Colombia resumes talks with powerful ELN guerrilla group

The Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the last recognized rebel group in the country, have resumed official activities peace negotiations in Venezuela on Monday for the first time since their suspension in 2019.

Negotiations are the president’s push Gustav Petrowho in August became Colombia’s first-ever leftist leader and promised a less militant approach to ending violence by armed groups, including leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers.

At their first meeting, the two sides agreed to “restart the dialogue process with full political and ethical will,” the joint statement said.

They added that the talks are aimed at “building peace” and making “sensible, urgent and necessary” changes, stressing the need for “constant compromises.”

The first round of negotiations will last 20 days.

Colombia suffered for more than half a century armed conflict between the state and various groups of left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and drug traffickers.

The ELN began as a left-wing ideological movement in 1964 before turning to crime, focusing on kidnappings, extortion, assaults and drug trafficking in Colombia and neighboring Venezuela.

It has about 2,500 members, about 700 more than when the talks last broke down. The group operates mainly in the Pacific region and along the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border with Venezuela.

Dialogue with the group began in 2016 under the ex-president Juan Manuel Santoswho signed a peace agreement with the larger rebel group the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which subsequently gave up its arms and formed a political party.

The FARC has recruited thousands of peasant farmers, many of them minors. Photo: AFP

But talks with the ELN were canceled in 2019 by the former conservative president Ivan Duke after a car bomb attack on a police academy in Bogota that killed 22 people.

Petro — himself a former guerrilla — turned to the ELN shortly after coming to power as part of his “total peace” policy.

The ELN delegation to the peace talks spent four years in Cuba, as the previous government banned them from returning to Colombia.

Last month, they traveled to Venezuela, where a new round of negotiations was announced.

Minister of Defense of Colombia Ivan Velasquez warned that the talks did not mean a “suspension” against the ELN.

“If there is an encounter with someone who has an arrest warrant, they must be apprehended … There is no truce,” he said.

“We all have to change”

Colombian Peace Commissioner Ivan Danilo Rueda hailed a “historic moment” for the country after the meeting.

“We’re celebrating life here, the lives of many creatures that are no longer here,” Rueda said. “Killed, disappeared.”

ELN delegate Pablo Beltran said he hoped the dialogue would be “an instrument of change … and we hope we will not fail.”

“In Colombia, we all have to change” and “overcome the dynamics of death,” he said.

Caracas is hosting the first meeting, and talks will alternate between fellow guarantors Cuba and Norway.

The guarantor countries said in a statement that Monday’s meeting was “an important step towards achieving peace”.

head of the UN Antonio Guterresspecial envoy of Russia to Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massierurged “the parties and Colombian society to take advantage of this historic opportunity.”

“I reiterate the support of Secretary-General @antonioguterres for this process,” he said wrote on Twitter.

President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro at a rally in the capital hailed the process as “a message of hope for peace in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Colombia resumes talks with powerful ELN guerrilla group

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