A Conversation with ELN Commander and Peace Negotiator Aureliano Carbonell

National Liberation Army Commander Aureliano Carbonell speaks about prospects for peace in the guerrilla organization’s second round of dialogues with the Colombian government.

March 9, 2023

ELN Commander Aureliano Carbonell In Mexico City in February (Jenaro Abraham)

Guerrilla Commander Aureliano Carbonell (alias Pablo Tejada) is the National Liberation Army’s (ELN) second in command in the organization’s 16-person peace delegation led by fellow commander Pablo Beltrán, currently holding its second round of peace talks in Mexico City with the Colombian government. The current round of talks is scheduled to end on March 10, with a third round expected to be announced soon. A sociologist by training and a member of the ELN’s national directorate, Commander Carbonell is considered one of the organization's leading intellectuals. Both the ELN and government delegations seek to advance a bilateral ceasefire, societal participation in upcoming dialogues, and the implementation of pedagogies for peace across Colombia, with hopes of forging a route towards lasting peace. 

In this interview, the commander situates the peace talks in what he describes as a historical juncture that gave way to President Gustavo Petro’s electoral victory, reflecting in his view a latent desire for peace among Colombians. As a leader of the oldest guerrilla group in the Americas (1964-present), Carbonell has witnessed how previous administrations—with funding and support from the United States—have sought the constant escalation of the Colombian armed conflict by supporting armed actors with nefarious interests. Among these actors are Colombia’s agro-exporting landowners, charged with displacing peasants and stealing their land; right-wing armed paramilitary groups that continue to assassinate social movement leaders with the objective of further displacement; and narcotrafficking groups which maintain close ties with the aforementioned interests.  

Despite the ongoing relevance of these actors, new dynamics have reconfigured some aspects of war central to the ELN’s grievances. According to researcher Danna Urdaneta, contemporary rightwing paramilitarism is comprised of covert forces that are financed and designed by the Security Forces Assistance Brigades (a specialized U.S. Army unit) and the U.S. Southern Command. For Urdaneta, the primary objective of these forces is to curb the geopolitical influence of Russia and China in the region. Urdaneta argues that these belligerent actors and corresponding interests achieve this goal by displacing people through war for the subsequent development of livestock, oil, and agro-industrial activities. Commander Carbonell denounces these interests by pointing out the economic and political intimacies present between subsets of the Colombian military, narcotrafficking groups, and rightwing paramilitary groups that have currently consolidated control over much of Colombia’s countryside—a reality that continues to upset much of the ELN’s rural base and has exacerbated an ongoing humanitarian crisis. 

Although overall displacements caused by war have diminished, they have been steadily rising once again, along with social movement leader assassinations. Through its “total peace” approach to solving the armed conflict, the Colombian government is engaging in direct peace talks with all non-state armed actors through regionally defined negotiating tables. It is in this context that I sat down with Commander Carbonell to get his take on prospects for a lasting peace.

Jenaro Abraham: In this dialogue cycle’s opening statements, Commander Pablo Beltrán narrated the origin of the ELN's participation in the armed conflict by anchoring it in the context of the civil war that broke out in 1948. The commander connected this moment to a series of protests that occurred in 2021 under former President Iván Duque’s administration. How is the ELN represented in these social uprisings as an insurgent movement over time? 

Commander Aureliano Carbonell: The Colombian armed conflict has a lot to do with what happened in 1948 when a leader was assassinated who at that time had great popular support and who would have possibly won the presidential elections. His name was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. He was from the Liberal Party, but from sectors of the Left that were not socialist like ours, but that wanted to change the country. He spoke out against the conservative oligarchy. He represented something different, and that difference was assassinated. The ruling class did not allow for competition to develop within the nation’s constitutional frameworks. 

After that, violence broke out, igniting what was called the era of Liberal-Conservative violence. This led those in power to suppress liberal currents that were close to Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Subsequently, several guerrilla groups in emerged in Colombia in the 60s, and in the years 1964-1965 two (guerrilla) projects prospered: the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP). Later, other guerrilla groups emerged such as the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and the 19th of April movement (M-19)—of which the current President Gustavo Petro was a member.

Today, the organization that persists is the ELN, but Colombia has a long history of extreme violence being exercised by ruling classes against the population. Recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the state participated in the extermination of more than 6,000 thousand members of the Unión Patriótica (UP) party [founded by the FARC]. After Gaitán, several presidential candidates were assassinated. Without understanding the state’s behavior, it would be impossible to understand Colombia’s armed insurgency in the present. 

Then comes 2021, when there were mass mobilizations that lasted approximately three months. They consisted of road blockades, mobilizations in the cities, and demands proposed by the National Strike Committee. In these protests, about 80 people were killed by state authorities. It was the largest mass mobilization since the times of Gaitán, and it was also met with extreme violence.  

Not only were protesters assassinated by the police forces, but also by paramilitary groups that came in white vans and shot at the protesters. There are videos of the police attacking civilians. Hundreds of people were arrested and accused of terrorism, of damaging state property. Gustavo Petro’s government has tried to free some of them, but the establishment has not allowed it. Violence exercised by the ruling classes in Colombia has been far greater than in other Latin American countries. It is structural and systematic.

JA: During the last six years the Colombian armed conflict has taken on a series of new dynamics. What do these dynamics look like in the present? 

