On March 30, the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second-largest leftist militant group, formally opened peace negotiations with the Colombian government. The talks, which will take place in Ecuador, cap a three-year process of preliminary negotiation
and became possible when a faction of the ELN, the Domingo Lain Front, agreed to participate. If the talks are successful, political violence in Colombia should wane, but some risks from future criminal activity will remain.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is in the final stages of formal peace talks with the government, a factor that put pressure on the ELN, which, with about 3,000 members nationwide, is significantly smaller than the FARC. Because of its small size, refusing to negotiate would have enhanced prospects for the ELN's destruction by the Colombian military.
A major factor delaying the ELN peace talks was division within the militant group. The Colombian government was unwilling to negotiate with only a portion of the ELN. The Domingo Lain Front, one of the most active ELN units in the country, refused to join
the peace negotiations — that is, until now. With the entire ELN now willing to discuss peace, the question turns to how and when a deal will be reached.
The ELN will now have to discuss key issues like demobilization and amnesty with the government, as the FARC did. Whether the group goes through its own lengthy discussions with negotiators or is allowed to join the same transitional justice mechanisms established for the FARC last year will likely be a negotiating point.
Reports indicate that the FARC and the ELN have brokered a political alliance to try to influence both sets of talks. It is plausible that that kind of political coordination may have contributed to joint operations between the FARC and the ELN to continue pressuring the government, as some sources have claimed. The alliance would make sense from both groups' points of view. Given the ELN's small size, association with the FARC would aid the group in remaining relevant enough to pressure the government into a negotiation. The FARC, on the other hand, could continue employing the ELN, which has not yet signed a cease-fire agreement with the state, to place additional pressure through armed attacks.
Tactical alliances between the ELN and the FARC pose some limited risks from criminal gangs, although a successful deal with both insurgencies would drastically reduce politically motivated violence in Colombia. The ELN and the FARC have alliances in the departments of Narino, Arauca, Choco, Cauca, Norte de Santander and Antioquia. Such alliances could remain in place if both groups sign peace deals with the state; some of the militants in those areas are involved in lucrative extortion, theft and cocaine smuggling operations. There, the combination of FARC and ELN rebels pooling resources and criminal experience after signing their respective peace agreements would form scattered criminal groups. They would not pose much of a threat to the state at a national level, but localized security concerns will likely remain, even as the ELN joins the FARC on the path to peace.