As President Gustavo Petro negotiates with the ELN, all sides must remember the mistakes and limitations of the 2016 FARC-EP process. Even if an agreement is technically sound, effective implementation comes from engagement with rival armed groups, local communities, and the broader public, argues Stefan Bakumenko (The George Washington University).
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Colombian government will soon start a third round of peace talks in Cuba after concluding a second one in Mexico City. Both sides have declared their desire for a broader peace, though they are first focused on reaching a ceasefire and ensuring humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas. Years of signalling from the ELN and a renewed leftist movement in Colombia have made this a particularly ripe moment for an ELN peace process.
But these are hardly the first peace talks in Colombia’s history, and that general enthusiasm for peace needs to be carefully translated into a sustainable and equitable compromise. Colombia’s last process offers lessons for today’s negotiators. In particular, the parties must be flexible in promoting a multilateral ceasefire, committed to protecting local peacebuilders and former guerrillas, and cognizant of public perceptions and grievances.
The FARC-EP deal
After six years of negotiations, the 2016 agreement that demobilised Colombia’s other major Marxist insurgency, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP), was sweeping and ambitious. Over 11,200 militants turned over their weapons and a fifty-year insurgency became a legal political party. But militarization, violence against civilians, and a stark rural-urban divide had engendered deep distrust and polarization, and opponents to the deal mobilised more effectively than those promoting it. The agreement was narrowly rejected in a plebiscite and suffered “death by a thousand cuts” by conservative President Iván Duque, who reverted to the Uribist preference for military solutions.
Facing violence and broken promises as they reintegrated, almost 2,000 fighters returned to arms in FARC-EP dissident groups. The ELN said it was “a bad deal” and that the government “made a fool” of them. The ELN refused to cease hostilities during its own peace talks, and Duque cut communications after an ELN car bomb killed 22 police cadets in Bogota in 2019.
A new Colombian moment?
But Colombia’s political atmosphere has changed. President Gustavo Petro is a former M-19 guerrilla member and Colombia’s first left-wing leader. Running as a pro-peace candidate, in stark contrast to the violent repression of Duque’s final years, Petro entered with a mandate to negotiate. Two-thirds of Colombians support restarting ELN talks, and Petro has a strong base of pro-peace Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.
Accordingly, Congress approved his paz total (‘total peace’) initiative last October, allowing the government to begin discussions with insurgents. A cornerstone of Petro’s agenda, the plan calls for a state policy of peace that addresses the root causes of conflict. Twenty-three armed actors announced their support for the plan, including ten FARC dissident groups who declared a unilateral ceasefire. Petro has said that Colombia is nearing a “historical moment of social forgiveness,” an opportunity that the ELN’s top negotiator has, with reservations, called “unprecedented.”
In the first round of talks in Caracas last winter, the ELN and Petro’s team reached agreements on the treatment and exchange of prisoners and the return of displaced Indigenous communities in the west. Although Petro and his lead negotiator are former M-19 guerrillas, his team includes two retired military officers, an active general, and a prominent conservative tied to big business. Perhaps learning from right-wing backlash to the FARC-EP deal, Petro is including establishment actors from the beginning, though this may make compromise more difficult. As seen in Caracas, he has also opted for partial trust-building agreements, rather than spending six years on a comprehensive document like FARC-EP’s.
The government is thus clearly taking a different approach to negotiations, but lessons from the FARC-EP process must still be applied to several pressing issues.
Flexibility in ‘total peace’
As part of his ‘total peace’, Gustavo Petro hopes to demobilise multiple armed groups at once. But the ELN has already dismissed the idea of a multilateral ceasefire, as it refuses to be part of the same process as “non-political” criminal groups. Concerningly, its decentralized troops have continued operations against both rival armed groups and the government, including a mortar attack that killed nine Colombian soldiers in March.
This stance tangibly affects a peace deal’s sustainability. A major failing in 2016 was that as FARC-EP demobilised, cartels, paramilitaries, and the ELN simply took over (and fought over) its many illicit enterprises. The ELN’s Northeast and Eastern Fronts (where the March attack took place) are significant players in illicit mining and narco-trafficking, strengthened by the security and displacement crisis along the Venezuelan border. They are also actively involved in a turf war with the paramilitary Gulf Clan, whose own ceasefire with Petro broke down in March. If it the ELN were convinced to give its businesses up, only multilateral demobilization would avoid creating another power vacuum that perpetuates Colombia’s violence.
Ultimately, if the ELN remains against this core tenet of paz total, the government must be willing to take separate tracks with “non-political” rival groups and reassure the ELN that their ideological concerns are being uniquely addressed. Thus, negotiators must be flexible but committed to reaching paz total.
Protection for peacebuilders
Conversely, the state has a responsibility to provide security in demobilized areas. A tragic lesson of 2016 is that the enablers of peace—activists, community leaders, and ex-guerrillas—are especially vulnerable to violence by those seeking to maintain the status quo. After the deal, although Colombia’s homicide rate fell to its lowest point in 40 years, murders of activists increased, mainly in former FARC-EP areas.
President Petro has acknowledged this threat to peace, but he must now invest in Colombia’s protective capacities. While regular forces largely failed to investigate or prevent the killings, Duque neglected programs specifically created to protect at-risk individuals. Alongside an existing national protection unit and early warning system, the 2016 deal added an investigative unit, elite police corps, and several national plans and commissions. But this is a cumbersome bureaucracy, and as Petro reinvests in protection, he must also streamline these programs so that they are mutually reinforcing.
Additionally, a focus on individual protection—which often requires prior knowledge of a threat—overlooks the structural risks that communities have repeatedly highlighted. As Petro recommits to Colombia’s Territorial Peace Councils and creates Binding Regional Dialogues on development, he should equip his protective services to participate in these consultative fora and act upon the underlying issues they discuss.
Commitment to communication
Similarly, the peace process must be integrated into a broader societal dialogue. A general desire for peace will likely fragment once specific compromises are made: a 2018 survey found that high approval rates for the FARC-EP process fell when respondents were asked about specific provisions. Learning from the failed 2016 plebiscite, any technical document must be supported by a vigorous public relations campaign.
The government has a responsibility to advocate for its specific programs among urban, middle-class voters who have been largely detached from Colombia’s violence. Only through information campaigns, town halls, and outreach with specific interest groups (i.e., businesses, victims) can the deal achieve wider acceptance. Indeed, the ELN has repeatedly highlighted its desire for direct democratic engagement in the peace process. If community consultation is paired with a national discourse, perhaps the ELN peace process can work towards bridging some of Colombia’s longstanding divisions.
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• Banner image: A soldier receives flowers from a civilian in Colombia / Andres Matheo (Shutterstock)