Colombia: ELN peace talks at high risk of collapse

Date first published: 18/09/2018

Key sectors: oil and gas; electricity; security forces

Key risks: insurgency; terrorism; targeted violence; kidnapping

Formal peace talks between the government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas are at high risk of collapse. Right-wing President Ivan Duque took office on 7 August and – as expected – took a hard-line approach towards the ELN. The rebels have so far refused to accept Duque’s conditions for continuation of negotiations which were launched under the previous government in February 2017. On 8 September Duque stated that the government would not resume talks unless the guerrilla group, numbering around 2000-strong, released all its kidnap victims and halted all attacks. Such conditions were deemed ‘unacceptable’ by the ELN, although the group has released at least six of its captives since then. Duque’s statement came at the end of a 30-day review period that the government took to assess the continuity of the ELN peace process. Conditions have changed and the progress announced by former president Juan Manuel Santos at the end of the sixth-round of talks on 1 August already seems distant. Should talks formally collapse, increased security force operations against the group and further ELN activity including attacks on security forces, oil, gas and electricity infrastructure as well as kidnappings should be expected.

ELN’s disruptive attacks have been persistent since a three-month bilateral ceasefire ended on 9 January. State-owned oil company Ecopetrol’s Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline, Colombia’s largest, has been targeted at least 63 times so far in 2018. The pipeline resumed operations on 10 July after a six-month stoppage due to targeted incidents. Pumping was once again halted on 10 August following a bomb attack in Saravena, Arauca department. The border area with Venezuela has seen a spike in ELN-related violence, including turf wars with the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), also known as ‘Los Pelusos’ over previously FARC-held territory, drug production and trafficking routes. In April a state of emergency was declared in Norte de Santander department due to the intensity of the clashes and despite heightened security-force presence, the risk of clashes, kidnappings and targeted attacks persists.

A final peace agreement between the government and the ELN seems highly unlikely at least during Duque’s first years in power. Although a ceasefire cannot be entirely ruled out, the ELN appears determined to continue to pressure the government through a combination of continued violence and sporadic signals of partial compliance with government demands. This lack of clarity will play against the peace process’ favour. Duque is unlikely to soften his stance – he won the presidency partly due to his proposed hard-line approach towards Colombia’s security threats – and the ELN’s lack of hierarchical structure and strong ideological profile will continue to complicate the guerrillas’ compliance to any potentially agreed conditionalities.

The ELN is believed to still hold at least 10 people captive. The latest reported kidnap took place on 7 September in Choco department, a 15-year old accused of being a military informant. Some ELN fronts are reportedly recruiting Venezuelan migrants crossing the border into Colombia, while the government has urged the ELN to clarify its presence on the Venezuelan side of the border, as many of its leaders are believed to have found a safe haven there. Covert support for the ELN by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been a long-standing concern and one that given Duque’s stance will only make a peace agreement harder to achieve.