The Colombian Political System is Ravaged by Corruption: Pablo Beltrán

Interview with Major Pablo Beltrán, member of the Central Command of the ELN National Liberation Army, and head of its peace delegation.

May 14, 2020 by Sasha Yumbila Paz
Members of the Dialogue Delegation - ELN, in the Plaza of the Revolution Havana/Cuba. Photo: Tomás García Laviana / Delegación de Diálogos ELN

The ELN, took up arms in 1964. Since 1989, it has held peace talks with five administrations. The government of Juan Manuel Santos and the ELN advanced an agenda to end the conflict. The last round of negotiations was held in Havana, Cuba, where the ELN’s Dialogue Delegation continues to work for a political solution to Colombia’s armed conflict.

The government of Iván Duque Márquez, since taking office in August 2018, has ignored the Agenda for Peace Talks, including the security protocols and the return of the ELN to Colombia; and in January 2019 it terminated all dialogue.

Over 56 years, the armed conflict in Colombia has left more than 8 million civilian victims, (Registro Único de Víctimas -RUV, 2017) which includes the murdered, displaced and landless. In 2016, the government of Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the current government has essentially ripped to shreds. In April, the Duque government issued Decree 601 of 2020, which reduces the solution to the conflict with the ELN to submission to justice. The rebel organization, speaking through Pablo Beltrán, expressed its rejection of the decree, stating that the ELN seeks to end the armed conflict by agreeing to transformations, “this is a way out of a political solution, not submission to justice.”

Members of the Central Command of the ELN, Pablo Beltrán, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, Pablo Marín. Mountains of Colombia. Photo: Tomás García Laviana / Delegación de Diálogos ELN

Sasha Yumbila: It is common for journalists and opinion makers to classify the ELN as a confederated and divided organization to carry out conversations with the government, what do you say about this?

Pablo Beltrán: The ELN is a political-military organization, therefore it has more democracy than an army, but it has more centralization than a party. Every 10 years it holds a National Congress that establishes the main lines of action, which it entrusts to the National Leadership. The decision to seek a political solution to the conflict was taken by the Congress in 1989 and in these 30 years of searching we have held peace talks with 5 governments and what we have agreed on [in the respective processes], all our fronts have carried out. This government is the third of Álvaro Uribe, even though the president is Iván Duque. We have told both of them that we are willing to reopen a round of talks to end the armed conflict and agree on the changes Colombia needs.

SY: There are rumors that some ELN war fronts disagree with the talks, and with the humanitarian actions carried out; do those in Havana represent the whole organization, and will the ELN continue to make humanitarian gestures?

PB: This delegation was appointed by Congress five years ago and the changes in its composition are defined by the National Directorate. Some of the fronts consider it unlikely that agreements can be reached with a government which has been seeking to “rip apart peace” for the last 5 years, and which has succeeded in doing so by destroying what the previous government signed with the FARC. Despite this, the ELN maintains that it is not going to leave the dialogue table and periodically releases people detained by us and calls for ceasefires, such as the one we decreed during April, as a humanitarian gesture to reduce the intensity of the conflict, which we do regardless of whether or not the government makes gestures to humanize the war.

SY: Who is behind the murders of social leaders in areas where there is ELN influence?

PB: In all regions of Colombia they are developing large mining, oil, infrastructure and agribusiness projects, which are strongly opposed by the organized communities in those territories. The persecution suffered by social leaders, which ranges from threats, defamation, exile, to assassinations is generated from this clash.

SY: The High Commissioner for Peace says that there are currently 2,500 children recruited into the ELN.

PB: The government sometimes says that we are “four cats” and other times it is better for them to portray us as bigger than we really are; that is why they now come up with this fiction of “thousands and thousands of minors” in our ranks, a figure which is absolutely false. The ELN does not take or keep anyone in the fight, and furthermore it complies with the international norm of not incorporating children under 15.

SY: Social organizations and human rights defenders denounce the use of land mines in territories of influence of the ELN. What is the intention of mining where there is a civilian population? Do you have criteria or norms for doing so?

Mines as a defense system are also used by the State Military Forces. We use them to defend our facilities, which the populations do not approach. Another type is offensive mining is used to contain forces that advance against us, a weapon that is feared by both the military and the paramilitaries.

