At 211 years of independence and six decades of armed conflict, Colombia remains mired in violence. ELN commander Aureliano Carbonell discusses the challenges to building peace
Colombia celebrates its 211th anniversary of independence with an internal conflict more active than ever. In addition to the national strike that has been going on for more than two months, with 79 killed and 346 missing, the government of Iván Duque has not followed through on the Peace Agreements, signed in 2016 with the FARC-EP and since 2018 it has not participated in the process of dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN).
In the last four years more than a thousand social leaders and former combatants were killed, 60% of which occurred during the government of Duque. In 2021 alone, 50 massacres were registered and 28 ex-guerrillas were murdered, according to investigation by the Institute for the Development of Peace (Indepaz).
In this context of structural violence, the ELN is once again insisting on the need for dialogue. The guerrilla, which has just changed its general command, with the resignation of Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino”, one of the founders of the organization, and the assumption of Antonio García, as first commander, Pablo Beltrán and Pablo Marín as second and third commander, respectively, analyzes the challenges for peace in Colombia.
On May 24, the Colombian president replaced Miguel Ceballos, appointing Juan Camilo Restrepo Gómez as the new commissioner for peace. Restrepo Gómez is a former secretary general of the conservative U Party, president of the Association of Colombian Banana Growers (AUGURA) and vice minister of Agriculture. Although he is responsible for conducting the dialogue between the government and insurgent groups, the new official has not resumed dialogue with the ELN.
Negotiations between the two actors began in 2017, during the administration of former President Juan Manuel Santos, but since August 2018, when Duque took office, the dialogue process has been suspended.
In 2022, the country will hold presidential and parliamentary elections. According to the latest survey by the Latin American Strategic Center for Geopolitics (CELAG), Senator Gustavo Petro is favored to win the presidency, with 30.3% of voter intention, followed by Sergio Fajardo, of Compromiso Ciudadano, with 14.7% and Juan Manuel Galán, of the Liberal Party, with 7.3%. Meanwhile, the rejection rate of Iván Duque has reached 76%.
Commander Aureliano Carbonell, member of the national leadership of the ELN and a representative in the process of peace talks, in an interview to Brasil de Fato and Peoples Dispatch emphasized that the expectation is that the negotiations will advance only when the far-right is out of the presidency.
Michele Mello & Zoe Alexandra: What led the ELN to change its commander?
Aureliano Carbonell: Commander Nicolás Rodríguez is one of the founders of the organization. When commander Manuel Perez died in 1998, he was the second in command, and that year, now 23 years ago, he became the first commander. His state of health and the attention he requires, led him to resign from the first command.
One must remember that we are a political-military organization, which forces the leaders to live in clandestine conditions, to be in the jungle, which is difficult in the conditions of commander Nicolás. That is why he chose to resign. His resignation was accepted, in spite of the respect, affection and recognition that the whole organization has for him. But there is a health issue that must be taken into account.
He continues to be a leader, and will be replaced in the first command by Commander Antonio García and Commander Pablo Beltrán will be the second in charge.
As for the changes that this may generate in the organization, each person has particular characteristics, but the organization has collective decisions, collective mandates, its policies are defined in the congresses, in the plenary meetings of the national leadership. The policy in a general sense will continue to be the one defined by the organization.
M&Z: How has the Colombian government treated the ELN?
AC: When Duque became president, he puts the peace process with the government on hold. Let’s keep in mind that who really won the presidency is the Democratic Center party, led by Álvaro Uribe, which is the most pro-war sector of the Colombian oligarchy, the most uncompromising. Even when the agreement with the FARC-EP was reached, they lead a plebiscite to reject the 2016 Peace Accords. Duque has not resumed the process that was started with the ELN.
In January 2019, six months after Duque took office, the ELN carried out an action against the Police in Bogota, and this was used as a pretext to further complicate the re-opening of the process.
It is already 2021, one year before the end of this government and they continue to insist on placing preconditions to restart the process. These preconditions seem to suggest that the ELN must stop being an insurgent organization in order to sit down to talk, to sit down to dialogue. The ELN is willing to resume this process immediately, without any preconditions.
During this time, we have made what could be called gestures. In April 2020, amid the pandemic and in response to the requests made globally, both by the UN Secretary General and Pope Francis, for a global ceasefire, the ELN decreed a unilateral ceasefire for a month, and proposed to the government that a bilateral ceasefire be declared. This was ignored by the government. In 2019 and 2020, the ELN released captured military personnel, but things have remained the same.
We have already spoken with the delegate of Pope Francis, with the UN delegate to follow up the process of the FARC-EP Accords. We have also proposed to the international community that we set up a mechanism for clarification and conciliation, with humanitarian issues in mind. What is that? In essence it is to create a bridge, hopefully it could be the church, between the ELN and the communities, to dialogue and clarify humanitarian situations in which there is some involvement of the ELN. If we have a responsibility, we accept it, we dialogue and we try to resolve it. If we do not, then let things be clarified.
M&Z: After the change of the peace commissioner, are there expectations of resuming negotiations for an agreement?
