The National Liberation Army (ELN), a left-wing guerrilla and the largest active armed group in Colombia, has declared a unilateral ceasefire beginning 6 am on December 24.
In a video statement on Monday, December 19, the group stated that the move had been declared “to create an atmosphere of peace” for the occasion of Christmas and the New Year. The ceasefire will hold until 6am on January 2, 2023. The ELN stated that it would only extend to the military and police forces, and that the group reserved “the right to defend themselves” in case of an attack.
Welcoming the declaration, Interior Minister Alfonso Prada added that the government was sending a message to all armed groups in the country so that they “pick up on this [call] from the public,” adding that the government was “awaiting pronouncements with the possibility of de-escalating the conflict and sharing a peaceful Christmas” for all Colombians.
The decision has also been appreciated by lawmakers belonging to the Historic Pact, the coalition led by progressive president Gustavo Petro who is in the midst of advancing the landmark “Total Peace” process to end decades of armed conflict in Colombia which has killed around 450,000 people.
“I salute the declaration of the ceasefire by the ELN as a sign of goodwill and [a] contribution to continue building the path of peace in the context of the dialogues that we are carrying out,” said Iván Cepeda Castro, the chair of the Colombian senate’s Peace Commission and a negotiator involved in the talks with the ELN.
Speaking to Caracol Radio, Castro added that the ceasefire helped to generate the conditions of trust necessary for the peace process. The ELN had previously declared a 10-day ceasefire from May 25 to June 3 during the presidential election. It had also announced a one-month ceasefire in March, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fellow Historic Pact senator María José Pizarro Rodríguez also welcomed the development, adding that it was something that had been emphasized at the negotiation table, and that she hoped that such humanitarian actions would deepen and open the path to building total peace in the country.
The unilateral ceasefire was declared soon after the Colombian government and the ELN signed their first agreement in the ongoing peace process, paving the way for the safe return of the Indigenous Embera peoples to their land in Murindó municipality. Both sides also reached an agreement for humanitarian relief measures in Bajo Calima in the Valle del Cauca department and Medio San Juan in Chocó beginning in January, 2023, with the conclusion of the first round of talks on December 12. Since August, the ELN has reportedly also released 20 people being held as hostages.
Talks between the government, now under President Petro, and the guerrilla group had resumed in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on November 21, after four years.
In September 2017, former president Juan Manuel Santos had announced a 102-day bilateral ceasefire with the ELN, the first ever signed by the guerrillas, following peace talks in the capital of Quito, Ecuador. The ceasefire ended in January, 2018. Any further strides towards lasting peace were obstructed under the government of Santos’ far-right successor, Iván Duque who came to office later that year.
Monday’s announcement and the progress of the peace negotiations so far have restored hope that resolution may be within reach.
The ELN is estimated to have over 2,300 known combatants as of 2021. Recent data released by the Ombudsman’s Office indicates that the group has a presence, “is in transit,” or is “intermittently” present in 22 out of Colombia’s 32 departments.
In the Arauca department, fighting between the ELN and dissidents from the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) has killed nearly 350 people and displaced 18,900 this year alone. It is also in conflict with the Clan del Golfo, considered to be Colombia’s largest drug trafficking group, in Chocó.
While the ELN has declared a unilateral ceasefire, it added that it expected that the government would follow suit. Senator Castro has clarified that any such decision must be announced by the minister of defense.
In his address, Prada stated further, “Today we want to forcefully reject the massacres, collective homicides, the homicides of social leaders and the signatories of the 2016 peace agreement, and any type of aggression against any Colombian citizen.”
According to the Institute of Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ), at least 186 social leaders have been assassinated in Colombia in 2022 so far. The toll stands at 1,406 since the peace accords were signed in Havana, Cuba in 2016. Former combatants who were signatories of the agreements have been similarly targeted, with at least 345 killings recorded in the past six years.
By the end of November, 23 armed groups had indicated their intention to join the ‘Total Peace’ process, to “accept legal benefits in exchange for peace and definitive non-repetition of violence”.
Meanwhile, another round of talks between the Petro government and the ELN are set to take place in Mexico in January, 2023. Mexico is also serving as a guarantor of this process along with Cuba, Venezuela, Norway, and Chile.