Colombian government, guerrilla group resume peace talks

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The Colombian government and the South American country’s largest remaining guerrilla group resumed peace talks Monday, breaking a roughly four-year hiatus during which the rebels have expanded the territory where they operate.

Neighboring Venezuela, whose government resumed diplomatic relations with Colombia only a few months ago, hosted the representatives of the National Liberation Army and the government of President Gustavo Petro. The discussions in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, came more than a month after the rebels and Petro’s government announced the resumption of negotiations.

The delegates in a joint declaration stated they had gathered to restart political dialogue “with full political and ethical will, as demanded by the people of rural and urban territories that suffer from violence and exclusion, and other sectors of society.” They added that they are willing to “build peace based on a democracy with justice.”

The National Liberation Army, commonly referred to by its Spanish acronym ELN, was founded in the 1960s by students, union leaders and priests inspired by Cuba’s revolution. The group is believed to have about 4,000 fighters in Colombia, and is also present in Venezuela, where it runs illegal gold mines and drug trafficking routes.

The organization became Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla group after a 2016 peace agreement disbanded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. Since the historic deal was signed, the ELN has increased its activities in territories formerly under FARC control.

The group is known for staging kidnappings for ransom and attacks on oil infrastructure and has been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Diplomats from Venezuela, Cuba and Norway will assist in the negotiations, while representatives from Chile and Spain will observe it. Previous negotiations, some going back to the 1990s, have failed.

Petro — Colombia’s first leftist president and a former rebel himself — is resuming the negotiations as part of a larger peace effort in which his administration is approaching armed groups, drug gangs and FARC dissidents. This is a significant reversal of strategy; his predecessor, President Iván Duque, suspended talks with the ELN after the rebels refused to stop attacking military targets.

Israel Ramírez Pineda, an ELN leader, in a statement said the group in this negotiating effort aims to produce “fundamental changes” as demanded by the Colombian people during massive demonstrations in 2021 and in polls this year by electing Petro, leaving behind the tradition of conservative and moderate governments.

“Colombians cannot see each other as enemies, the work we have is reconciliation,” Ramírez Pineda said. “We hope that the government’s delegation will have an interlocutor in the same sense.”

He added that the rebels hope the United States takes a “proactive and supportive attitude” to the dialogues. The U.S. for decades has supported Colombia’s armed forces.

The delegation representing Colombia’s government is headed by Otty Patiño, co-founder of the extinct M-19 guerrilla group of which Petro was a member in his youth.

Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Danilo Rueda, said the steps taken Monday honor the lives of those who were murdered, disappeared, tortured or kidnapped due to the violence across the country.

“This peace delegation... has carried out an exercise to recognize differences,” Rueda said. Although it is yet to be determined whether rebels will eventually be granted amnesty, Rueda said that “nothing is based on impunity.”