Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army—ELN), released a Canadian engineer on Tuesday after holding him hostage for seven months. Gernot Wober, vice president of exploration for the Toronto-based Braeval Mining Corporation, was turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The ELN captured Wober in January along with five other Braeval employees in the Bolivar Department, demanding that mining company abandon its gold and silver mining project in the north of Colombia. In July, Braeval announced it was terminating all mining activity in Colombia due to “unfavorable market conditions,” opening the door for Wober’s release. In a video message posted Tuesday, ELN leader Nicolas Rodriguez hailed Wober’s release as a humanitarian act, saying that “this outcome proves that conflicts can be solved through negotiation."
After waging a 48-year armed conflict with the Colombian government, the ELN has expressed its willingness to negotiate peace accords, similar to the negotiations taking place with the Fuerzas Amradas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) in Havana. However, government authorities insisted that the ELN release all of its hostages before the two parties can begin dialogue.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cali on Tuesday for the largest demobilization of members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—ELN) in Colombian history. A 30-member unit of the guerilla group, which included three pregnant women, surrendered in the southwestern city.
The ELN, with its estimated 3,000 members, has shown interest in convening peace negotiations with the government, but has thus far been rebuffed by officials who insist that they must demobilize and release all of their hostages before beginning negotiations. President Santos welcomed the unit’s surrender and encouraged all of Colombia’s guerrillas to fight for their ideals, “but without violence and without arms.” Integration into the political system has been a key point in the ongoing negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) in Cuba.
While the 30-member unit’s demobilization is seen as a positive step toward the end of armed conflict in the region, it remains to be seen whether the ELN, which has been operating in Colombia for nearly 50 years, will agree to the conditions for negotiations set forward by government officials.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced today that six members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) and two policemen were killed in an attack near the Venezuelan border. The announcement comes only days after the president requested that the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army—ELN) set free two German citizens who were seized last week in the northern Catatumbo region. These events have raised concern about the viability of the peace talks in Havana, but both the government and the FARC remain optimistic about progress.
Iván Márquez, head of the FARC’s negotiating team, believes there are many reasons for his side to be optimistic about the peace process. “Destroying the road towards peace over claims of armed conflict would be unreasonable,” he stated. But since the group’s two-month ceasefire came to an end on January 20, kidnappings and violence have resumed in the country.
Smaller but more politically motivated than the FARC, the ELN has also expressed its interest in engaging in peace talks with the government, but the group refuses to stop its attacks on civilian and military targets as a precondition to begin the negotiations. The peace-building process held in Cuba recently concluded its third phase, with no major progress made toward ending the longstanding conflict. Land reform is currently the main focus of the negotiations.
Last weekend, Colombia, headlines announce the worst in a series of military setbacks for the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos in its fight against the FARC.
In a rural area of the department or Arauca, 10 soldiers and a corporal were killed when their unit was ambushed by the FARC. Arauca has remained a tough zone for the government to control: even during the heyday of former President Alvaro Uribe’s military offensive, the FARC maintained a considerable military power in Arauca. The ELN, a very weak group, has its only stronghold in that region.
Both groups have benefited from the fact that Arauca has a long border with Venezuela: a few years ago, when Venezuela had a policy of supporting Colombia’s guerilla groups, the FARC and the ELN established a sort of strategic rearguard beyond the border. Now that such policy is uncertain, they nonetheless take advantage of the border to escape the Army’s persecution, and to establish camps in Venezuelan territory.
How will this incident affect Santos’ policies?
“If you want peace, prepare for war” is a strategic maxim first written by Vegetius, a relatively unknown Roman author, who wrote treatises on military strategy and veterinary medicine. Such maxim can be interpreted in two ways. First, if you want your potential adversaries not to attack you, increase your military power so you will deter them. Second, if you are already involved in war, and you want to reach negotiated peace, you must build strength so that your enemy will conclude that talks are the best option to end the conflict; and you will have leverage at the negotiations.