ELN peace talks: what you need to know

The government of President Gustavo Petro and the country’s largest guerrilla insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), formally began peace negotiations on Monday 21 November 2022. We will be posting regular updates here. You can return to this page for latest news and developments as the talks progress.

Tuesday 23 January

The sixth round of talks is scheduled to begin today in Havana, Cuba, where negotiators will focus on a ceasefire extention, an end to hostage-taking and the enhancing the participation of civil society groups. The ELN negotiating team tweeted that ‘the sixth cycle started with the expectation of advancing and reaching the transformations that Colombia needs. To concrete the changes that the country demands, unique possibility for the construction of peace.’

Agreeing to extend the current ceasefire is a priority, with the 180-day bilateral truce enacted in August due to expire on 29 January. There is optimism that this will be achieved owing to the stated objectives of either side, as well as the recent announcement of a ceasefire extension with the Estado Mayor Central group in talks that form one of the other central components of the government’s Total Peace policy.

The latest talks could secure the release of people held in captivity by the ELN, currently believed to be around 26 individuals, after the group recently announced an end to hostage-taking ‘for economic gains’. A tentative date of 30 January has previously been mooted for the release although the government has clarified that is unconfirmed.

The participation of civil society in the peace process is one of the central points of negotiation. Both sides have sought to integrate civil society groups into the talks, while public assemblies have been held across Colombia and internationally in which citizens have submitted proposals and ideas.

Talks will also focus on the urgent need to reduce the violence that is still impacting many communities. The two sides will identify eight critical conflict zones where humanitarian strategies can be rolled out to alleviate the impact on civilians.

Thursday 3 August

The six-month ceasefire agreed between the ELN and the Petro government formally begins today. It also sees the formal installation of the National Committee for Participation, an organ created to ensure the active involvement of civil society in the peace process, reflecting one of the core points on the negotiating agenda. The Committee is formed of 80 representatives of 30 organisations with backgrounds in diverse social and economic sectors.

According to the lead ELN negotiator, Pablo Beltrán, ‘it pleases us that there a process of participation can develop for peace in Colombia. It’s important that society will have a say, this isn’t a negotiation between [only] the ELN and the government.’

The UN Security Council voted unanimously to approve the mandate for the UN Verification Mission to oversee the ceasefire and both sides’ compliance. The Mission was initially established in 2017 to monitor implementation of the 2016 peace agreement involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Following the FARC’s reformation as a political party, the ELN became Colombia’s largest active guerrilla movement.

Wednesday 14 June

Last Friday, the third round of peace negotiations between the Petro government and the ELN concluded in Havana, Cuba, with the announcement of a ceasefire that will run for six months from 3 August, with the option to extend it as talks progress. This is an important step towards a permanent settlement as it represents the longest ceasefire reached between the ELN and any government in Colombia.

A ceasefire had been a priority for this round of talks, with human rights organisations and the pro-peace movement, including politicians in the governing Historic Pact coalition, welcoming the development.

Next week negotiators will travel to Cuba to establish protocols for implementing the ceasefire, while monitoring and verification body will be formed of the UN, representatives of the government and ELN, the Episcopal Conference church group and the High Commissioner for Peace. There will also be communications between the ELN and security forces to prevent potential hostile actions.

In addition to the ceasefire, the negotiating teams reached an agreement on the participation of civil society in the peace process. In July, a National Participation Committee will be launched to develop strategies and present proposals for citizens’ involvement. Its 80 members represent trade unions, community organisations, conflict victims and other groups, alongside four government delegates and another four from the ELN. The fourth round of dialogues then begins in Venezuela in August.

President Gustavo Petro travelled to Cuba to meet with the ELN. He and ELN leader Antonio García shook hands, with Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel looking on, in front of the press. ‘Here ends a period of armed insurgency in Latin America,’ tweeted Petro. ‘The world of arms and of killing each other must end.’

