The National Liberation Army (ELN) Creates a Different Peace Proces

September 25, 2007

When international attention is directed to the Colombian peace process, most observers focus on government dealings with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). A unique meeting in Switzerland on July 24 and 25, however, revealed the possibilities and difficulties of a very different kind of process: one carried out with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second major guerrilla group. Indeed, the sight of Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres—two jailed ELN leaders on leave from their prison near Medellín—mingling in a Geneva hotel lobby with President Andrés Pastrana's top peace negotiators, 80 representatives from Colombian civil society, and other fellow insurgents, was emblematic of the special nature of the peace process in Switzerland.

After a standstill in negotiations of nearly a year and a half, the government and the ELN jointly called the meeting to garner support for the process, to set a timetable for future talks and to resolve several problems that had stalled previous negotiations, such as disagreement over the establishment of a demilitarized zone. There was also hope, in great part generated by the media, that they could reach a cease-fire agreement as a first step, marking a big difference with the process with the FARC, where no such pact exists.

Both the FARC and ELN were founded in 1964, but from the start they have differed greatly from each other. The former began as a peasant organization, mainly in the south, and took up the doctrines of Soviet Communism. The ELN's founders were university students, oil workers and Catholic priests who espoused liberation theology. Their main areas of influence lay in Colombia's northeast, and members identified with the Cuban Revolution.

The ELN successfully attracted followers during its early years; its most notable member, the charismatic priest Camilo Torres, was killed in combat and quickly became a celebrated martyr. In the early 1970s, however, the ELN was torn by bitter internal disputes and was practically wiped out by the Colombian Army. In the 1980s it was reborn under the leadership of a Spanish priest, Manuel Pérez, with the help of millions of dollars from German contractors who had been hired to build an oil pipeline, and whom the ELN extorted with threats of kidnapping.

The ELN'S resurgence was also political. The FARC and other major guerrilla groups signed cease-fire agreements with the government of President Belisario Betancur in 1984. But the ELN denounced talks as an establishment trap and instead began pursuing unification for armed insurgency. At first, none of the other guerrilla groups were interested. But as the peace process began to break down a few years later, the rebel organizations came to agree with the ELN initiative. This led to the creation, in 1987, of the Simon Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinator (CGSB), which included all the guerrilla groups.

Their unity was short-lived, however. Between 1989 and 1991, the April 19 movement (M-19), People's Liberation Army (EPL) and other smaller groups signed agreements with the government leading to their disarmament and demobilization. This left the ELN and FARC basically alone in the CGSB. Relations between the two were strained, and even though they acted jointly during negotiations in Venezuela in 1991 and Mexico in 1992 under the government of President César Gaviria (1990-1994), the breakdown of those talks effectively destroyed the CGSB.

As each group went its separate way, the FARC's and ELN's positions seemed increasingly distant from each other. Coming from almost a decade of failed peace talks and perceptions of broken promises, the FARC embarked on a significant strategic shift in 1993 by emphasizing the strengthening of its military capacity. During the same period, however, the ELN was just beginning its experience with the peace process.

These divergences set off a lengthy debate in the ELN, leading to its decision in 1996 to pursue a peaceful resolution of the war through a new model that was not centered exclusively around bilateral talks between government and guerrilla leaders. The proposed "National Convention" included active, direct and decisive participation from civil society. The ELN also decided to make contact with the government of President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), despite that administration's deep political crisis, and even though the FARC had publicly refused to have any dealings with the weakened regime.

In February 1998, the ELN signed a draft agreement with the government outlining the National Convention process. But it was never duly ratified, because of the unexpected death of Manuel Pérez a few weeks later. In July of the same year, in Mainz, Germany, the agreement's basic framework was included in the Gates of Heaven Accord, which the ELN signed with representatives from civil society. The government did not officially attend the meeting but immediately endorsed its outcome, as did President-elect Pastrana.

Even before Pastrana took office in August 1998, he had already demonstrated bold political will and leadership by initiating a new phase in the peace process. He also gave priority to the FARC, which had endorsed his candidacy in the crucial second round of the presidential elections. On taking office, Pastrana acceded to the FARC's demand to demilitarize sizable territory in the south. Although publicly the government also endorsed the ELN's process, it originally denied that group's request for a demilitarized zone, leading to a general perception that it was giving the smaller guerrilla group second-class treatment. Some have even suggested that Pastrana virtually ignored the ELN and focused almost exclusively on the FARC because the ELN process had begun under the president's predecessor and hated rival, Samper.

Meanwhile, the ELN began to feel the direct effects of repression—mainly in northern Colombia—from right-wing paramilitary self-defense groups. Feeling squeezed militarily and excluded politically, the ELN resorted to terrorism. During 1999, they hijacked an Avianca airliner and took its 70 passengers hostage; then they kidnapped more than 150 churchgoers one Sunday in Cali and demanded ransom for their release. Later they blew up power lines and oil pipelines. The government further hardened its line.

It was civil society, clearly, who revived the peace negotiations this year. Hopes of getting things back on track were also rekindled by the Pastrana Administration's decision to demilitarize an "encounter zone," and to name a new peace commissioner, Camilo Gómez, who has dedicated significant efforts to reestablishing trust with the ELN. In a clear sign of progress, the ELN and the government agreed to the formal creation of a "Group of Friends," composed of representatives from Spain, France, Norway, Switzerland and Cuba, to serve as facilitators.

But problems have persisted. Residents of the encounter zone, many of them coca growers said to have close ties to the paramilitaries, have organized protests against the proposed measure. Even though the ELN has been in the mountains of the zone for months, government troops have yet to withdraw from the more populated valley region. This has delayed plans to initiate the National Convention.

Geneva was touted as an opportunity to kick-start the process, and a wide variety of participants began deliberating in an atmosphere of optimism and frank discussion. But then, news arrived about fierce fighting in the encounter zone. The ELN blamed the intensification of the fighting on the paramilitaries and the support they obtained from the government. The government denied responsibility. It appeared the entire peace process would be suspended.

But representatives of civil society and the Group of Friends agreed to send international observers to the zone, and their actions were again key to saving the talks and overcoming the negotiating impasse. The observers are expected to make recommendations to put the talks back on track, although no date has been set for future meetings. As the events in Switzerland came to an end, at least one thing seemed clear: The ELN leadership's work as negotiators was far from over. Even though the Geneva meeting fell short of original expectations because it did not produce a cease-fire agreement, it avoided the real danger that the peace negotiations would be aborted. A chance remains to build a new model for resolving Colombia's blood bath peacefully, and with broad citizen participation.

Daniel García-Peña is a university professor and journalist who served as High Commissioner for Peace in Colombia from August 1995 to August 1998, and currently heads an effort to promote grass-roots participation in the peace process.

Tags: Colombia, ELN, guerrillas, peace process

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