Colombia: What to do with the ELN? Peace possible | Opinion


A graffiti allusive to the guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN), in Arauca, Colombia.
A graffiti allusive to the guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN), in Arauca, Colombia.EL TIEMPO / ZUMA PRESS / CONTACTOPHOTO (Europa Press)

General elections are approaching in Colombia and the country has entered a spiral of violence and attacks against the security forces that put the problem of security at the center of the political debate. 2021 closed with an increase in the homicide rate and it is quite likely that, at the end of Iván Duque’s government, he will be the first president in several periods to hand over a country with more homicides than he received. Regarding the humanitarian impact, Colombia begins 2022 with levels of forced displacement similar to those of a decade ago and with an increase in massacres. In January alone, there were 13 incidents of collective homicides.

Meanwhile, analysts debate the causes of the failure of the security policy, and the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) has issued an alert on extreme risks in 97 municipalities where the elections of the so-called Transitory Districts of Peace will be held. , created by the peace agreement signed with the FARC five years ago. In addition, according to the intelligence services, the ELN, the guerrilla that is still active, has launched a military plan to “fire” the outgoing president. Defeating her has been Duque’s military cause since the ELN carried out an attack in 2019 that killed 22 young police officers and left dozens injured in Bogotá. Duque froze the talks that his predecessor had been carrying out with this group in Cuba, and ignored – in an unusual way – the protocols signed by the parties, including the guarantor countries, leaving the ELN delegation in Havana on hold.

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Today the balance is not good. The ELN is a more robust guerrilla group with greater military capacity than it was in 2018 when Duque was sworn in as commander in chief. It expanded in the northeast of the country along the axis of the Colombian-Venezuelan border and moved towards a binational guerrilla format, partly as a consequence of the strategic errors of the Government in the management of bilateral relations and the historical absence of a policy of border control. Although it was unable to expand in the west of the country due to the military challenge it encountered from groups such as the Clan del Golfo and the growing FARC dissidents, it did manage to preserve a military force whose actions have had a growing humanitarian impact.

Meanwhile, the conflict escalates with significant humanitarian and public order costs, the implementation of the agreement with the former FARC has stalled in the areas most affected by the violence, and regional transformation and stabilization efforts lack synergies with a policy of security that has concentrated on militarizing the territories and affecting the heads of the armed groups, but has been unable to reduce the violence.

the next president

It is in this context that the next president will have to decide what to do with the ELN. An organization with which the actions that at the time gave results with the FARC have not worked. For now, we are in the worst case scenario. A government that is racy at the microphones, but whose military coups have been concentrated where the ELN is weakest: the Pacific coast and the Colombian southwest. Meanwhile, the guerrillas increase their attacks against the public force and their actions of urban terrorism just 40 days before the legislative elections. There is no doubt that a priority for the next government is to rethink the strategy against the ELN, recognizing its organizational peculiarities, internal tensions and the way it relates to the communities in the areas where it operates.

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Where to start?

The strategy of the incoming government must begin by connecting peace with security. According to the country’s experience and international evidence, dialogues and negotiations are a fundamental resource of the State, even in the context of military confrontation.

In this sense, it will be necessary to identify the set of elements that, at the local, national and international levels, can contribute to generating the conditions to re-establish dialogues, contain the violence and, eventually, initiate negotiations with the ELN.

In the first place, internationally, these conditions of possibility are tied to the development of the political context in Venezuela and an eventual reestablishment of relations with the neighboring country, even if the Maduro regime continues. The political climate within the United States is also decisive, as well as compliance with the protocols established with Cuba and Norway, guarantor countries.

Second, any kind of rapprochement requires that the ELN delegation that is in Havana today renew its negotiating mandate, which implies allowing its national leadership to meet. It is important to understand how the change of command that took place recently contributes or not to resolving internal tensions and decanting the agenda of this organization.

A third element is that whoever assumes power in August will have the mandate and the challenge of recovering security. This implies something more than a strong hand speech. The country requires a strategic shift that places the protection of the civilian population at the center of the new security policies. Additionally, we must not lose sight of the unwillingness of the majority of Colombians to embark on a long and complex negotiation with the ELN. Although public opinion is favorable to a negotiated solution, the peace process with the FARC showed that the institutional and legitimacy cost can be very high in a context of growing political polarization.

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Likewise, from the point of view of territorial transformation, this requires a mixed approach that takes advantage of the opportunity to accelerate the implementation of development plans with a territorial approach (PDET), precisely in those places with the greatest ELN presence, with progress solid in terms of territorial control in crucial enclaves such as the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

Ultimately, whatever government remains, these should be the starting points. Rather than lead the country to the impasse of the military defeat of the ELN or open the door to a maximalist negotiation that will last indefinitely, the next president will have to lead us down the path of possible peace.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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