While a ceasefire agreement with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) militant group signals a positive development in President Gustavo Petro’s peace plan, the six-month truce – and negotiations for the group’s eventual dismantlement – faces significant odds, writes Erin Drake.
On 3 August, the Colombian government and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the country’s largest remaining militant group, signed a six-month ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire lays the groundwork for peace talks, with the aim of eventually demobilising the ELN. Under the former government of Iván Duque, such a truce was largely off the table and all prospects for cooperation collapsed when ELN killed 22 people in a vehicle bombing targeting a police facility in Bogota in 2019. In contrast, President Gustavo Petro has adopted a more lenient posture and has focused on good faith negotiations, though as seen in the past, agreements with the ELN have often failed.
With five high-ranking ELN rebels accused of plotting to assassinate the attorney general just six days after the August ceasefire came into effect, concerns are escalating over the group’s commitment to maintaining the ceasefire, and over the longer-term challenges facing ongoing peace talks.
Will the ceasefire hold (this time)?
Amid historic distrust between the Colombian government and the ELN, there is longstanding precedent for ceasefires to collapse. Some ELN cells have traditionally been resistant to cooperation with the government, and internal dissent has also previously led to ceasefire violations and collapses, including a truce in September 2017 which faltered after only 101 days.
While the current ceasefire, in place until January 2024, establishes a cessation in attacks targeting security personnel and vice versa, the ELN has stated that it will continue its defensive operations, signalling that any perceived move by state security forces to target the group will likely lead to a resumption in hostilities. The group has also indicated that its financing activities, including kidnapping, trafficking and extortion, will continue during the ceasefire. As such, while the truce may see a decline in activities like ambushes on pipelines and patrols, the ELN’s role in organised crime and associated violence will persist. In turn, the potential for skirmishes with security forces during, for example, normal anti-smuggling operations (rather than counter-terrorism activities, which are suspended under the agreement), could also drive sporadic ceasefire violations.
How powerful is the ELN?
The group comprises between 2,000 and 5,000 members, and is mostly active in the Pacific region and along the border with Venezuela. While the group is driven by leftist political ideology, it has also engaged in criminal activities such as extortion, trafficking and illegal gold mining to finance training and obtain resources and equipment. Near the border with Venezuela, the ELN imposes illegal mining taxation schemes targeting transport routes in the Cerro Yapacana mining region. It also regularly collaborates with local and transnational armed groups who move contraband through the region. The ELN has even established an uneasy truce with dissident Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rivals in the area. Its engagement in smuggling, and cooperation with other criminal organisations, affords it access to weapons and equipment like long-range assault rifles and explosives, as well as safe haven in Venezuela when escaping Colombian security officials.
However, the group’s organisational capabilities are offset by its decentralised structure and a lack of unified leadership. This also renders strategic decision-making difficult to achieve, especially regarding critical decisions around ceasefires and possible demobilisation. The ELN lacks the capabilities to stage a widespread and coordinated insurrection, despite likely retaining an intent to do so. Nevertheless, cells stage regular ambushes and bombings against security patrols and commercial infrastructure, mostly in remote rural areas, as a means of disrupting local state authority. In March, for example, ELN militants killed nine security personnel during an attack targeting an oil pipeline in El Carmen, in the northern Norte de Santander Department.
Challenges to peace
There are further challenges to an eventual peace agreement. Firstly, it is unclear whether the government will offer conditional amnesty like it did for FARC in 2016, where in many cases, those guilty of serious crimes, including hostage taking, torture and other war crimes, were eligible for more lenient sentencing such as reparative labour and restrictions on movement. The ELN will likely expect at least these conditions, and have also made demands that will be difficult for Petro to grant, including the eventual release of ELN prisoners, participation in Congress, changes to the country’s economic model, and ‘subsidies’ to offset the profits obtained from kidnappings and extortion. Should the government be unwilling to meet these demands, a comprehensive peace plan with the buy-in of most ELN factions could be challenging to secure.
Petro’s ability to negotiate a mutually acceptable peace plan will also hinge on public support. The public has generally supported negotiations with the group. However, it is possible that a failure to address violence against the civilian population, or acquiescence to the ELN’s more ambitious demands, could reflect negatively on Petro’s government in the October 2023 local elections, potentially restricting his ability to compromise on certain aspects of a deal.
"Petro’s commitment to a peace plan may not be enough to convince all factions of the ELN that demobilisation is an attractive option.”
Developments in the wider political sphere could also shape the trajectory of negotiations. Petro’s approval ratings have dropped as his administration has faced a series of scandals in 2023, including controversies surrounding key allies. Most recently in July and August, the admission by Petro’s son that he had accepted around USD 386,000 from criminal groups to finance Petro’s election campaign (and to pocket for himself) has further tarnished the president’s image. Disruptive political scandals could make it increasingly difficult for Petro to maintain momentum on his security agenda, as similar scandals during previous administrations have seen embattled political leaders turn their focus to securing their position, with security issues falling by the wayside.
A long road ahead
Petro’s commitment to a peace plan may not be enough to convince all factions of the ELN that demobilisation is an attractive option. Militants who are now more incentivised by the lucrative trafficking trade than by the prospect of being arrested, or a potentially difficult reintegration into civilian life, will likely be harder to convince of a peace agreement’s merits. The potential refusal of dissident ELN cells to dismantle, coupled with multiple armed groups and FARC dissidents who continue to operate in Colombia with relative impunity, will thus continue to drive threats of militancy in the coming years.
Nevertheless, the ELN ceasefire and peace talks form only one part of Petro’s extensive peace plan, and if the ceasefire holds, this will likely reduce ELN attacks against security forces and infrastructure in the coming months, as well as associated civilian casualties. Petro’s efforts might, at the very least, also signal to remaining insurgent groups that the current government is serious about securing a sustainable and lasting peace, which could see these groups moving closer to the negotiating table.