World, Americas

Shadow of kidnappings, violence looms ever larger over Colombia peace talks

Colombia’s government and National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group are set to begin fifth round of peace talks

Laura Gamba  | 20.11.2023 - Update : 20.11.2023
Shadow of kidnappings, violence looms ever larger over Colombia peace talks ( Pedro Rances Mattey - Anadolu Agency )

- Colombia’s government and National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group are set to begin fifth round of peace talks

- ELN facing growing pressure to shun abductions after high-profile kidnapping of Colombian soccer star Luis Diaz’s father

- Resurgence of kidnappings ‘sends the signal to many that Colombia is headed back down a devastating path toward conflict,’ Crisis Group expert tells Anadolu

BOGOTA, Colombia

Colombia’s government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group are set to begin their fifth round of peace talks in Mexico this week, aiming to end decades of violence in the country.

However, the peace push faces a major crisis after the father of Colombian football star Luis Diaz was kidnapped on Oct. 28 and released 12 days later.

That came as violence rises across Colombia despite President Gustavo Petro’s government engaging in peace negotiations with the country’s last remaining armed groups.

Between January and September this year, there were 241 kidnappings reported in the country, a big spike from 142 in the same period last year, and according to authorities, the ELN was involved in 32 of these cases.

“Kidnapping is a crime that carries enormous historical weight in Colombia,” Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group, told Anadolu.

“The fact that the ELN openly admits that it has not stopped kidnapping – and does not view this as part of an ongoing cease-fire – has raised a lot of questions in the public eye.”

Following the abduction of Diaz’s father, government negotiators demanded that the ELN cease this practice and immediately release all captives.

“The time has come to make decisions that eliminate kidnapping, as we have requested since the beginning of the dialogues. Our delegation demands from now on, and will demand in the next meeting with the ELN delegation, that each of the people that this organization has in captivity be released in conditions of safety and dignity immediately,” read a statement published by the government.

However, top ELN leader Antonio Garcia has justified kidnappings as necessary for funding their fight, emphasizing that the group does not rely on drug trafficking for financing.

In recent posts on X, Garcia said there has been no agreement with government negotiators about stopping kidnappings.

“There is no such agreement where the ELN has committed not to carry out financial operations, including economic deprivation of freedom, to obtain resources that allow it to sustain its structures, as any army in the world does,” he said.

The statements have sparked a controversy because kidnappings are prohibited under international humanitarian law and constitute a violation of the already agreed cease-fire.

Public pressure has been mounting for the ELN to follow the example of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, which had already abandoned the practice by the time it sat down for talks with the government.

Rodrigo Londono, the FARC commander who signed the 2016 peace agreement, labeled kidnappings “inhumane” and warned that such actions could undermine public support for the peace process.

“To the ELN, I share a self-criticism that Jacobo Arenas and Alfonso Cano (former FARC leaders) instilled in us and we belatedly heeded: kidnapping is inhumane, anti-political and unnecessary,” Londono said earlier this month.

Colombia headed back down a devastating path

Crisis Group analyst Dickinson said public support for peace talks could falter if the government fails to secure concrete commitments from the ELN to end violent practices affecting civilians.

“Kidnapping had essentially disappeared around the time of the 2016 peace accord. Its re-emergence sends the signal to many that Colombia is headed back down a devastating path toward conflict, one that many had thought was in its past,” she said.

Over 50,000 people were kidnapped in Colombia between 1990 and 2018, according to the country’s Truth Commission that was created under the 2016 peace accord.

Negotiations have not been easy with the ELN rebel group, which has nearly 6,000 members and is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU.

The Colombian government and the leftist rebel group have had disagreements that began when President Petro declared a cease-fire in January that was later denied by the group. Since then, the talks have suffered several setbacks.

The first round of negotiations took place in Venezuela between November and December 2022, followed by a second in Mexico City in February this year, a third in Havana in May, and a fourth in Venezuela’s capital Caracas in August.

The ELN has had unsuccessful negotiations five times in the past with other governments.

Talks with the group began in 2017 in Quito during the government of ex-President Juan Manuel Santos, before they were moved to Havana in 2018.

They were halted by former President Ivan Duque in January 2019, a day after the group carried out a bombing at a police academy in Bogota that killed 21 police officers.

According to Dickinson, when the two sides meet in Mexico, Petro’s government faces a critical challenge of addressing concerns and securing concrete commitments for civilian protection from the ELN.

The success and credibility of the negotiations and public support hinge on the ELN’s response, she emphasized.

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