Date first published: 15/06/2023
Key sectors: all; oil and gas; transport; electricity
Key risks: terrorism; insurgency; violent crime; targeted attacks; kidnapping
On 9 June President Gustavo Petro’s government and the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group announced that they had reached a six-month nationwide bilateral ceasefire agreement effective from 3 August. Leftist Petro – himself a former M-19 guerrilla – travelled to Cuba’s capital Havana to make the announcement which came as the third round of peace talks with the ELN – which resumed in November 2022 after a three-year hiatus – came to an end. A fourth round of negotiations is scheduled for 14 August to 4 September in Venezuela’s capital Caracas – hopefully once the ceasefire is in place.
Why it matters
Agreeing to a bilateral ceasefire is a major milestone in the ongoing peace process. The fact that the agreement is to be implemented at national level – as opposed to just in certain regions as it was floated days prior to the announcement – adds significant weight to the deal itself and to the credibility of the talks. The negotiations would have most likely collapsed without a ceasefire agreement, a scenario that would have dissipated the potential for an eventual peace deal – which remains distant.
The ceasefire’s implementation cannot be taken for granted. The deal will only be effective on 3 August, indicating at least two relevant facts: first, the parties are not ready to stop hostilities immediately; second, they are aware of this and appear to have prioritised a careful negotiation of the verification and monitoring mechanisms over the rushed implementation of an agreement likely set to fail. Although the period until 3 August might strengthen the chances for the ceasefire to succeed, it might also lead to mistrust in the overall process should the ELN fail to ensure that its decentralised structure becomes aware of the deal’s scope and should both parties fail to show agreement on the latter.
Getting to this point in the peace process has not been straightforward. On 18 May the ELN agreed to resume the peace talks after Pablo Beltran – who heads the group’s delegation – put the talks “on pause” on 15 May after Petro questioned whether the ELN delegation could control their commanders’ actions. The process has been fragile from the onset and, at the same time, presents unprecedented opportunities for the government – particularly for Petro as he struggles to implement his ‘total peace’ plan and, more recently, to navigate a growing political crisis – and for the guerrilla group.
Petro’s predecessor refused to negotiate with the ELN unless the group halted all its guerrilla and criminal activities, which continue to include attacks on key infrastructure, on security force personnel and asserts, extortion rackets, kidnappings and clashes with other armed groups. The fact that the ELN is reportedly behind the kidnapping of a civilian public transport driver and the wife of a lieutenant in Arauca department on 13 June – just three days after the ceasefire deal was announced – underscores the difficulty in getting all rebels to understand that the violence will have to stop for the peace process to continue.
The risk of ELN attacks on infrastructure – particularly oil pipelines – and security force personnel and assets has the potential to gradually decrease only once the ceasefire comes into effect. Even then, such risks will persist. The focus in the coming weeks will be on ensuring that the deal is in fact put in motion.