Colombian government, ELN guerrilla fighters renew negotiations in Havana

Cuba mediates Colombians' continued effort to end more than five decades of war

HAVANA – After hosting peace talks with the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Cuba is now hosting representatives of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a smaller leftist guerrilla that has been active in Colombia since 1960s.

Their negotiations with the Colombian government had been ongoing for about 15 months when Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno ended his mediating role last month. 

"We are conscious that we need to make decisive steps," the Colombian government's chief negotiator Gustavo Bell said. "The time has arrived to finalize a stable and more robust bilateral ceasefire." 

The two sides issued a statement Saturday saying they will focus on re-establishing the cease-fire that expired in January and resumed talks in Havana Thursday.

The conflict between the guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitary forces and the criminal organizations has displaced millions of Colombians. Although both guerrillas represented the armed wing of the Communist party, the two controlled different areas of the country. 

While the FARC was founded by atheists who were willing to burn Catholic churches, the ELN was co-founded by Catholic priests. Camilo Torres, a Colombian socialist priest and Belgium-educated academic, was killed in combat and became the ELN's Catholic martyr.  

With some 1,300 fighters, the ELN's tactics have included sabotaging oil pipelines and kidnapping. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration believes they have also turned to narcotrafficking. Officials in the U.S. and Europe considered both guerrillas as terrorist organizations.

"The only viable way for Colombia for a political solution is to move forward on this path of dialogue," the ELN's chief negotiator Pablo Beltran said during the meeting in Havana. 

Amid the state of lawlessness in the 1990s, landowners supported The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a right-wing militia. The Colombian government signed a deal with them in 2003, and some 32,000 fighters surrendered.

Meanwhile, the FARC grew more powerful. The Colombian government's negotiations with the FARC concluded in Havana in 2016 with a historic deal that paved the way for the demobilization of about 6,500 fighters.

About the Authors: