Colombia’s Other Guerrillas

Say "Colombian peace talks," and you'll likely think of the FARC. But another guerrilla group is key to securing a transformative peace.

An ELN banner in Colombia. Americas Quarterly / Flickr

In October, Colombian voters shocked the country and the world by rejecting a historic peace treaty between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government. A favorable outcome would have undoubtedly brought the country closer to ending five decades of armed conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 260,000 people.

The “No” camp’s victory, spearheaded by former president Álvaro Uribe, forced the parties back to the table to renegotiate and temporarily threw the country into a state of “certain uncertainty.” Earlier this week, however, Colombia’s Congress passed a revised version of the peace accord that will not have to be approved by voters.

And the quest for peace has gained momentum on another front. Just one week after the referendum, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that formal negotiations with the country’s second-largest guerrilla force — the National Liberation Army (ELN), whose estimated 1,500 combatants are based largely in the country’s oil-rich northeastern regions and the southwest — would begin on October 27.

The date was later postponed because of an ongoing dispute over the release of a former congressman, and for the moment talks remain on hold. Still, the government says that bringing the ELN rebels to the table will allow Colombia to reach a “complete peace.”

This isn’t the first time the two sides have tried to find a political solution to the country’s armed conflict. Since the early 1990s, the Colombian government and the ELN have been working to negotiate the rebels’ disarmament and transformation into a legal political force. But today, the prospects for peace look more promising than ever.

A Brief History of the ELN

The origins of the ELN uprising date back to 1964. Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara, and Liberation Theology, a small group of students decided to take up arms against the country’s oligarchy and US imperialism. While the FARC focused on peasant self-defense and agrarian reform, the ELN’s principal goal was to take political power by military means and to radically transform the country in favor of the subordinate classes.

The most notable figure in the ELN’s early days was a sociologist and Roman Catholic priest named Camilo Torres Restrepo. Born into an upper-class family, Torres believed, due to severe state repression, that the Christian ideal of brotherly love could only be achieved in Latin America through armed struggle. His time as an ELN rebel was short lived. Torres was killed in his first military operation. (His ideals, however, lived on after his death, inspiring young revolutionaries across the continent.)

Over the next few decades, the ELN’s strength ebbed and flowed. The group struggled in its first twenty years, hampered by internal ideological disputes and military defeats. Beginning in the mid-1980s, it experienced something of boomlet by stepping up attacks on the oil industry and energy infrastructure, plotting kidnappings to collect ransom, extracting money from local and transnational companies, and increasing its social presence in local communities.

By the turn of the century, however, the ELN was again in decline, thanks to the launching of Plan Colombia and the intensification of a nationwide paramilitary counterinsurgency. Between 2002 and 2010, the Uribe administration managed not only to significantly degrade the group’s military capabilities but to weaken its social base, massacring innocent civilians and forcibly displacing millions of peasants.

According to government figures, the ELN reached its lowest point in 2010. Since then, the rebel group has successfully revised its military strategy and slowly intensified its assaults on Colombia’s economic infrastructure, bolstering its position at the negotiating table.

Civil Society Participation

Both parties have agreed to a six-point negotiating agenda, the product of four years of informal meetings. Similar to the FARC, the ELN is pushing several key points in peace talks — transitional justice, political participation, demobilization and disarmament, fair treatment for victims, and proper implementation of the peace accords.

But compared to the FARC peace talks — which the ELN harshly criticized as exclusionary — the program envisions much broader participation for civil society groups. According to Israel Ramirez Pineda, a member of the ELN’s central committee, the aim is to put non-elites at the center of the negotiations, creating a “new consensus” around Colombia’s socioeconomic and political problems and its democratic transformation. Only by involving civil society groups — especially representatives of the disenfranchised and impoverished — can peace and a just political transformation be won, commanding chief Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista has argued.

The FARC negotiations explicitly omitted topics like the country’s extractivist and export-oriented accumulation model, sovereignty over natural resources, free-trade agreements, and the institutions of the capitalist state.

The Santos administration has made it clear it has no intention of discussing these issues with the ELN either, but the guerrilla group hopes to spark a broader public debate that will force the government’s hand.

The rebels are also well aware that the negotiations will not automatically put the country on a path toward socialism. Their objective is rather to “eliminate violence from politics,” to strengthen the group’s organizational capacities, and to collectively redefine the Colombian left’s platform in a post-accord environment. To that end, one of the first issues the parties will debate is how to foster the participation of popular groups — especially the People’s Congress.

Power to the People

The People’s Congress traces its roots to the mass mobilizations in 2004 against Plan Colombia, free trade-agreements, and stepped-up mine operations. Six years later, over three hundred social and political organizations — representing ethnic and peasant communities, student groups, feminist movements, trade unions, political parties, LGBT collectives, research centers, think tanks, political prisoners, and independent activists — converged and officially founded the alliance.

Drawing on local communities and inspired by the resistance of anticapitalist movements in the region (including the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil and the Zapatistas in southern Mexico), the CdP focuses on strengthening social mobilization, creating autonomous institutions, and building a self-organized social system outside of Colombia’s capitalist state.

Its stance is a conscious response to the exhaustion of armed struggle on the one hand, and the failure of Colombia’s democratic institutions and traditional left parties on the other. The CdP works to build “people’s power,” animated by three basic principles: community self-determination, participatory democracy, and the right to a dignified life for all. Against hierarchical, bureaucratized forms of political organization, it espouses cooperation, solidarity, and reciprocity.

The CdP sees popular classes and local communities as the nation’s principal political subjects. Over the past few years, it has played a crucial role in organizing rural strikes against mining and extraction projects and promoting legislation that protects ethnic and peasant communities’ territorial autonomy.

In concert with other progressive movements, the CdP has also been advocating the Social Peace Table, which pushes all sectors of society — including the capitalist class — to agree on the need for both an end to the armed conflict and the enactment of structural reforms that benefit the marginalized rural and urban masses.

The public debates these efforts have triggered have opened up space for the country to move toward a transformative peace.

Revitalizing the Urban Left

Of course, a transformative peace is exactly what the government is trying to prevent. And the CdP won’t be able to win one by going it alone.

Mostly importantly, the CdP will need the institutional support of a left party to reach beyond its predominately rural base and organize and revitalize Colombia’s urban left. Without an effective counterbalance to Colombia’s capitalist state, the country’s poorest sectors won’t see much improvement in their living or working conditions. Without a strong left party with an emancipatory vision, a political vacuum will emerge, allowing Colombia’s dominant classes to scuttle the implementation of any treaty and ignore any concessions made during negotiations.

Bringing the country’s fifty-two-year armed conflict to a close would create new opportunities to confront capitalism and to advance the broader struggle for an alternative. Mass mobilization and popular struggle will be absolutely crucial, not only during the peace process, but also as the Left strengthens its organizational, ideological, and political capacities for future battles.

But until the CdP can mobilize popular support in urban areas, radical change will remain out of reach.