CAC: The peace agreement with the FARC was signed in 2016. It was expected that the state would behave differently. But look at what has happened after that! Around 350 former combatants/peace signees have been killed. The state’s violent and repressive actions have not changed. In 2020, the police detained a lawyer named Javier Ordoñez and killed him. There is a video of that. That video generated a lot of anger, and people went out the next day to attack police stations. The police responded by killing 11 people. It wasn’t planned. It was the spontaneous reaction of people, mainly in Bogotá.  

In this sense, it is a peace process that doesn’t manage to produce peace. It doesn’t change the state or the dominant class’s behavior that created (guerrilla) insurgency. After the 2016 peace agreement, paramilitarism has grown. It has grown and consolidated control over vast regions of the country. They have taken control of many neighborhoods in the nation’s cities. All this is linked to drug trafficking and to the police. Why have things not changed? Because the ruling classes do not comply with what they sign. They simply disarmed a guerrilla movement, but the country remains the same. 

JA: Have you participated in peace processes prior to this one, and how is this peace process different from others? 

CAC: We have been participating in peace processes since the 1990s. The first one was a joint effort through the Coordinadora Guerrillera which included the EPL, FARC, and ELN. The talks were held here in Tlaxcala, Mexico, but they were not successful. After that, a process was attempted exclusively with the ELN in 2006-2007 under President Álvaro Uribe. Then, during President Uribe’s second term, a negotiation table was established. Another one was attempted under Juan Manuel Santos in 2017. But that process was not known to the public and was aborted by Santos. Our peace process resumed when Gustavo Petro won the election in 2022.  

What differentiates this process from others? One is that we all recognize that Colombian society must participate in the process. This is the first point of the negotiation agenda for these talks. Then there’s point two, which is democracy, and point three, which addresses (societal) transformations, or pathways for achieving the first two points. The first three points of a five-point agenda address society’s participation. In other words, the peace process is not merely an agreement and talks between the ELN and the government. There is a third actor that is decisive and that is Colombian society, which has been traditionally excluded from these decisions.  

JA: What does the ELN seek to advance in these dialogues?

CAC: For the first time in Colombia something different from the establishment won the elections, a progressive political current represented by Gustavo Petro where there are also left-wing sectors, social movements, and others represented. Now, we are witnessing pressures for change. This was expressed in the recent estallido social (social uprising). It was expressed in the elections. In this sense, we are living a particularly special moment and we see ourselves [represented in] this process.  

JA: The ELN recently denounced an incident where their combatants were massacred in Buenaventura. Could you tell us about what happened and how this massacre took place?  

CAC: First of all, at the moment, there was no bilateral ceasefire. Our forces are fighting, and the government forces are fighting. What happened? The Colombian military ambushed one of our camps, and in combat four comrades were captured. They were killed outside combat, and that is an action that violates international law. That is murder. At this moment, we are raising the issue.   

JA: Regarding the issue of ELN political prisoners, what is being discussed in this cycle of dialogues? 

CAC: In the first dialogue cycle’s final declaration, we discussed the situation of ELN political prisoners. In Colombia, for over 20 or 30 years, the government didn’t recognize that it held political prisoners. And in this last communiqué, they did.

At the [dialogue] table there is also something emblematic, relevant, and very valuable that is happening. Before, the Colombian government referred to the ELN as terrorists and criminals. Today they speak of political prisoners in Colombia. The second thing is, during the first cycle we agreed to address situations of humanitarian crisis. Now, we do not need to wait for a peace process to end to attend to serious humanitarian issues. We agreed to respond to a humanitarian crisis in a region called San Juan, in the department of Chocó. And in lower Calima, in the department of Valle del Cauca, a commission was sent, comprised of ELN peace delegates and the government. We went to listen to the community, assess the situation and listen to local recommendations to act on these serious humanitarian situations, such as displacement. We reached another humanitarian agreement to address the very critical health situations of various ELN political prisoners. Some of them have terminal illnesses, and another 40 have serious health problems. The agreement was that they be treated, not so they can be released or anything like that, but so that they can receive medical attention.  

JA: Where do you see that there will be difficulties in the dialogues? Where will there be most tension? 

CAC: The greatest tension in this peace process is in societal participation. Although this is a progressive government that has control of the executive branch, the judicial branch is completely controlled by the establishment. This government has tried to implement some things—like releasing front-line protestors—but have failed to do so. President Petro’s Pacto Histórico coalition is a minority in Congress. Last year, Congress passed a tax reform through an alliance between government forces and other sectors of the establishment, but those alliances limit the scope of what can be done. Economic power remains completely in the hands of those who have always held it. The military also has dynamics of its own where the United States has great influence. They share the interests of the ruling classes. The press is also in the hands of the ruling classes. So, even if we have a progressive government, these elites are not going to make things easy, and that is perhaps the main obstacle we have. 

JA: Where do you see that there is consensus on both sides? And what is your opinion on the government's participation in these dialogues? 

CAC: I believe that we coincide on the purpose for change. It is on that promise that this government was elected. We also aspire to these changes in the country. But it is also a feeling that exists widely in Colombia and was expressed in the last election, in the recent estallido social and in other things. How far will they go with this change? We are going to see how far this government can go. That is the question that has yet to be answered.  

JA: And what do you see as the way out of this process? Do you see a lasting peace as possible? 

CAC: Well, that is our aspiration: an integral peace. But it will be the life cycle of the process itself that will tell us how far we can go.  

Jenaro Abraham is a professor of Latin American Politics at Gonzaga University, the vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party in the Diaspora (DPIP), and a collaborator with Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR). His research focuses primarily on social movements, politics, and insurgencies in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.