Marxist Group Once Led by Priest to Talk Peace With Colombia

  • ELN talks raise the chances of an end to political violence
  • Government has held talks with larger FARC group since 2012

Colombia’s second-biggest guerrilla group will start formal peace talks with the national government, raising the prospect of an end to Marxist insurgency after five-decades of violence in the Andean nation.

The National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the government will hold negotiations mainly in Ecuador, Colombia’s chief negotiator Frank Pearl said in Caracas at a joint event with ELN representatives. The agenda includes the insertion of the ELN in political life and reparations for victims, Pearl said.

The talks come as the government gets close to wrapping up similar negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which is more than three times the size of the ELN. An accord with the smaller group would avoid the risk of former fighters from the FARC from joining the ELN, Adam Isacson, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America, said in a phone interview. The government has held talks with the FARC since 2012.

“If both groups disappear, then finally, after 50 years, you have the disappearance of armed groups with the political goal of taking over the country,” Isacson said. “You no longer have an insurgent threat in Colombia; you have an organized crime threat still of course.”

Talks can’t start until the ELN has released all hostages, Colombian President
Juan Manuel Santos said in a televised address.

The ELN was founded at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, inspired by the communist revolution in Cuba. It was also influenced by so-called liberation theology, and some of its most influential members have been Catholic priests, including a Spaniard called Manuel Perez who led the group.

The movement, which the U.S. Department of State includes in its list of terrorist organizations, is strongest in the provinces in eastern Colombia that border Venezuela, and the south west province of Narino, which borders Ecuador. It also operates on parts of the Pacific coast, among other regions where it has a presence.

The group frequently blows up oil pipelines, and tries to extort money from multinational and local companies to raise money for its insurgency. Last year, Santos blamed the group for bomb attacks on two pension fund offices in Bogota, one of them three blocks from the nation’s stock exchange. In 2003, the group kidnapped a group of eight European and Israeli tourists in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The tourists were later released unharmed.

One of the biggest risks the country now faces is that territory controlled by the FARC and the ELN is taken over by organized crime groups seeking control of illegal mining and drug trafficking businesses, said Ariel Avila, an expert on the conflict who teaches at Externado University in Bogota.

The talks are being facilitated with the help of the governments of Norway, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela.

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