Colombia moves towards resuming peace talks with ELN

Colombia hopes to restart peace talks with the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group in Cuba, the country’s Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva said Thursday in the Cuban capital, Havana. The trip came just days after the inauguration of Colombia’s new president Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, who promised to establish “total peace” in Colombia.

“We hope to resume talks with the National Liberation Army, ELN, in this land of peace in order to begin the path proposed by President Petro Urrego to achieve total peace,” the Colombian Foreign Minister said. Alvaro Leyva, in a television statement. Representatives of the ELN, founded in 1964 by radical Catholic priests, have remained in Cuba since previous talks, started under the government of Juan Manuel Santos, were called off in 2019.

Leyva traveled to Cuba accompanied by the new Colombian High Commissioner for Peace, Danilo Rueda, Senator Ivan Cepeda, a member of Petro’s coalition and chairman of the House Peace Committee, and Carlos Ruiz Massieu, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Colombia, as well as a representative of the Norwegian Government. “Regarding the negotiations with the ELN, we see an opportunity to resume dialogue and move towards peace in the way that the parties decide,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said.

A second statement will be made on Friday, Leyva added. In addition to exploring the possibility of peace talks, Rueda will be tasked with examining the possibility of establishing bilateral ceasefires, among other measures, Petro said earlier.

The ELN, which is seen as radical and not centrally controlled, said after Petro’s election victory that it was willing to talk to the new administration. Petro said talks could pick up where the Santos administration left off and he would recognize the agreed protocols with the help of guarantors Cuba, Chile, Venezuela, Norway and Brazil.

Talks between the ELN and the Santos government began in Ecuador, later moving to Cuba, but were called off by Santos’ successor, Ivan Duque, because the ELN refused to stop hostilities and killed 22 police cadets in a bomb attack in Bogota. Previous attempts to negotiate with the ELN, which has some 2,400 fighters and is accused of funding itself through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnappings, have failed in part because of dissent in its ranks.

Much of the ELN’s leadership in Cuba is older than most of its members, and it is unclear what influence they wield over units operating deep in the Colombian countryside. Petro also promised to fully implement a 2016 peace deal with the now demobilized rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as to seek to disarm criminal gangs in exchange for reduced sentences and information on the drug traffic.

The peace accord ended the FARC’s role in the conflict, but fighting continues across much of Colombia between ELN and FARC fighters who reject the accord, criminal gangs and the army. Colombia’s conflict, which has lasted nearly six decades, killed 450,000 people between 1985 and 2018.

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