New leftist president and former rebel Gustavo Petro pushed for dialogue to be resumed to end 60 years of war.
The Colombian government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest remaining rebel group, launched new peace talks in neighboring Venezuela aimed at ending nearly 60 years of conflict.
The pressure for talks, which resumed Monday after being suspended in 2019, came from Colombia’s new very first leftist president Gustavo Petrowho was a former member of the M-19 rebel movement.
Petro has promised a less bellicose approach to ending violence by armed groups, including left-wing armed fighters and drug traffickers.
Dialogue begins in Venezuela
Representatives of ELN and Petro’s government met in Venezuela, that restored diplomatic relations with Colombia in August after three years.
The delegates said they had come together to resume dialogue “with full political and ethical will, as demanded by the people of rural and urban areas suffering from violence and exclusion, and other sectors of society”.
Both sides are ready to “build peace on the basis of a democracy with justice,” they said in a joint statement.
The first round will last 20 days, with diplomats from Venezuela, Cuba and Norway assisting in the negotiations, while representatives from Chile and Spain will observe the round.
Decades of conflict in Colombia
Colombia has suffered more than half a century of armed conflict between various groups of left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers and the government.
The ELN started in 1964 as a leftist ideological movement of students, union leaders and priests inspired by the Cuban Revolution.
The group is said to have about 4,000 fighters in Colombia and also has a presence in Venezuela, where it controls illegal gold mines and drug trafficking routes.
It is also known for organizing kidnappings for ransom and attacks on oil infrastructure. The United States and the European Union have listed it as a “terrorist” organization.
In 2016, a peace agreement dissolved the Marxist Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, making ELN the largest remaining rebel group. It has since expanded its activities in areas previously under FARC control.
Under former president Juan Manuel Santos, the FARC signed a peace treaty, then renounced its weapons and set up a political party.
In 2019, peace talks with the ELN were called off by conservative former president Ivan Duque after a car bomb attack at a police academy in Bogota that killed 22 people.
Total peace for Petro
After winning the August elections, Petro contacted the ELN as part of his “total peace” policy.
The ELN delegation stayed in Cuba for four years, because the previous government did not allow them to return to Colombia.
However, Colombian Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez warned that the negotiations do not constitute a “suspension of operations” against the ELN.
“If there is a meeting with someone who has an arrest warrant, they should be arrested… There is no ceasefire,” he said.
Rebel group promises ‘fundamental’ change
ELN leader Israel Ramírez Pineda said the group is seeking “fundamental changes” as demanded by the Colombian people during huge demonstrations in 2021 and in elections this year by voting for Petro, leaving behind the tradition of conservative and moderate governments.
“Colombians cannot see each other as enemies, the work we have is reconciliation,” said Ramírez Pineda.
“We hope that the government delegation will have an interlocutor along the same lines.”
He added that the rebels hope that the United States will take a “proactive and supportive stance” on the dialogue. The US has supported Colombia’s armed forces for decades.