It has been just over 2 months since the Colombian government, led by President Santos, signed a ratified peace agreement with the FARC, signifying a huge move towards a concrete state of peace between the two forces, which have been face to face in a violent conflict that has lasted over 50 years. Now, it seems that Santos may have yet another opportunity to show his deserving for the Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2016, given the initiation of peace talks between the national government and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, that began on 7 February in Quito, Ecuador.
The ELN is the second largest guerrilla army in Colombia, after the FARC, and has been fully engaged in the until now seemingly endless conflict that has left over 500,000 dead and millions internally displaced. Financed via similar means as the FARC, using extortion, kidnappings, and the drugs trade to fund their ideologically Marxist campaign against the wealthy landowners, multinational corporations and the Colombian state; the group grew to have up to 5000 members in 2010.
After years of primarily attacking major pipelines for the oil companies’ role in exploiting the country’s resources and kidnapping, the ELN are entering peace negotiations for a second time, with the main goal of disarming ending the conflict in Colombia. Earlier negotiations with the ELN in 2008 with the then president Álvaro Uribe ultimately failed due to the inability to come to an agreement that suited both parties.
Although the goals of the FARC and the ELN are not identical in that, for example, the ELN does not strive to become a legitimate political party, but rather a ‘popular movement’, the terms and areas of negotiation will be much the same. The agenda will have a focus on aspects ranging from the construction of a civil society, to the role of democracy in the peace accord, the reparation of the victims of the conflict, and most importantly, the end of the conflict. Ultimately, the ELN wants to create a society in which Colombian voices, which have been silenced for decades, finally have a say in the political sphere.
The ELN has shown its commitment to the peace negotiations in recent days with the release of Odin Sanchez, a politician they had been holding hostage for the past 10 months. The kidnapping had delayed the start of the talks since October, since the government refused to begin formal negotiations until Mr Sanchez was set free.
Experts argue that these negotiations could face even harder challenges than those faced in the talks with the FARC, given the ELN’s unyielding socialist ideology, coupled with the lack of a confirmation that the kidnappings will stop for good. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Colombia is heading in the right direction when it comes to achieving long-term peace.