The president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, has conditioned the extension of the ceasefire currently in force with the guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN), to the definitive end of violence by this illegal armed group. He explained this from Davos, Switzerland, where until yesterday the president participated in this year’s edition of the world economic forum.
It should be recalled that the Colombian government has been holding peace talks with this group for more than a year and that a new round of talks is scheduled to begin on January 25 in Caracas, Venezuela. The current ceasefire, which began in August 2023, expires at the end of January and an extension is pending in order to be able to continue the dialogues without the noise of permanent war.
A relationship of two “like marriage”
Gustavo Petro, in an interview for EFE news agency, explained that the future of the peace talks “also depends on them (guerrilla), let’s say we are talking about a relationship between two, like marriage. There may be separation, there may be a more fruitful path, but the talks will depend on the ELN’s willingness to abandon violence definitively in its history”.
The president was clear in saying that this guerrilla group has been asked in different ways to abandon the path of violence, according to Petro, everything will depend on them and their actions. With this demand, the head of state marks the limits of his government’s patience to continue with dialogues that have been complex from the start due to several factors: the arrogance of the leadership of this armed group, its own organizational complexity that does not allow a hierarchical command, and its persistence in the practice of kidnapping, which led to the most acute crisis of the talks last November.
Nevertheless, on December 17, the parties announced that they had agreed to suspend kidnappings, which meant saving, for now, the peace table.
The guerrillas also set conditions
Through a message on social networks, the ELN delegation said that for there to be a definitive ceasefire there must be agreed protocols, stating “these are the conditions that the government must comply with”. This message was accompanied by the document issued in December, which included a commitment to suspend kidnappings for extortion.
Although the tone remains the same, it is one of the few times in which the armed group seems willing to comply with something that by the end of 2023 had become an absolutely essential condition: to put an end to kidnapping.
Now, what the government wants is for the guerrilla to control the different fronts operating in Colombia, which, in reality, operate with a federal, non-hierarchical structure, which makes it difficult for one hundred percent of the guerrilla columns to comply with the commitments signed at the dialogue table.
Anniversary of the attack on the Police School
All this was happening yesterday, January 17, the date of a sad anniversary: five years since the ELN bombing of the Police Cadet School in Bogota. On that occasion, the criminal action was the detonation of a car bomb inside the police facility, an act that caused 23 deaths, including the terrorist, and various injuries.
The attack meant the definitive failure of the peace talks that the government of President Ivan Duque (2018-2022) was pursuing with this organization, as the peace table that was being held in Cuba was immediately suspended. The process with this armed group had already begun during the second presidency of Juan Manuel Santos, in 2017, and the Duque government continued it without much enthusiasm until the brutal attack against the police school.
“What we want is to return to the path of compliance,” said the president, referring to the commitments made so far, and those to come in the future, by the armed group.
Financing of the armed group
Regarding the controversy over the demands for financing, formulated by the guerrillas, in exchange for giving up kidnappings, the High Commissioner for Peace, Otty Patiño, spoke:
“We propose financing yes, but not blackmail, and as long as the end of the conflict is in sight. If they are going to participate in a decisive and clear way in the territorial transformations that this country needs, then the Government would be willing to finance the ELN and reach concrete agreements”, Patiño said.
Following President Petro’s line of argument, the head of the Peace Office in Colombia assured that today’s conflicts are very different from what they were 40 or 50 years ago. Patiño assured that it is no longer a dispute between political projects, but “a dispute over the illegal economy”.
Thus, Patiño affirmed that the ELN guerrilla today is not a pure political organization, but an “impure” one, and assured that economic issues weigh heavily in the peace talks with this illegal group. The head of the Peace Office was optimistic and gave an assurance that the government will introduce one more step to accelerate the dialogues.
Political climate in Colombia
President Petro’s government is currently holding two peace talks with two illegal armed groups. In addition, since the beginning of the presidency, the State launched its Total Peace proposal, offering an outstretched hand from the State to all illegal armed groups willing to sit down and talk with the government.
These initiatives have been strongly opposed from day one by the Colombian right wing, which was ousted from power in the elections a year and a half ago. From the very day of Gustavo Petro’s inauguration, the hostility of the now political opposition has been fierce, denying the legitimacy and the very purpose of any dialogue with the armed groups.
The latest controversy generated in Colombia is on account of the search in Davos for funds to finance the disarmament of armed groups. Gustavo Petro has responded that in the country there is an opposition that does not look favorably on dialogue or peace, that believes in extreme solutions, and “that would even seek a coup d’état” against him.