‘Hopeful but sceptical’: Colombia prepares for ceasefire with ELN rebels

Ceasefire coming into force this week marks victory for President Gustavo Petro, but ‘total peace’ push faces hurdles.

Soldiers hold candles as Colombian flag flies in background
Soldiers in Bogota during a candlelight vigil for nine Colombian soldiers who were killed in an attack by the National Liberation Army (ELN), March 31, 2023 [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Bogota, Colombia – Gustavo Petro took office almost exactly one year ago on a promise to bring “total peace” to Colombia by negotiating directly with the armed groups that have sowed violence across the country for decades.

The Colombian president has faced a series of serious setbacks along the way: A number of tenuous peace deals with armed groups have fallen apart, and 2023 has seen more than 56 massacres so far as attacks continue to rise in the countryside.

But on Thursday, after nearly 10 months of negotiations with the South American nation’s largest remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the government will take a huge step forward as a bilateral ceasefire is set to come into effect.

If the ceasefire holds, it will be the first major victory for Petro’s peace plans.

“It is a victory in the peace process,” said Francisco Daza, coordinator of the peace, post-conflict and post-war research programme at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (PARES), a non-profit that monitors the implementation of peace processes in Colombia.

“It is a rare win amidst a series of setbacks,” Daza told Al Jazeera, including “the murders of social leaders, massacres and other factors that have not favoured government policy”.

The ceasefire

The ceasefire will last 180 days and may be extended by a newly created, multilateral verification mechanism made up of Colombian security forces, ELN members, religious group representatives, and officials from the United Nations and Colombia’s government.

In public statements earlier this week, the ELN announced that it would stop “offensive operations” in the regions under its control, such as Arauca, Choco, Antioquia and parts of Norte de Santander, when the ceasefire comes into effect.

A delegation of ELN commanders and negotiators are expected to attend a ceremony with Petro in Bogota on Thursday – the first time ELN leaders, the majority of whom have been in exile in Cuba due to Colombian arrest warrants, have been invited to a public event since the group’s founding.

But for some observers, the success of the ceasefire is far from guaranteed.

Previous talks between the government and the rebel group have collapsed a total of seven times since the ELN was founded in 1964, most recently in 2019 when the group bombed a police academy in Bogota in an attack that killed 21 people.

In January, the ELN denied being part of a ceasefire with a handful of armed groups that Petro announced, forcing his government to backtrack on the New Year’s Eve announcement.

“The history and structure of the ELN leaves doubts about its willingness to comply with the ceasefire,” said Daza at PARES.

He told Al Jazeera that if more extreme elements within the ELN violate the deal, it could collapse entirely. The ELN is made up of eight semi-autonomous “fronts”, or regional battalions, and counts an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 fighters. Though each front answers to a so-called “Central Command” leadership structure, they also have operational independence.

On Monday, the ELN released a public statement that said all of its battalions will abide by the ceasefire deal that its central command agreed to, though they also said “defensive operations” against other armed groups will continue.

“It functions as a federation,” Daza said of the group. “The ‘Western Front’, for example, does not function the same as the ‘Eastern Front’, and this may complicate compliance with the ceasefire protocols.

“It is a challenge for the entire organisation to comply in a unified manner,” he said.

Tempered hopes

For residents of regions where the rebels maintain a presence, the stakes of the historic deal could not be higher.

“We live like kidnap victims,” said Marta, president of a community board in the Bajo San Juan area of Colombia’s western Choco department, referring to a strike that ELN fighters forcibly imposed on the region for two weeks, beginning on July 4. She asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisals from armed groups.

Though hopes run high in areas plagued by conflict, another Choco resident, Marlon Bebedo, who works at the Human Rights Network of the Pacific, also said there are doubts.

Bebedo said though fighting between armed groups has diminished since negotiations began, residents have heard unfulfilled promises of peace from governments in Bogota before – and the Petro administration has been no exception, he told Al Jazeera.

In January, the Petro government engaged in a series of “humanitarian caravans” in conjunction with local leaders to learn about the humanitarian needs of communities affected by conflict.

But Bebedo said, “There has been a lack of commitment on the part of the government to comply with the humanitarian agreements that were promised in Choco” – namely shipments of food, basic medicines and medical attention, as well as more government resources for victims of violence and displacement.

“Unfortunately, promises were made to the community in conjunction with local leaders,” said Bebedo. “And not fulfilling those promises has exacerbated doubt and also damaged the credibility of those leaders.”

‘Serious challenges’

Meanwhile, the government’s ceasefire with the ELN only covers fighting between the rebel group and the Colombian security forces, not confrontations between the ELN and other criminal armed groups.

In Choco, the ELN is actively at war with the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces right-wing paramilitary group (AGC, according to its Spanish-language acronym), which the government often refers to as the “Gulf Clan”.

Carlos Velandia, a former ELN commander who now acts as a consultant for the Petro administration as part of the peace process, called the ceasefire “a historic achievement” but also acknowledged that “implementation will face serious challenges”.

Velandia said fighting between the AGC and ELN has the potential to undermine the ceasefire should it result in human rights violations against citizens who live in affected areas.

“I have particular concerns about this in Choco and in Arauca,” he said, referring to another department in Colombia’s northeast, on the border with Venezuela.

“AGC is not in negotiations with the government and may see this as an opportunity to become more aggressive against the ELN in an attempt to secure more territory,” said Velandia, adding that similar conflict could also break out between ELN rebels and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents in Arauca.

FARC dissidents rejected the country’s 2016 peace accord with the group and have refused to lay down their weapons.

Against that backdrop, Daza said the ceasefire was a positive first step, but “only a partial solution to ongoing conflict”.

Community involvement key

The experts whom Al Jazeera spoke to all pointed to a need to include the communities affected by conflict in the peacebuilding process.

The Petro administration has called civilian participation critical to achieving real peace, and both the ELN and the government have promised to increase their efforts on that front in the coming weeks once the ceasefire is in place.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk also said after a fact-finding mission to Colombia in January that “negotiations need to include a specific focus on the victims and affected communities, with their participation guaranteed”.

“It will be crucial for women and indigenous communities to be able to participate meaningfully in peace talks,” Turk said.

According to Velandia, the former ELN commander-turned-government adviser, “the government has an opportunity to make good” on its promises. “The first 30 days will be critical … to see if all the rebel ‘fronts’ can abide by the agreement,” he said.

ELN commander Nicolas Rodriguez, known as Gabino, has also said that “the most difficult part of the process will be unifying so many different people.”

For now, Colombia’s government has expressed hope that the ELN ceasefire will be extended and that negotiations towards a permanent peace treaty with the group will be successful. Bogota, along with United Nations representatives and Catholic churches in affected areas, also will be involved in the monitoring and enforcement of the ceasefire.

But back in Choco, Bebedo said that without similar agreements with other armed groups, residents remain “hopeful but sceptical”.

“What we want, from affected territories, is that all armed groups enter into an agreement to advance towards true peace,” he told Al Jazeera. “That is what we want them to show the Colombian people.”

Source: Al Jazeera