Colombia: ELN peace process moves forward

Date first published: 07/11/2017

Key sectors: oil and gas; electricity; transportation

Key risks: insurgency; terrorism; targeted violence; disruptive unrest

On 1 October the government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas began a temporary bilateral ceasefire, the first in over 50 years of armed conflict. One month on, the agreement stands despite at least one alleged breach that at the time of writing still needed to be confirmed by the UN mission coordinating the ceasefire’s Monitoring and Verification Mechanism. Despite this potential breach, involving the killing of an indigenous leader in Choco department, both parties have stated that the ceasefire should remain in place as efforts to move the peace process forward continue. Scheduled to last until 9 January with the possibility of an extension, however, the agreement could be hampered should further incidents be reported. The ELN has committed to stop kidnappings, the enrolment of minors, attacks on key energy infrastructure and the use of anti-personnel mines. Although complete compliance cannot be guaranteed, the ceasefire is by far the most important achievement since the formal peace talks were launched in February.

On 29 October the ELN issued a statement confirming that members of the Omar Gomez Western War Front in Alto Baudo, Choco department, had killed indigenous leader Aulio Isarama Forastero on 24 October. The guerrillas asked for forgiveness, claiming the killing was an act of ‘self-defence’. The government condemned the incident, which could mark the ceasefire’s first breach. On 30 October Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace stated that the ceasefire would remain in place as no incident in itself would unilaterally or automatically cause the agreement to collapse. The statement highlights the importance given to the ceasefire and also hints at the potential for further incidents to occur. It was precisely the Omar Gomez Western War Front who on 6 October warned that the agreement was threatened in Choco after claiming that conditions were not being met for it to hold given alleged increased military presence in the area. Although the ELN’s rank and file could further challenge the agreement over the coming months, both parties appear committed to make the ceasefire stand.

Key energy infrastructure, transport cargo and security-force personnel and assets remain exposed to political violence risks not only due to potential ELN ceasefire breaches but also due to protests over how the government is handling Colombia’s ongoing peace processes. A nationwide indefinite strike launched on 23 October by rural workers and social organisations was joined by indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities on 30 October. Hundreds of rural workers blocked roads in the Catatumbo region, Norte de Santander, where several violent incidents were reported, including clashes with riot police, an attack on a police station and protesters entering state-owned oil company Ecopetrol’s facilities in Tibu municipality. Ecopetrol reported that the strike affected operations, while Tibu oilfield personnel were threatened. The potential for further similar disruptive strikes cannot be ruled out.

Formal peace negotiations, currently in their fourth-round, are not mature enough to consider a definitive bilateral ceasefire. Both parties remain suspicious of the other’s capacity to commit to the peace process, although the ELN is fully aware that the only way out of the conflict is through negotiations. Developments over the coming months will be crucial to assess the potential for the formal peace talks to be conducive to reaching a definitive ceasefire and a peace agreement in 2018, although the process has the potential to last longer.