the country’s armed conflict. Paramilitaries, drug traffickers, and the FARC seem to dominant narratives related to the Colombian conflict.

In light of this oversight, it is necessary to bring attention to the ELN and their history, agenda and  claims—not only because of their role as a violent actor in the Colombian conflict, but because they are currently exploring the possibility of formal negotiations with the Colombian government.

Disregarding the history of the Colombian conflict, its multiple actors and their centrality to the prospects of peace in favor of a simplified narrative of conflict between the FARC and the Colombian government is a mistake. The history of the ELN, as well as the history of the FARC and other armed groups in the Colombian Conflict, is the history of the lack of consolidation of some state institutions, of violence oblivion and radicalization. The ELN is an important actor, among many, in this drama.

The ELN was founded by a small group of university students that patterned their struggle after the Cuban revolutionary model. The ELN has positioned itself for several generations in different parts of the country, and focused on issues of natural resources, sovereignty and social justice.  In a similar fashion to the FARC, its operations are funded by kidnappings, extortion, involving itself to some degree in the drug trade (although this is contested by different actors). They regulate and replace some of the roles of the state in the delivery of order and authority, and they “shadow” some government institutions by imposing their own controls throughout parts of the country. The number of ELN militants has dwindled in recent years, and is currently estimated to stand at around 1,300 fighters.

Despite this, the ELN’s relevance to the possibility of achieving peace in Colombia appears to be marginal for Colombian society. This is understandable if their relevance is considered purely in terms of the capacity of the organization to cause deaths, or by their size. Such a selection bias could be attributed partly to the focus of previous governments against the FARC, or that the majority of ELN’s military actions tend to be focused on infrastructure and sabotage, something that is under-covered in Colombian media.

There is also the fact that violent actions by the ELN seem to have decreased in recent years. This has driven several analysts to claim that the ELN is finished. The disappearance of ten of their rural fronts (and twenty-five mobile units) in the last years can be seen as evidence for this. The lack of interest in the ELN could also be attributed to the limited reach and popularity of their agendas at a national level and their limited geographical reach (although they operate in different provinces and cities of the country, their actions are located in areas where there is a low population density).

However, other sources point to a recent increase in ELN military actions, seem to be part of a deliberate effort by the ELN designed to strengthen their position in a peace process.  This has been apparent in recent actions undertaken by the ELN in concert with their fiftieth anniversary, and in which a military escalation has been evident. Recent developments in which the leaders of the ELN have communicated their interests to explore the “real intentions of peace” by the Colombian government, as well as  the possibility for the ELN to depose their weapons are important and promising for the prospects of peace.   

This is why attention should be brought to this process as well their importance to the success of a wider peace process. Ignoring the ELN and its peace process is to ignore the dynamics of specific regions of the country; it also risks the possibility of allowing this group to co-opt the areas where the FARC has established their presence, and could even provide an alternative destination for cadres from the FARC who fail to demobilize (or where the demobilization process proves ineffective).

The experience of Colombia already shows the recycling of former combatants among similar or different groups. As the FARC and the ELN are established in and influence similar spaces, peace will not exist fully unless the ELN is acknowledged. This must happen not because of their size, but because of the opportunity they represent – the capacity of a political system to incorporate and institutionalize dissent within the political system, to engage in a negotiation process (similar to that undertaken with the FARC).

A strong state that can understand and incorporate different actors, and defend citizens of different political viewpoints and the interests they represent in a new social contract could end the legacy of violence that has plagued the history of Colombia for more than a hundred years.

It is here where a formal peace process with the ELN might break ground. Assuming that this process will follow the same dynamics as that with the FARC is likely a mistake, as the ELN could be described as a group less that is less militarily active, but more politically “orthodox.” However the opportunities of achieving synergies in the negotiations might prove constructive and reinforce progress toward a national peace process, a process which could be undermined if relevant actors are overlooked.

The agenda that the ELN has presented for a peace process over the years might actually provide an overture that would allow for a negotiation that could facilitate, strengthen and reinforce a broader peace process. The widening of the possibilities for a peace that embraces all constituencies (beyond just the FARC) and regions of the country should be supported. Within their demands, the ELN has presented as vital points the establishment of a national assembly, the consolidation of structural reforms within the Colombian society, and the interest in a bilateral cease fire, among others.

The idea of a national assembly has met with great controversy in Colombia in the latest peace negotiations with the FARC. The government has so far refused to include this idea in the negotiation agenda with the FARC; re-opening this debate with another group could therefore create asymmetries and contradictions in terms of what is negotiated. However, a broader understanding of this assembly could see it appreciated as a national covenant. This could be framed within the regional consultations that the peace process with the FARC is already undertaking, and also could provide the transparency and clarity that the peace process requires in order to be understood and supported by Colombians.

Thus far, many Colombians have not been properly informed about what is really happening in Havana. Nor do they have clarity on the agenda and what has been negotiated by their government. This allows for the propagation ofdisinformation, as well as attacks by opponents of the peace process. Therefore, the insistence of the ELN in a “national assembly” might prove a fruitful avenue through which to open the space to legitimize and communicate around issues of peace and working towards an accord. If indeed the negotiation agenda states that agreements will be submitted to a referendum, the defense of the implementation of the agreements will be more successful if the peace that is reached within Colombia involves the government being accountable to Colombians, not only to the actors at the table in Havana or elsewhere.

The structural reforms raised by the ELN in their negotiating demands and the necessity of debating the nature of the Colombian society correspond to the nature of any peace process itself: peace processes are the re-negotiation of social covenants and involve the opening of spaces for participation and inclusion. This can also make the peace process a space of reflection, where differences between the rural country and the urban country, as well as the perception of the Colombian state and its effectiveness in delivering justice and its legitimacy in the minds of its citizens is reconciled with its own reality and failures. No successful peace process can expect to achieve long lasting effects where exclusion, inequality and lack of justice still persist.

The ELN has also proposed a bilateral cease fire in their agenda. The capture of an army general in recent weeks illustrated the fact that military actions might put the peace process in jeopardy. However, it is important to point out that this condition of negotiating without a cease fire has been presented by the Colombian government, as a response to the trauma of the failed negotiations with the FARC where the peace process was used as an opportunity for the group to strengthen itself.

The inclusion of the ELN agenda could consolidate a middle ground, a de-escalation strategy, as it were, that was already being discussed with the FARC, and has been accompanied by actions such as the declaration of an unilateral cease fire by the FARC, and the decision of the Colombian government to temporarily halt bombing operations against FARC rebels. These actions within a framework of a broader negotiation could create the possibilities of similar gestures by the ELN that could promote a reinforcing loop towards de-escalation and a bigger credibility on the process.

A joint or parallel table will certainly create new challenges and complexity. Yet its establishment could be conducive to a broader, more legitimate peace process for Colombia. The spaces and realities of the Colombian conflict rightly belong to the continuum of magical realism, and as such should embrace complex narratives and understandings that inform the peace agreements that Colombians, like the Colonel of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have been waiting for years.

Fabio Andrés Díaz holds a MSc in Engineering and a MA in Development Studies. He has formerly held research positions with the Center for Conflict analysis and Management (CICAM) at Radboud University, Nijmegen, and is also a member of the REDH Network of Scientists and Researchers on Colombia in the Netherlands. He is currently Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Rhodes University, South Africa.