Monday 13 March

On 10 March, the second round of peace negotiations between the government and the ELN closed in Mexico following a month of talks. In a special event, attended by Vice-President Francia Márquez, the two sides publicised the negotiating agenda that will underpin the discussions ahead.

The so-called ‘Mexico Agreement’ picks up the agenda previously established in 2012 during talks between the then-government of Juan Manuel Santos and the ELN. As with the 2016 peace deal with the FARC, the agenda is formed of six main points, which in certain areas differ to an extent from that earlier agreement. This is most notable in the inclusion of discussions on Colombia’s economic model, a topic that was excluded from negotiations with the FARC.

Here is a summary of the six points of negotiation:

1. The participation of society in the construction of peace

This seeks to ensure an effective means for civil society actors to determine the most important problems facing Colombia and how these can be overcome. The agenda states that diverse political and social movements, social organisations, communities and trade unions will take part at local, regional and national levels. It will address civil society’s participation in the implementation of any agreement reached, with particular emphasis on social groups historically excluded from national politics, such as children and young people, senior citizens, indigenous and African-Colombian communities, peasant communities, workers, the incarcerated, the Colombian diaspora, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and others.

2. Democracy for Peace

Through a ‘national agreement’ involving the participation of diverse actors, this point aims to identify the principal causes of the ‘the political, social, environmental and armed conflict’ in order to determine the means to resolve them. It will assess what steps can be taken to tackle problems in rural and urban environments, while examining ways in which Colombia’s economic and political models have impeded national unity and reconciliation. In this way, the agenda goes beyond the 2012-2016 peace negotiations involving the FARC, in which the Santos government rejected any discussion on the economic model. Point two also addresses citizens’ right to peaceful protest, which has been severely violated under previous administrations, and the legal situation of people incarcerated over public protest.

3. Transformations for Peace

This aims to generate a comprehensive plan of transformation through specific projects at national and regional levels. By strengthening democracy and building equality and social justice, the process of change can negate the use of arms to resolve political disputes, as has historically often been the case in Colombia. These transformations will arise through the involvement of civil society, as laid out in Points One and Two of the agenda, to tackle poverty, social exclusion, corruption and environmental degradation. It will also advance rural and urban development to generate sustainable economic opportunities for communities, and address historic agrarian conflict by protecting nature and the rights of rural populations. Education will be fundamental to promoting a culture of peace.

4. Victims

The rights of victims will be recognised through the acceptance of responsibility to establish truth, achieving justice, providing individual and collective reparations, ensuring non-repetition and the preservation of memory and designating the environment as a victim. These measures will be taken under the guidance of international law.

5. End of armed conflict

This aims to bring conflict to a close and eliminate violence from the political sphere. The legal status of ELN combatants, including those already convicted and/or incarcerated, is a core area, alongside guarantees over their security and political participation. It also focuses on the elimination of paramilitarism, the development of humanitarian actions, ending belligerent activities through a bilateral ceasefire, the process of what to do with the ELN’s weapons and how violence will be permanently eradicated

6. General plan of execution of the agreements between the national government and the National Liberation Army-ELN

This addresses the process of implementation so that agreements can be put into material practice. Each aspect of the agenda will be assessed to ensure its specific implementation, alongside mechanisms of accompaniment and verification involving the government, the ELN, civil society and the international community. It will consider ‘legal, political, economic, humanitarian, environmental and diplomatic dimensions’ and establish mechanisms for short-, medium- and long-term implementation.

In addition to the six core points, the agenda formalises the role of different actors in the negotiations: the Table of Dialogues (government and ELN), the guarantor countries (Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Norway, Mexico and Venezuela), the permanent accompaniers (the Episcopal Conference in Colombia and the Special Representative of the United Nations) and the accompanying countries (Germany, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland).

The full agenda can be found in Spanish here.