AC: At this moment the government has a rejection rate that is reaching almost 80%, it has been subjected during these two months to a social explosion, to massive mobilizations, there is a high level of discontent in the country.
In this context, we do not rule out the possibility that [Duque] will make simulations that he wants something in relation to peace. But look at the state of the agreements with the FARC-EP. Practically the only thing that is being talked about is reinsertion and things are very critical. As of today, 278 peace signatories have been assassinated by the FARC-EP, a dramatic figure that indicates the state of the peace process.
We can also look at these two months of mobilizations. The government and the National Strike Committee sat down to dialogue, and the government had such an inflexible position that the Strike Committee had to leave the negotiating table, because it was not going anywhere.
Furthermore, in places such as the city of Buenaventura, where the mayor reached certain agreements with the demonstrators to generate spaces for dialogue and a ceasefire on both sides, the government ignored the agreements.
The same in Cali, where the government and the Democratic Center did not recognize the dialogue mechanisms between the mayor and the demonstrators.
Let us not forget that those who are now in government were radically opposed to the peace processes. But in any case, the ELN is willing, and has expressed it publicly, to reestablish a space for negotiations.
A key point in the agenda signed with the government of Juan Manuel Santos is the participation of society, because we consider that, in a peace process, the participation of society is vital, a priority.
It is not a process with the ELN to recognize us as an organization. A peace process has to touch directly on the realities of the country and all those phenomena which gave rise to the armed uprising.
M&Z: What is the guerrilla’s view on the national strike? How do you evaluate these 2-3 months of demonstrations?
AC: What has happened in these months, since the end of April, May, June, is something exceptional. Popular struggles have taken a leap in Colombia. There were almost permanent mobilizations in all the cities of the country, there were moments with mobilizations in half of the municipal capitals, more or less in 500-520 municipal capitals.
The strike had the support of many sectors of society, but there were also very particular things: at some moments the number of road blockades exceeded one thousand. These blockades were interesting because it was not only peasants and transport workers as they have been in recent years, but many urban sectors organized road blockades of major roads leading to highways.
Additionally, points of permanent mobilization were also formed in several cities, such as Cali and Bogota, which have been called points of resistance.
The front lines have also developed, which are groups of young people who stand on the front lines of the mobilization to defend the rest of the protesters, with handmade shields, with helmets, with goggles for the gases.
Another aspect to highlight of these months of social unrest is the key role of the urban sectors, the people in the cities.
In Colombia, there has been a process, a cycle of rising social struggles that began 13 years ago. It started with what has been known as the Indigenous Minga in the department of Cauca in 2008. Then there was a significant student movement in 2011, then in 2013, 2014, 2016, again there important mobilizations of the Indigenous organizations, as well as the agrarian strikes.
In these years, the key areas of mobilization were the rural regions. It is from 2017 onward, that the urban spaces come into play in a bigger way. In 2018 and 2019 it takes on more dimension with the student mobilizations. And now in 2021, the urban organizations and communities have been at the forefront. There is still key participation of rural sectors but they are no longer the dominant ones.
The other aspect of these months of social unrest is the brutal repression. The already very visible and verified violation of human rights by the security forces. The violent way in which the State, the government and the ruling classes respond to social protest, to the demands of the people.
There is even a very emblematic case of a girl, of a young woman in the city of Popayán, who had communicated that she had been sexually abused by the police who arrested her. As a result of this, she subsequently committed suicide. There are also 82 registered cases of ocular attacks [when police aim their arms at protesters eyes often resulting in loss of the eye or sight], a phenomenon that occurs here and also took place in Chile during the months of mobilization there.
The Attorney General’s Office, which is an entity attached to the government without any kind of independence, accepted, during the visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the figure of 84 killed by the security forces. Given that the Attorney General’s Office accepted that figure, we can expect that the situation is even worse.
So the component of repression, of violence, of brutality, of violation of human rights, of dictatorial treatment of social protest, has become evident to the world in these months. The behavior of the ruling class in this country has been laid bare before the world and we have seen in the cities what they have been doing with greater impunity in the countryside during all these decades of armed conflict.
M&Z: 2022 is an election year in Colombia and Uribismo seems to be divided or at least weakened after the strike. Does that favor peace negotiations with the ELN?
AC: Uribismo, the most ultra-right sector that is currently in charge of the government, is definitely experiencing greater difficulties and we could say that it is in regression. This is expressed by the situation of crisis, of rejection. Looking towards the presidential elections it is likely that the winner will have less extreme oligarchic positions or be the center-left candidate, Gustavo Petro.
Either way, it is likely to be a government of a distinct character. Even if it is oligarchic, it will be different from Duque’s government and Uribismo. It will likely favor peace.
In any case, the determining factor for the country to engage in negotiations, the search for peace with the insurgency, is directly related to the current crisis in the country. The crisis of the system of domination which is clearly manifested in the growing social discontent and logically the social outburst, will continue in the coming months.
This is imposing changes on the ruling classes and the oligarchic sectors, weakening the extreme right, and opening possibilities to advance in processes of peace and change in the country.