BOGOTA: Peace talks between the Colombian government and the largest remaining rebel group in the South American country, the National Liberation Army (ELN), are to resume this week in Mexico City.
While left-wing President Gustavo Petro’s administration has expressed optimism over the renewed negotiations, tensions between Bogota and the ELN have grown since the last round of talks ended in December in Caracas, Venezuela.
The Colombian government was forced to backtrack on a New Year’s Eve announcement that a truce had been reached after the ELN denied that any such agreement existed. Instead, the rebels said a ceasefire “was merely a proposal to be considered” 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 media. “Residents in militarized 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 militarized 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 organized 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”. (Int’l News Desk)