On March 23rd the self-imposed deadline to sign a final peace accord set by the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) came and went without a signature or much surprise. The surprise came a week later, on March 30th, when, after more than two years of preliminary negotiations, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) and the government announced a framework agreement for a peace process.
Although the government emphasized that the negotiations with each guerrilla group will be separate and distinct, the two are inexorably linked, both by the ground rules set by the government and by public opinion. Nevertheless, there remain important differences in style, substance and leverage that reflect the distinctive nature of each group of non-state combatants.
To the casual observer, it may appear that the FARC and the ELN are similar, if only because they are both Marxist insurgencies that have pledged to take power by force over the course of more than a dozen presidential administrations in Colombia. However, their organizational structures, military capabilities and ideological origins are different.
The FARC began as a peasant movement rebelling against an oligarchic government that it believed thwarted its attempts to reach power by democratic means. In contrast, the ELN originated as an urban movement, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and liberation theology. Since 1985, and after nearly a decade of military defeats at the hands of the state, the ELN began to forge a new revolutionary identity as defenders of Colombia’s national sovereignty against foreign interests, particularly with regard to the hydrocarbons industry.
While the FARC have a structured and disciplined military hierarchy with at least 6,000 armed guerrillas, the ELN is divided into seven fronts with varying degrees of independence, wealth and military capabilities. Moreover, out of its estimated 6,500 members, only 1,300 are armed and organized militarily. The rest are civilians that make up the so-called “wide front” that is already present in local political structures in certain territories.
Each guerrilla group sees the peace process as a means to a different end. Having lost the war, the FARC is a military organization seeking to craft a political path to power. In contrast, the ELN is more of a political organization with a small army that wants a national platform for its revolutionary ideals.
The ELN’s leverage
The framework agreement between the government and the FARC established its original intentions and legitimacy by setting strict parameters and clear goals. Unlike previous negotiation attempts, the government made clear that most of the FARC’s ideological demands were off the table this time: there would be no new constitutions, no restructuring of state security forces and no unrestricted amnesties or pardons for perpetrators of grave human rights violations.
The framework agreement that will guide the negotiation with the ELN is different. While the initial agreement with the FARC focused on realistic objectives (e.g., agrarian reform, the eradication of illegal crops and the political participation of demobilized guerrillas), the document that the government and the ELN announced at the end of March is notoriously vague and haphazardly crafted.
So why did the government bow to the demands of a quasi-Marxist, quasi-army of 1,300 men?
It had little choice.
For the implementation of the peace accord that is all but signed with the FARC to work, the government had to ensure that the ELN would cooperate. Otherwise, the ELN could have easily sabotaged the FARC’s disarmament and verification process by infiltrating concentration points. There was also a strong possibility that FARC members that were unwilling to demobilize would switch sides and join the ELN. And if left to its own devices, the ELN could well have moved to fill the power vacuum that the FARC’s demobilization will leave behind in rural areas.
The government’s hope is that the announcement of a formal peace process with the ELN will force the non-state armed actor to modify its military operations and reduce its activities in kidnapping and drug trafficking in effort to woo popular approval. After all, the ELN will have to improve its public image if it wants any final accord to be approved in a national referendum, as the government is requiring for the FARC accord.
So far, though, ELN leaders don’t seem to have cottoned to the idea of an image re-make to improve their popularity. On April 28th, less than a month after the announcement, the ELN orchestrated an attack on an oil pipeline that led to the contamination of several rivers in the Arauca region. And, even though President Santos made clear that the negotiations will not begin until the ELN releases all of its hostages, the Ministry of Defense believes the ELN is still holding at least eight kidnapping victims for ransom.
The framework agreement
As the last guerrilla group to arrive at the negotiating table, a good portion of the peace process with the ELN should be confined to parameters set in the government’s negotiation with the FARC. It makes little sense for the government to agree to a disarmament model that would allow the ELN to remain dispersed after the final accord is signed, when the same government was adamant with the FARC that they would have to concentrate in defined territories. The ELN should also agree to the transitional justice system designed for the FARC and the government once its own negotiations conclude.
But none of these seem clear cut. By claiming to embody the voice and needs of society (like any Marxist movement worth its salt), the ELN will likely argue that its demands are more legitimate than the FARC’s, and thus they should not be constrained by previous negotiations.
Furthermore, the vagueness of the framework agreement leaves room for the ELN to seek significant concessions from the government. The first three negotiation points of the agenda agreed to by the ELN and the government illustrate this vagueness: 1) participation of society in the building of peace; 2) democracy for peace; and 3) transformations for peace.
The first point defines “participation of society” as a “dynamic and active exercise, inclusive and pluralistic, that permits the building of a common vision of peace that encourages transformations for the country and its regions.”
The second point purports to create “debates” where society can examine “the problems that affect its reality, and that can be channeled into productive elements of society.” It also states that the legal situation of those accused or convicted of acts committed throughout the conflict will be reviewed.
The third point seeks to take the “transformative proposals” produced in the second point and design and agree to “transformative programs to overcome poverty, social exclusion, corruption and environmental degradation while seeking equity.”
The framework agreement’s vagueness and pretentions of providing a means for a broader social transformation gives the ELN grounds to delay the negotiations indefinitely. For one, the agreement does not specify the number or format of the debates contemplated by the second negotiation point. Second, broad commitments to guarantee the participation of society and examine reality along with the third point of designing “transformative programs” based on the results of these debates is a prescription for endless philosophical, impractical discourses on the nature of injustice and social and political design.
The potential for delay is particularly troublesome since the negotiation points must be addressed in the order set out in the framework agreement. In practice, given the fifth point that the “end of the armed conflict” cannot be addressed until the parties reach an agreement on the four-prior negotiation points, this likely means that the armed conflict and violence committed by both sides can continue until the end of the negotiations.
The government’s rush to install a formal peace process with the ELN to secure the implementation of its final accord with the FARC may well backfire. The differences between the framework agreements with the FARC and the ELN reflect the complicated calculations of a government seeking to lure a second combatant group to the negotiating table in order to ensure the success of the negotiations with a first. That’s hardly a prescription for success; it gives the second group dangerous leverage over the pace and conditions of its negotiations relative to the government.
The Santos government’s promises of “Complete Peace” require the ELN’s demobilization as well as FARC’s. But the current, two-step, separate negotiations place the government at a disadvantage with its second negotiating partners. Whatever the final outcome of the FARC peace process, the framework agreement with the ELN and the very dynamic of the negotiations indicate that Colombia may still have a long road ahead before its “Complete Peace.”