Thursday 16 February

The second round of peace negotiations between ELN and government negotiators got underway in Mexico City on Monday 13 February. A main priority on the government side is to achieve a ceasefire, although the terms of this would need to be clearly defined: for example, would a potential ceasefire be of a bilateral nature between the government and the guerrillas, or would it be broader in scope to suspend all forms of ELN armed activity, including confrontation with other armed groups? The ELN hopes to ensure the release of and special treatment for a number of incarcerated guerrillas who it says are suffering from serious illness and being held in inadequate conditions. Both sides have again expressed optimism that the talks will advance.

The ELN has also asked the government to locate the remains of the renowned Catholic priest Camilo Torres, who in the 1960s embraced liberation theology and took up arms with the ELN. He was killed aged 37 in combat with the army in 1966. His body has never been returned after soldiers hid it. During peace talks in 2016, Colombia’s then-president Juan Manuel Santos said his administration would help locate Torres’ remains.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Government negotiators and their ELN counterparts are meeting in Caracas this week hoping to resolving recent miscommunications relating to the announcement of a bilateral ceasefire that the ELN subsequently said it had not agreed to. The special meeting will seek to overcome the episode and to prevent further misunderstandings occurring, as well as to define the agenda for the next phase of talks. There are also cautious hopes that the terms for a ceasefire will be addressed.

Important points of negotiation for forthcoming talks include core areas of focus that could form the basis of a final agreement: participation of society in the construction of peace, democracy for peace, transformations for peace, victims, end of conflict and implementation. Further details of these points should become clearer as the talks advance. The permanent participation of women, young people, black and indigenous representatives and environmental defenders is another element of discussion that both sides hope to guarantee.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday 18 January, a humanitarian caravan will embark from the city of Cali, Valle del Cauca, to the department of Chocó, one of the regions of the country most historically affected by conflict and state abandonment, where the ELN and other armed groups have established a strong foothold there. The large majority of Chocó’s population is of African-Colombian or indigenous heritage and communities there face deteriorating social conditions brought on by state neglect and violent conflict involving security forces and armed groups. Last year saw a major rise in cases of forced displacement and forced confinement, creating a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of people were unable to access food, clean water, housing or basic medicinal supplies. The first phase of dialogues established the urgent need to address the crisis and to attend to affected communities in Chocó and in coastal zones of Valle del Cauca.

The four-day caravan will visit communities in Bajo Calima in Chocó and Medio San Juan in Valle del Cauca to meet with communities and ascertain the priorities for humanitarian relief. Among its integrants are the well-known African-Colombian activist Carlos Rosero, journalist Mabel Lara, indigenous youth activist Dayana Domicó, ELN representatives Juan Carlos Cuéllar and Jairo Arrigui, indigenous senator Feliciano Valencia and members of social organisations including the Black Communities of Buenaventura and the Cauca-based indigenous organisations ACIN and CRIC. Also travelling are representatives of the UN Mission, the Catholic Church and the Organization of American States.

Wednesday 11 January 2023

As Colombia welcomed in the new year, there was a complication as the government and ELN released different viewpoints on whether a ceasefire had been agreed. While the government announced it had reached a six-month truce with five of Colombia’s largest armed groups, including the ELN, this was refuted by the guerrilla organisation. The absence of a ceasefire means that hostilities formally continue despite the holding of dialogues. However, both sides expressed optimism that talks would progress constructively.

With the first round of talks in Caracas, Venezuela, having ended, the next round could be held in Mexico. The exact date and venue of the next round of talks is yet to be confirmed, with a possibility that they will return to Caracas. The initial cycle resulted in agreements on humanitarian relief in conflict zones and on addressing concerns around incarcerated ELN members.

Recent events demonstrate that challenges, including disagreements, will likely arise during negotiations. Yet with both sides acknowledging that peace is beneficial for all Colombians, it is hoped that a successful resolution will eventually be reached.

