Date first published: 23/08/2022
Key sectors: all; oil and gas; electricity
Key risks: terrorism; insurgency; violent crime; targeted attacks; kidnapping
On 20 August leftist President Gustavo Petro announced the suspension of arrest warrants and extradition requests for the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN)’s negotiators amid fresh efforts to restart peace talks with the guerrilla group. The announcement marked yet another step towards resuming negotiations a week after Petro’s government officially recognised the legitimacy of the ELN’s peace delegation in Cuba’s capital Havana. Several armed criminal groups have recently expressed their interest in launching similar peace processes with Petro’s administration.
Why it matters
The expected resumption of peace talks with the ELN – Colombia’s last remaining active guerrilla group with around 2,400 combatants – would have major implications for the security environment given the ELN’s persistent attacks on strategic transport, hydrocarbon and energy infrastructure and on government and security force personnel and asset. Moreover, the peace negotiations would have a strong potential to set the path for similar peace processes with other groups. Petro has proposed that the Gulf Clan – the country’s largest organised criminal group – disarm and enter into dialogue with his government.
Peace talks with the ELN were launched by former president Juan Manuel Santos in 2017. They followed the success of the 2016 peace agreement between the Santos administration and the now-defunct leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla. The FARC became a political party after around 7,000 former combatants disarmed as part of the deal. The peace process with the ELN stalled before it was suspended by Petro’s predecessor, Ivan Duque, following a deadly attack on a police academy that killed 22 cadets in Bogota in 2019. Petro’s election in June prompted the ELN and Petro – himself a former M-19 guerrilla – to express readiness to resume the talks.
The Gulf Clan announced a unilateral ceasefire upon Petro’s inauguration on 7 August. This came days after the group declared the suspension of its ‘Pistol Plan’ – linked to dozens of police killings in recent months. The ‘Pistol Plan’ and other similar campaigns have demonstrated that the Gulf Clan maintains the intent and capabilities to carry out frequent, coordinated operations against the security forces despite intensive military operations against the group in recent years. In early May, the Gulf Clan paralysed much of the country during a four-day long ‘armed strike’. At least eight people were killed and over 180 vehicles torched amid dozens of violent attacks.
While negotiations with the ELN could help end protracted violence, significant challenges will persist. Firstly, previous failed efforts have demonstrated that the ELN’s lack of hierarchical structure may once again lead to dissident attacks in defiance of the political leadership leading the talks in Havana. Internal disputes and fragmentation within the Gulf Clan would pose similar issues should the group enter peace talks. Secondly, should these efforts eventually culminate in formal peace deals, the ensuing power vacuums could fuel further violence by rival criminal groups vying for turf as it happened across the country following the FARC’s disarmament and demobilisation process.
Petro has pledged to achieve peace with rebel and criminal groups through dialogue. The coming months will shed light on what his ambitious promises to establish “total peace” will actually mean for the country, where over 450,000 people have been killed by internal armed conflict in recent decades.