SY: The Center for Research and Studies on the Armed Conflict (CERAC) monitored the unilateral ceasefire carried out by the ELN in April. In its communiqué on compliance with the ceasefire, they cite a CERAC report as a reference for verification that the ELN complied with the ceasefire, which also states that “39 days have passed since CERAC recorded the last offensive military operation against the ELN”.

PB: The state armed forces continued their offensive operations against us without heeding the call for a ceasefire made by the international community, they continued with their war plan and took advantage of the fact that we decreed the ceasefire during April. Our fronts avoided combat as far as they could, but the regime took advantage of this attitude of ours to intensify the killing of social leaders by paramilitary drug gangs, and to expand the forced eradication of illicit crops in seven departments, trampling on the voluntary substitution agreements that had been signed years earlier. For all these reasons, it was untenable to extend our unilateral cessation.

SY: In response to the Duque Government’s refusal to negotiate, the Central Command, in the same communiqué, informed the country that it was time for the ELN’s Delegation for Dialogue, currently in Havana, to return to the camps in Colombia.

PB: What we observe is a lack of interest on the part of the government in reopening peace talks, which is why our leadership is demanding that the government comply with the Protocol for the return of this delegation, and the day it decides to reopen them, the ELN would appoint its delegates to participate in a restart of the talks.

Dialogue Delegation – ELN, ready and willing to continue negotiations. Havana/Cuba. Photo: Tomás García Laviana / Delegación de Diálogos ELN

SY: If the ELN says it is not a drug trafficking organization, whose laboratories does the Colombian army claim to be dismantling?

PB: Eighty percent of the cocaine that arrives in the United States comes out of the Pacific and operates that way because they bribe the Armed Forces. The same applies if there are large laboratories, they operate near the major cities, like the one confiscated from Ambassador Sanclemente’s hacienda, in the Bogotá leaks. In the remote rural areas there are crops, which are zones where the ELN does exist, because they are impoverished and excluded peasant communities that have been left with no economic option but to grow coca.

SY: How are the Colombian state’s alliances with paramilitary groups carried out for drug trafficking, parapolitics and joint operations against the ELN?

PB: The Gulf Clan has always been on the Caribbean coast, but beginning this year the army moved them to the southwest, to use them as its counterinsurgency arm against the ELN. The same happened with the so-called Pelusos, who are used by the state army as hitmen against us, in a dirty war operation that was acknowledged by General Villegas himself, the commander of the regime’s troops on the Catatumbo border. Another case is that of the Guajira Cartels that camouflage themselves as the arms of the Conservative Party, the Democratic Center and Radical Change, which during the elections exert pressure and buy votes, as happened in 2018, when Duque won the presidency with those votes.

SY: What measures and proposals is the ELN implementing in its control zones and especially to confront the current social and economic crisis that caused the pandemic?

PB: In public statements our leadership has demanded that the government protect the lives of the people, instead of prioritizing the businesses of the big capitalists; that taxes on the rich finance measures for the victims of COVID-19, such as a basic income, relief for debtors and small businesses, improving the provision of the public health system and attending to the serious health crisis in the prisons. In the areas where we are located, our Fronts help to address the pandemic with preventive measures, crowd and law enforcement control, care for those infected and support the trade of food and essential goods.

SY: You criticize the contamination caused by the mining and energy industry in the country. How do you explain the contamination caused by the blasting of the oil pipelines and what do you propose for the country as an alternative to the current mining and energy industry?

PB: We sabotage companies that intensively extract natural resources in order to demand the sovereign management of those resources, which will result in the well-being of the regions and not just profits for the transnational companies. We make such attacks while attempting to cause as little damage as possible to the environment and the population. The era of fossil fuels is expiring and the country must prepare an energy transition, which relies on clean energy sources.

SY: You have stated in several communications that one of the aggravating factors of the social crisis is corruption. What have you done in concrete actions to stop this scourge?

PB: Even in the midst of this pandemic, the Colombian political system, eaten up by corruption, continues to steal public goods that should be destined to serve the entire population; this is a difficult virus to eradicate, which requires a lot of social pressure and also actions of expropriation and deprivation of liberty for the corrupt, such as we have undertaken in various regions.

Sasha Yumbila Paz is a Colombian journalist.

Translation to English: Internacional 360º