In a statement to the United Nations Security Council on 11 January, the head of the UN Mission in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu discussed the UN Mission’s role in formally accompanying the ELN peace talks. He said:

‘The parties’ decision to reinitiate discussions is widely supported in Colombian society, and is valued especially by communities affected by the conflict in several regions. At the request of the two parties, the Secretary-General has agreed to permanently accompany their dialogue process though my presence at the talks. I have been carrying out that role as part of a supporting group that includes the guarantor and accompanying countries, and the Catholic Church. The parties have also decided to share with the Security Council documents agreed at the negotiating table.’

Tuesday 20 December 2022

The ELN has declared a unilateral ceasefire to run from 24 December until 2 January which it says aims ‘to create an environment of peace.’ The government welcomed the announcement, with Interior Minister Alfonso Prada saying that ‘the ELN has listened to the community that supports total peace and has demanded a de-escalation.’ According to Senator María José Pizarro, who sits on the government negotiating team, ‘the humanitarian actions deepen and open the path to the construction of total peace.’ Another senator on the government negotiating team, Iván Cepeda, called it ‘a show of good will to advance the de-escalation of the armed conflict and in the creation of a favourable climate and of trust.’

Friday 16 December 2022

The first round of negotiations concluded on 12 December with mutual recognition of the humanitarian emergency in the regions of Bajo Calima (Valle del Cauca) and Medio San Juan (Chocó). Majority African-Colombian and indigenous communities in these areas have been badly impacted by fighting and other activity involving the ELN, other armed groups and state forces. The two sides agreed to launch a coordinated response next month. According to government negotiator Otty Patiño, this will ‘reverse in concrete terms the humanitarian tragedy.’ His counterpart, ELN lead negotiator Pablo Beltrán, indicated that the response will serve as a prototype which could be implemented elsewhere.

While there were minimal details about what the humanitarian response would entail, potential actions include creating humanitarian corridors for safe movement and transportation, removal of landmines, ceasefires and guaranteed access to health facilities and educational institutions. Victims of forced displacement could also return to their homes.

The two sides also acknowledged the difficult situation in the prison system for ELN members, who a joint statement named as ‘political prisoners’ in need of emergency attention. The condition of incarcerated guerrillas has been a longstanding priority for ELN negotiators. Beltrán said since August the ELN had shown its willingness to reach an agreement on the issue by releasing 20 prisoners.

However, the dialogues were complicated by the announcement that one western ELN front, under the name ‘Omar Gómez,’ would initiate an armed strike from 15 December in the zones of San Juan, Sipí, Cajón and Calima. The day after the first round’s agreements were made public, residents received text messages stating that the operation was in response to heightened activity by the Gulf Clan paramilitary group. Analysts have said that one of the main challenges facing dialogues is the autonomous nature of a number of ELN fronts operating in different parts of the country. High Peace Commissioner Danilo Rueda warned that the strike would cast public doubt on the ELN’s stated pursuit of peace, while emphasising that peace talks are taking place in conditions of conflict on both sides. He added that negotiations would continue as planned.

Tuesday 29 November 2022

One week into negotiations and the two sides have agreed to invite Chile, Brazil and Mexico to participate as guarantor countries alongside already-confirmed guarantors, Cuba, Venezuela and Norway. Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Spain have been invited to accompany the dialogues. The United Nations and Colombia’s Catholic Church are also formally involved. There has also been an approach to the United States over sending a special envoy.

The government has increased women’s participation in the dialogues by adding four women to its negotiating team, which is now evenly split along gender lines. The new additions are Nigeria Rentería, an indigenous and minority rights lawyer who previously participated in peace talks and is a former ASI party candidate for the governorship of Chocó; political analyst and journalist Mabel Lara, whose work has been awarded by the United Nations and the Swedish government, among others; presbyterian pastor Adelaida Jiménez, who is a member of the World Council of Churches; and journalist and author María Jimena Duzan, who has written multiple books on Colombia’s conflict and is an established presence in Colombian and international media.

Tuesday 22 November 2022

Peace negotiations formally began yesterday between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrilla movement in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.

