Last week the Colombian government announced it is suspending peace talks with the country’s second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said talks were suspended because of a ‘lack of coherence on the part of the ELN between its words and actions’ after attacks were carried out by the group in the north of the country.  
Peace negotiations with the ELN follow a peace agreement signed in 2016 with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for which President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Our Colombia Programme Director, Kristian Herbolzheimer shares his thoughts on the current situation for ELN and the government:

Both the Colombian Government and the ELN are facing several dilemmas. In both the peace negotiations with the FARC, and now with the ELN, President Santos has never been able to create the necessary ‘magic momentum’ in public support. Decades of violence and mistrust have left scars and a divided society. Despite developments, including the recent transition of FARC from an armed group to a political party, Colombian public opinion still remains largely skeptical towards the peace process. A recent poll suggests 55% of Colombians believe the implementation of the peace agreement is failing.

The Colombian Government is also struggling to live up to the commitments made in the peace agreement with the FARC. Much anticipated rural developments and political reform, two of the lynchpins of the peace agreement, have not been forthcoming. And in many rural areas now abandoned by the FARC, there has been an alarming increase in killings of social leaders. There has been a sharp increase, too, in the cultivation of coca and criminal activity associated with this.

Which way to turn?

The ELN seems lost, with limited options. They have long since lost hope of a military victory and continued violence will hardly increase their bargaining power. But at the same time, they have limited expectations for change with the peace talks. The continued killings of social leaders and the slow pace of agreement implementation make it difficult for the ELN leadership to convince the skeptics within their ranks. Idealists within the ELN are still willing to die for a just cause, and the cynics are enjoying the spoils of the criminal economy.

These limited options are making them take erratic steps in different directions. They’re advocating for a renewed ceasefire, but are reluctant to negotiate it. They’re calling for the de-escalation of violence whilst killing police officers. They’re appealing to public participation whilst antagnoising public opinion.

President Santos also has difficult decisions to make. He’s coming to the end of his Presidency. He is now unlikely to terminate peace talks with the ELN; and even a resumption of peace talks seems unlikely now. But a full military offensive would indicate a failure in his peacebuilding efforts and thus would leave a mixed legacy of his presidency.

Lessons from the past

The ELN’s latest attacks would appear to signal a dismal outlook for peace negotiations. However, in the past, acts such as these have marked the beginning of the end of violent conflict.

In 1998, just months after the Good Friday agreement, the Omagh bombing, carried out by a splinter group of the IRA, paradoxically contributed to cementing political negotiations for peace. The Madrid-Barajas bombing, carried out by ETA in 2006 became the last violent act of the Basque separatist group. Even their supporters criticised the act and pushed for an end to armed struggle.

Despite the frustratingly slow pace, it is important to remember that in over 50 years of conflict, peace negotiations with the ELN have never before gone beyond preliminary talks. It is unlikely that there will ever be a better opportunity for ELN and the Colombian Government to reach a political deal. The small window of opportunity is closing. Both sides – but predominantly the ELN – need to take bold steps to save the peace process.

This article was first published in Open Democracy