Colombia: The end of ELN peace talks – for now

Date first published: 22/1/2018

Key sectors: oil and gas; electricity; security force/government personnel and assets

Key risks: insurgency; terrorism; targeted attacks; kidnapping

The latest National Liberation Army (ELN) attack in Colombia’s capital Bogota effectively put an end to already stalled formal peace talks. On 21 January the leftist guerrilla claimed responsibility for the 17 January car bomb attack against the General Santander police academy, in which at least 21 people were killed and 68 injured. ELN activity has been a constant in its main strongholds since the end of a three-month bilateral ceasefire on 9 January 2018. Since then, no further such agreements have been reached. On the contrary, President Ivan Duque conditioned the continuity of the talks – suspended since the end of the sixth round of talks on 1 August, six days before taking office– on the ELN’s commitment to release all kidnap victims and halt all criminal activity. The deadly attack in Colombia’s capital shattered what was left of the talks, at least for now. Further operations against the group and an intensification of guerrilla activity, particularly of those ELN fronts that have always opposed the peace process, should be expected.

One day after the attack, Duque ordered to reinstate the arrest warrants against the 10 ELN negotiators which had been sent to Cuba – the country hosting the stalled peace talks. He urged Cuba to arrest and extradite the guerrilla members who had, until now, been protected by the negotiations, effectively putting an end to the peace talks. The latter are not expected to resume unless the ELN complies with the government’s conditions to free all kidnap victims and stop all criminal activity, which seems increasingly unlikely in light of recent events. On 17 January the ELN confirmed the kidnapping of the three crew members of a private helicopter which had been attacked and burnt on 11 January in Norte de Santander. On 20 January authorities reportedly thwarted another ELN attack in La Gaitana, Boyaca, while state-owned oil company Ecopetrol announced that the southern Transandino pipeline had been hit by a bomb in Narino, close to the border with Ecuador, on 19 January. The risk of further attacks remains.

Tension between the ELN and the government will rise. Although ELN activity is not a novelty, heightened counter-insurgency operations may lead to intensified guerrilla action, particularly in the border areas with Venezuela and Ecuador. Further attacks in urban centres cannot be ruled out but are expected to remain rare. One of the main challenges throughout the formal peace talks launched in February 2017 have been the divisions within the ELN vis-à-vis the peace process. Some fronts have been reluctant to accept it, and have remained as active as they ever were, while others appeared to have promoted at least a partial compliance with government requirements for negotiations to succeed. The government will unlikely differentiate between fronts when it comes to cracking down on the rebels in response to the latest attacks, potentially triggering further ELN-related incidents.

Regional dynamics will continue to influence the fate of Colombia’s fight against the ELN. Duque’s administration is putting unprecedented pressure on Venezuela to issue a clear response to allegations that the ELN has found a safe haven in Venezuelan territory. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has urged Venezuela to refrain from protecting ELN operatives. The United States is aligned with both Colombia and Brazil. Despite growing pressure, the ELN knows how and where to hide, and where to hit.