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Colombian govt, guerrilla group resume talks to get peace process back on track

By JIMENA ESTEBAN in Buenos Aires, Argentina | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-23 09:49
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With peace talks between the government of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, guerrilla group at an impasse, negotiators have launched an extraordinary session of negotiations to get the peace process back on track.

Held in Caracas, Venezuela, from April 12 to 22, attendees include negotiators from both sides and representatives from guarantor nations Norway, Chile, and Venezuela.

"The extraordinary session is being conducted with great secrecy. No images have been leaked and access to the media has not been allowed," Carlos Arturo Velandia, a former ELN commander who is now a government-appointed peace manager, told China Daily.

Colombia has been embroiled in an armed conflict for more than six decades between leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries, and government forces. The violence has led to an estimated 450,000 deaths and thousands more disappearances.

In 2016, the government reached a historic peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla group after several years of negotiations. However, fighting has continued with the smaller ELN, which still has about 6,000 active members.

The current round of talks in Caracas was set to conclude in May but the ELN suspended negotiations after a regional government launched parallel peace talks with a faction of the group.

The ELN accused the government of failing to meet its commitments and said the parallel talks with its regional faction in the southern state of Narino undermined the national scope of the peace process.

The faction distanced itself from the ELN leadership 14 years ago, Velandia noted.

The latest negotiations between representatives of President Gustavo Petro's government and the ELN began in late 2022, as part of Petro's announced goal of achieving total peace.

Positive strides

Six rounds of talks have been held so far and positive strides have been made, most notably a six-month cease-fire implemented last August and extended for 180 days on Feb 6. The ELN agreed to suspend kidnappings for ransom.

Still, the ongoing process is fragile, as made clear when the current talks were suspended.

Carlos Camargo Assis, head of the Ombudsman's Office, noted that bilateral cease-fires have yielded poor results.

While both sides have expressed commitment to peace, roadblocks remain.

There are also concerns that negotiations empower rebels militarily and economically in the short term, risking a return to conflict.

"The armed groups have strongly expressed that they are not willing to submit to a transitional justice process or to accept disarmament," said Camargo.

"There is no willingness for peace, as their primary economic interest dedicated to illicit drugs, extortion, kidnapping and criminal mining has exponentially expanded due to the advantages provided by the bilateral cease-fire," he said.

Among the most serious issues, according to Camargo, is the rise of criminal mining, which displaces small-scale artisanal miners across the country.

Federico Garcia, a political analyst and lecturer at Pontifical Javeriana University and Externado University, said talking about the peace process "does not carry much weight these days" because the conflict mainly affects the rural communities, which only account for 25 percent of the population.

He said Colombia is 75 percent urban and they are largely unaware of the conflict. "They mostly perceive it as distant news," Garcia told China Daily.

Many in the country support the idea of peace but are skeptical of the peace process, said Garcia.

"On the other hand, the ELN also does not garner much sympathy, beyond its bases and areas of influence," he said.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

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