Recently elected president Gustavo Petro pledged to pursue fresh talks with the ELN after the previous government of Iván Duque ended the talks which had taken place in 2017-18 under the Juan Manuel Santos government. Duque refused to reopen dialogue despite requests from the United Nations, opposition parties, civil society groups and ELN leaders themselves.

As meetings got underway, the head of the UN Mission in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, said ‘I celebrate the negotiations between the government and the ELN in Caracas,’ encouraging ‘Colombian society to take advantage of this historic opportunity and deepen peace in Colombia.’

The ELN was formed in 1964 and launched revolutionary armed struggle against the state. While other guerrilla groups reached settlements with the Colombian state, including the M19, of which Gustavo Petro was a member, in 1990 and the FARC in 2016, the ELN has continued operating militarily since its foundation. It is estimated today to have between 2,000-3,000 members and is active in various regions, particularly in the eastern departments such as Arauca and Norte de Santander, as well as the Pacific region of Chocó.

As talks began in Caracas, the two negotiating teams issued a joint declaration which announced the decision to ‘resume with full political and ethical will the process of political dialogue between the national government and the ELN, as demanded by people in rural and urban territories who suffer from violence and exclusion, and other sectors of society.’ The declaration pledged to ‘build peace from a democracy with justice and with tangible, urgent and necessary changes, [while] involving the greatest possible and effective participation of society, prioritising historically marginalised sectors.’ In a show of unity, the two sides came together for a photograph that implied a shared objective of reaching a negotiated agreement.

As well as hosting talks, Venezuela is a guarantor country to the talks, alongside Cuba and Norway. The latter two are also guarantors to the peace process with the FARC, while Venezuela accompanied the 2012-16 negotiations which resulted in that historic agreement. Their role is to provide international involvement in the talks, to mediate in disputes and to advise where necessary. Representatives of the UN, the Catholic Church and the armed forces will be present in an observational capacity.

The government negotiating team is headed by Otty Patiño, once a member of the M19. It also includes the High Commissioner for Peace, Danilo Rueda, a long-time human rights defender who has worked closely with Justice for Colombia for several years. Senators Iván Cepeda and María José Pizarro of the governing Historic Pact coalition are also on the negotiating team. Cepeda and Pizarro have both visited Britain and Ireland with JFC: in Pizarro’s case, this was just two months ago when she attended the Labour Party annual conference and met with politicians and trade unionists in Britain and Ireland.

The government negotiating team has been assembled from diverse fields. Among its other members are environmental expert Rodrigo Botero, whose portfolio includes managing some of Colombia’s most biodiverse natural parks; Embera-Katío indigenous anthropologist Dayana Domico, who was previously a youth leader at the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC); retired military officials Álvaro Matallana and Orlando Romero; Romsemary Quintero, the head of the Colombian Association of Small and Medium Businesses (ACOPI); and the president of the FEDEGAN ranchers’ association, José Féliz Lafaurie, whose inclusion has surprised some observers over FEDEGAN’s links to the political right. The broad makeup of the negotiating team reflects the intention to ensure a wide spectrum of Colombia’s social-political sphere is included in the dialogues. As the head of the ELN delegation, Pablo Beltrán, noted, ‘it is the most diverse government delegation.’

‘The first meeting that we have held today with the ELN delegation gives us the certainty and deep conviction that we are going to achieve the purpose that unites us: to be sons and daughters of the same homeland with changes and transformations,’ said Rueda. ‘Colombians cannot see each other as enemies. Our task is reconciliation, to build a nation in peace and equity. That’s why we have come to the table,’ said Beltrán.

The Venezuelan government issued a statement in which it ‘greeted with renewed hopes’ the talks that it is hosting, with Cuba and Norway both potential venues for further rounds of meetings. According to the statement, Venezuela ‘will not spare any effort in the accompaniment in this transcendental moment of the process of reconciliation in our beloved Colombia, with the clear conscience that this is the path for Latin America and the Caribbean to consolidate itself as a zone of peace and prosperity.’