What is the ELN, the guerrilla with which Petro wants to make a peace agreement

In August, a few days after the inauguration of President Gustavo Petro, the new Colombian government announced that it intends to soon resume peace talks with the guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Founded in the decade of 1960, by students and leftist movements linked to the communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro in Cuba, the guerrilla has a Marxist-Leninist ideological line and is one of the actors in the Colombian civil war that has been fought since then. Like other guerrilla groups, the ELN engaged in drug and arms trafficking, smuggling and illegal mining.

Since the years 1990 ) attempts are made to reach a peace agreement with the guerrillas, but it never materializes. In communiqués, the ELN has been emphasizing its intention, with Petro in power, to resume negotiations.

The most recent attempt had begun in 2017 in Quito, still during the government of Juan Manuel Santos. Already in the mandate of Iván Duque and with the talks transferred to Havana, two years later the negotiations were interrupted, due to the attack by the ELN on the Cadet School in Bogotá, which he left 22 dead and 68 wounded. The attack led the Colombian government to ask Cuba to hand over the negotiators who are in Havana, a request that was not granted by the Castro dictatorship.

For José Gustavo Arocha, specialist in national security and master in public administration from Harvard University, “when we talk about a peace treaty, the first question to ask is what peace are we talking about.”

“Unfortunately, peace has served as a a catalytic element of all the concerns that a population has, of course, because it wants to live in a rule of law, with full justice, but it has turned into what is called criminal peace, with total impunity for criminal groups to remain in certain areas, as is the case in Venezuela, where they have established areas of peace where there is control of the territory by criminal groups”, highlighted the Venezuelan expert.

At the beginning of the year, when Duque was still president, he reiterated accusations that Nicolá’s dictatorship s Maduro protects dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and ELN guerrillas in the border region between the two countries, at a time when the two groups were once again facing each other over disputes over routes and territories.

Between 2006 and 2010, the FARC and the ELN were in conflict in the department in the Colombian state of Arauca and in the Venezuelan state of Apure, a clash that, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, killed at least 58 civilians and displaced more than 58 a thousand people from their homes in the Colombian department (almost % of the population of the region at the time).

In 2010, the two groups established a ceasefire, which was maintained with dissent after the FARC signed a peace agreement with the government of Colombia in 2016. However, the truce between the guerrillas was broken at the turn from 2021 to 2022.

For Arocha, the The result of the agreement with the FARC should be taken into account if the Colombian government resumes talks with the ELN: the expert argued that, “under the protection of the peace agreement”, the FARC has split into groups that continue with criminal activities while others have political representation in the Colombian Congress (with reserved seats), with the Comunes party.

“So, in the end , these groups enjoy the best of all worlds, because they have a political position and continue with drug trafficking crops, they have the ability to interfere in other countries. For me, the biggest beneficiary were the FARC and the biggest loser was the Colombian people, who are still largely under the control of these subversive groups”, pointed out Arocha.

“It is possible that this also happens with the ELN, because it is not a totally hierarchical group, it has many factions. With which faction will the Colombian government dialogue, with which will it make an agreement? What if one group accepts the agreement and another does not?”, he asked.

Legalization of drugs

With another group involved in activities criminal groups, the Gulf Clan, also expressing interest in signing a peace agreement with the Colombian State, the announcement of the intention to resume dialogue with the ELN comes at a time when the Historic Pact, Petro’s coalition, is trying to approve a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and is considering a similar matter regarding cocaine.

The Petro administration also proposed to the United States that traffickers who cooperate with the State and do not reoffend not be extradited to American territory, even if they are requested on drug trafficking charges, and that priority is given to manual eradication and voluntary replacement of coca crops in community actions to combat drugs.

José Gustavo Arocha argued that it is “populist” to defend the idea that legalization that of drugs can lead to an end to drug-related violence.

“It is false to say that drug-producing peasants will be the main beneficiaries. On the contrary: they are slaves of these criminal groups, exploited to maintain this type of cultivation. Because, in the end, if Colombia legalizes drugs, their production, sale and consumption will continue to be illegal in many countries. So, this would be legalized in one country to benefit a large production while others, through the cartels, would benefit from the distribution of the drug around the world”, he criticized.

“It is a campaign that seems to me populist, for the theme and for attracting attention, but without a doubt that not only the Gulf Clan, but also the ELN and the FARC would be the biggest beneficiaries if that happened”, added Arocha.

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