Colombia: Prospects for ELN peace process

19 Sep 2017 Arthur Dhont

The government and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) on 1 October are due to begin a United Nations observed ceasefire that will last until 12 January 2018. The ceasefire announcement, made to coincide with a visit by the Pope in early September, marks the most significant positive development in the peace negotiations since they began formally in February 2017. The ELN with approximately 1,700 fighters is concentrated in the north-eastern departments of Arauca, Cesar, and Norte de Santander, the north-central departments of Antioquia and Bolívar, and the western departments of Chocó, Nariño, and to a lesser extent Cauca and Valle de Cauca.

Peace negotiations

Formal peace negotiations between the government and the ELN began in Quito, Ecuador, after more than three years of back-channel negotiations. The imperative to begin formal negotiations became stronger for both parties following the signing of a peace agreement between the government and Colombia's then largest insurgency, Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), in November 2016.

Although some agreements in the negotiations have been reached on establishing an awareness campaign around peace, the financing of the negotiations, and an agreement on the composition of an international support group, progress has been slow as a result of the ELN's continued refusal to cease kidnapping. As a result, in June the government decided to suspend the implementation of the agreements already reached with the ELN.

Terrorist targets

The threat posed by the FARC to state security forces, hydrocarbon and electricity infrastructure, and civilians has fallen markedly since the group began an indefinite ceasefire in July 2015 and has fallen further following the demobilisation of a majority of its fighters, some 7,000 individuals, in the first half 2017. The Ministry of Defence registered 894 terrorist incidents in 2012, the year FARC talks began. This has fallen to 212 incidents in 2016 and 86 incidents in the first seven months of 2017. The ELN is now the primary author of attacks against these targets, with the exception of state security forces, which also face attack by organised crime groups (Bandas Criminales). The ELN is likely to have been responsible for all of the 40 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against oil pipelines registered between January and July 2017 as well as the three IED attacks against road infrastructure The pipeline attacks have almost exclusively affected Ecopetrol and Occidental's Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline passing through Arauca and Norte de Santander departments, although Ecopoetrol's Transandino pipeline has been targeted at least twice in Nariño department.


The ELN were responsible for 21 kidnappings in 2016, according to Colombia's anti-kidnapping task force (Grupos de Acción Unificada por la Libertad Personal: Gaula), representing around 10% of the 207 kidnap incidents registered that year. Gaula estimates that the ELN were responsible for 14 kidnappings between January and August 2017. The Ministry of Defence registered 114 kidnappings between January and July. High-profile cases include the kidnap of two Dutch journalists in El Tarra, Norte de Santander, in June; the killing of a Russian hostage during an escape attempt in Chocó in April; the attempted kidnap of seven teachers in Casanare in July; and the abduction of an Ecopetrol contractor in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander in March.

Outlook and implications

A significant reduction in ELN attacks against oil and gas infrastructure, transport infrastructure, and state security forces, as well as kidnappings, is likely during the duration of the ceasefire. However, the lack of central control and discipline within the ELN means ceasefire violations by the ELN are still likely. Violations are most likely in areas that affect the finances of the ELN. These include the enforcement of extortion demands, drug trafficking, and associated violence and kidnapping. On this last point, the head of the ELN's Ernesto Che Guevara front, based in Chocó, has said it would be financially difficult for it to suspend its kidnapping activities. Previous attempts by ELN head Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, aka "Gabino", to commit to an end to kidnapping were largely ignored by regional commanders.

Although unplanned engagements between the ELN and state security forces will probably happen they are unlikely to undermine a ceasefire. However the deliberate targeting of combatants by the opposing side or high-profile kidnappings would likely bring it to an end prematurely. Even if the ceasefire is a success, there will remain a considerable distance to cover before a final agreement is complete, and this is unlikely to be achieved before legislative and presidential elections in March and April 2018. As voters remain divided over their support for the peace agreement reached with the FARC (50.2% of voters rejected by referendum an initial peace agreement reached with the FARC), there is moderate likelihood that a government opposed to the FARC agreement and to reaching a similar settlement with the ELN will be elected. Candidates opposed to the FARC peace agreement (and by extension any settlement reached with the ELN) include Alejandro Ordóñez, Marta Lucía Ramírez, and Democratic Centre (Centro Democrático) candidates Iván Duque, María del Rosario Guerra, and Carlos Holmes Trujillo.

Arthur Dhont is an Americas country risk analyst at IHS Markit.
Posted 19 September 2017


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