President Iván Duque and Colombia’s ELN

Since 2017, Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist revolutionary group, have been engaged in discussions to end 54 years of war. So far, the government has been playing down the strength of the insurgent group while hoping to negotiate its surrender in return for its protection as a legal political entity. On the other hand, the ELN has been demanding that the government implement social reforms as part of its negotiating platform, particularly focused on resolving the conditions that have given rise to the conflict. However, in June, a right-wing candidate won Colombia’s 2018 presidential elections and promises to treat the ELN as mere criminals rather than as a political entity with legitimate grievances and demands. This blog post argues that the new president would do well to change his political posture and recognise ELN’s increasing strength and strong bargaining position to achieve a peace deal.

Colombia’s incoming President, Iván Duque, primarily represents the landowning fraction of capital. He promises to modify the peace deal reached with the FARC in 2016 and offer negotiating conditions so strict to the National Liberation Army (ELN) that the latter will not agree to surrender their weapons. However, like Colombia’s government, the ELN has been preparing for more war, aware of the possibility that a peace agreement may not be reached. For years they have sought to expand on the battlefield so as to ensure a stronger hand at the negotiating table. While Colombia’s military, working with the Venezuelan Armed Forces, has killed several important commanders in ELN’s strongest Domingo Lain Front, this entity has taken strong advantage of the vacuum left by the FARC-EP and significantly expanded its operations and influence. Similarly, powerful ELN Fronts in both Nariño and Chocó have also developed their operations. In other words, Duque wants to force surrender to a political-military organisation that is gaining strength.

The tactic of using overwhelming militarily superiority effectively against ELN has also largely depended on the expectation that FARC dissidents will not be able to unite around a single banner. Now that FARC dissidents are working collectively, and have grown rapidly, numbering around 4000 combatants – only an estimated 3500-4000 less than FARC-EP at the inception of negotiations in 2013 – Colombia’s military can no longer expect to dominate the ELN militarily. They must focus on at least two highly organised political-military groups that are gaining momentum. Moreover, after many years of relative inactivity, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) is currently experiencing a resurgence in the East. Hence, unless Colombia’s government is willing to compromise politically and implement structural reforms to its neoliberal model, as is demanded by the ELN as part of negotiations, it looks likely that a peace accord will be off the cards for the next decade or so.

The ELN has been underestimated and misjudged by a large majority of ‘experts’. Too often they have been compared to FARC-EP or seen as a traditional insurgent organisation that is attempting to overthrow the Colombian state militarily. This is not the case. They have a unique political strategy. With new combatants generally committing around three years as a guerrilla combatant (rather than a lifetime) before they leave to work for social justice causes legally, ELN relies on a large reserve force that organises within moderate political movements and throughout communities. Indeed, unlike traditional insurgent groups, the ELN does not view itself as the so-called ‘vanguard of the revolutionary struggle’, but rather as one of many anti-capitalist movements and networks pressuring the state to change from its neoliberal political course. Put differently, the ELN does not worship the rifle. Thus, the group should not be evaluated simply on the basis of its military strength – which has grown since negotiations began. The government’s bargaining team ought to take this difference in strategy into account when negotiating with the group.

The international situation likewise is not favourable to the incoming Colombian President. The United States does not want to continue financing Colombia’s expensive military struggle against the rebels when it needs to be focused on more pressing matters relating to conflict around the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa. Importantly, military success against the rebels from 2002 to the Present has been overwhelmingly dependent on Plan Colombia, an international initiative sponsored predominantly by the United States to stop Colombia ‘going communist’ and to make the country receptive to international business. In fact, the United States exploited Colombia’s desperate situation with the rebels during the 1990s to open Colombia’s economy up and provoke its government to embrace economic policies favourable to U.S-based corporations, a fact that has tended to negatively affect Colombia’s local and landowning bourgeoisie. This means President Duque cannot afford to simply ignore the expectations of its hegemonic northern ‘partner’.

Duque’s negotiating position is made worse by Colombia’s slowing economy, the fact that European Union countries support compromise in peace negotiations, and because multinational corporations have largely shown themselves to be in support of a negotiated peace, even if at the expense of the local landowning class. Indeed, the only class that seems to be united in supporting Duque’s negotiating plans are Colombia’s powerful landowning elite, a social class that fears ELN’s expectation to implement land reform as part of any peace agreement.

Ultimately, what this post has shown is that, contrary to the claims of many other commentators, ELN has real bargaining power vis-a-vis Colombia’s government during negotiations. While ELN’s military position has grown recently, both the domestic and international situation is favourable to the organisation and its political strategy. This means that if incoming President Ivan Duque presses on with his current hardline demands – prison for ELN’s leadership and a refusal to accept any changes to Colombia’s political and economic structures – Colombia will face war with this organisation for at least another four years, probably many more.