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How Colombia’s ELN guerrilla group is jeopardizing Gustavo Petro’s plan for ‘total peace’

The attack that left nine soldiers dead is endangering the entire foundation of the president’s strategy to end violence in the country

Gustavo Petro
Colombian President Gustavo Petro on March 29.PRESIDENCIA

Colombian President Gustavo Petro has spent half his life promoting peace. He adopted this discourse after being a young and short-sighted guerrilla who considered the idea of armed struggle as a way to reach power more of a dream than an achievable goal. A few months ago, he believed he could trigger this same transformation among the leaders of the National Liberation Army (ELN), a guerrilla group whose members have survived by hiding in the depths of the jungle for decades. However, negotiations with the ELN have become so difficult that they are threatening to derail Petro’s plan for “total peace” — an end to all violence in Colombia. An agreement to end the killings is now hanging in the air.

Petro wanted the negotiations to move forward quickly, which is why on New Year’s Eve he announced a ceasefire that did not really exist. This was neither due to confusion nor a misunderstanding. He believed — as sources close to him told EL PAÍS — that once the ceasefire was announced, the guerrillas would have no choice but to abide by it. It was a bold move, one that is in line with his personality, but also very risky. And it didn’t work. It took the ELN three days to contradict him, and make it clear that no one was going to impose agreements that were off the negotiation table. Since then, Petro has eagerly awaited the ceasefire while the ELN remains unmoved: the guerrillas are convinced that letting down their guard in the midst of the war raging in their territories would be suicide.

But the ELN’s attack on Wednesday, which left nine soldiers dead and eight wounded, has meant that discussion on a ceasefire can no longer be postponed. That was made clear by Otty Patiño, the government’s lead negotiator, who wants to prioritize the ceasefire and the call to end hostilities at the emergency meeting Petro called for Monday. The ELN, however, does not agree, and its leaders are in no hurry to make a deal. ELN Commander Pablo Beltrán claims that a peace agreement would freeze them like a statue and put the group in danger. Beltrán is convinced that the Colombian armed forces are in cahoots with other armed groups fighting in the disputed territory: the Clan del Golfo (The Gulf Clan) and other armies derived from paramilitaries.

It’s a key issue because without a peace agreement with the ELN, there is no total peace; everything falls apart. An agreement with the ELN — which has sat down to peace talk with six other presidents to no avail — is the foundation upon which everything else rests. For the guerrilla group, the conditions for negotiations couldn’t be better. Unlike before, they are in talks with a left-wing government that is made up of many former guerrillas — including the president himself, who used to belong to the M-19 organization. Never before has there been such an opportunity. Sitting at the negotiating table are figures such as Patiño, a former M-19 guerrilla, and María José Pizarro, the daughter of guerrilla leader Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, who was assassinated during the 1990 presidential race. These are people who have adopted a leftist ideology via similar paths.

The ELN attack on Wednesday is not the first crisis to threaten negotiations. The first crisis happened when Petro made up that a ceasefire had been struck. The second was sparked over tweets in which the president compared the guerrillas with the drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. And a third, smaller crisis took place in response to an interview Pablo Beltrán gave to EL PAÍS, where he referred to the government negotiators in very harsh terms. That said, the interview begun on a positive note, with Beltrán responding optimistically to the question of whether a peace deal was possible after past failures. “The difference is that we have a progressive government that has included achieving peace in its program. It agrees with us that the country urgently needs peace and that it is the only thing that makes us possible as a nation. We are partners in this matter,” he said.

This factor, however, has not yet played a decisive role in the negotiations; it has been unable to bolster the talks. The stakes are high. Petro is anxious to reach a ceasefire, but the ELN keeps pushing it back. Until a ceasefire is struck, there will be more attacks like the one on the military base to which the army will no doubt respond to. In other words, there will be more deaths.

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