After the Mainz Meeting, the Preparatory Committee of the National Convention (formed in that meeting from a group of its members and including Francisco Galan and Felipe Torres) defined the methodological and thematic aspects of the National Convention. In agreement with a member of Central Command, they later defined the following agenda for the National Convention process:
a) International Humanitarian Law, human rights, impunity, justice, insurgency and conflict;
b) natural resources and energy policy;
c) democracy, the state, armed forces and corruption;
d) economy and social problems;
e) culture and identity; nation-region; territorial reorganisation; the agrarian problem and drug trafficking.
The National Convention process hit a dead-end when, during exploratory talks in Caracas in early 1999, the Pastrana government and ELN couldn’t agree on a venue, or the guarantees to take it forward. After this impasse the ELN initiated a series of kidnappings and mass retentions intended to demonstrate its military capacity and respond to the idea that they could be militarily defeated or weakened. In particular, the hijacking of an airliner on 12 April 1999 and kidnapping of all its passengers brought widespread national and international attention and condemnation.
In this political climate, the ELN criticised the government’s management of the peace process and condemned US interference in the conflict. It tried to justify its ‘war tax’ campaigns by categorically rejecting drug trafficking and proposed a National Accord document on the freeing of the first group of kidnapped aeroplane passengers. This proposal was subsequently overshadowed by the mass kidnapping of parishioners during mass at a church in Cali.
In the Pastrana period the ELN lost political support. There was a generalised public perception that it was being weakened militarily, even defeated. The Sur de Bolívar region was a symbolic case in which sectors of society, undoubtedly pressurised by paramilitaries, mobilised against the establishment of a ‘meeting zone’ for ELN-government talks. This was symptomatic of negative public attitudes following the experience of the FARC demilitarised zone. Incidents such as the defection of an important ELN unit, the Yarigüies Revolutionary Urban Front (FURY) to the paramilitaries in Barrancabermeja, and the military defeat inflicted on the José María Becerra Front near Cali increased perceptions of military weakness. However, it is important to observe that the ELN’s growth is often compared to the growth of the FARC and from that conclusions are drawn about its real or supposed weakness.