By Mateo García Agudelo, EL TIEMPO, April 2, 2023


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

After the attack perpetrated by the ELN this week in Catatumbo that left nine soldiers dead, the peace process with this group of guerrillas is in crisis. President Gustavo Petro called his delegates to an extraordinary meeting in the Presidential Palace to assess what may come next for the process.

Among the conclusions from the meeting, said Senator Iván Cepeda, a peace negotiator, in an interview with EL TIEMPO, is that it’s necessary to establish whether the ELN is really willing to have peace. How can that be done? With a bilateral ceasefire and the suspension of hostilities.

“It’s indispensable that there be total openness on whether the guerrillas are just using this process to increase their military strength, or if the genuine purpose is to reach an end to the conflict. He asked for total frankness, in order to be able to see where the process is going. “Clearly,” said Petro, “without that basic premise, and if what’s going on is that they’re following a dynamic of fooling the country in some way, and if there’s a loss of confidence and credibility in the process, then, obviously this is going to fail,” he concluded.

What was concluded after the meeting with the negotiators and the guarantors that took place Friday night at the Palace?

The President gave some very exact instructions about what has to be done to keep the peace process going. Precisely, he indicated, after he made a historic analysis of all the processes with the ELN, what’s indispensable is that there be total openness about whether the guerrillas are using this process to build up their military power, or if their genuine purpose is to reach an end to the conflict. He demanded complete clarity in order to be able to see where this process is going. He said in plain language that if this basic premise does not exist and what’s going on is they’re following a dynamic where they’re fooling the country in some way, and if there’s a loss of confidence and credibility in the process, then, obviously, it’s going to fail.

How will you be able to reach that conclusion?

The President asked that the delegation in the next cycle in Havana, first and foremost, make this point abundantly clear. He said that in Colombia, there have been two types of processes. Some have had an understanding by the armed groups and also by the government itself, sometimes, that it would be used to accumulate military strength. And those processes did not lead to peace. And other processes that did have success, were successful because the purpose had been entirely clear. Petro asked that this clarity be firmly established.

And how will it be established?

It’s not simply a declaration. There have to be actions, and the President asked that in the next cycle they reach two agreements that will give the process some guarantees and the serious attitude that those guarantees require. It’s not that up to now the talks have not been conducted seriously, but that we do need to have an agreement on ceasefire and on cessation of hostilities. And he pointed out the necessity that there also be a cessation of hostilities, because the population, the economic infrastructure, and the countryside are suffering the effects of the actions by the ELN. It’s a good thing to have a ceasefire, but obviously there also has to be a cessation of hostilities if we want to advance the peace by cutting down the actions that hurt the population.

Do you think the ELN really want peace?

We have reached new agreements in just two months. One of those, and the most important one, is the agreement in México on the new agenda for peace that contains six points for dialog, but at the same time such an important event as that took place, there were acts of violence. Here we don’t just need to sign agreements, just make statements, we need actions. The people, after six decades of armed conflict, are naturally skeptical. And if there are no actions that demonstrate that this time we are serious, then obviously the process will be exhausted. The President was crystal clear on that. The peace process has to gain quickly all of the necessary credibility, and to obtain that credibility, there have to be real demonstrations of what we are saying.

And that is the ceasefire….

The thing is to have a ceasefire, but also to cease hostilities. It’s not enough that there be no more offensive actions between the guerrillas and the Armed Forces and Police. There has to be more, there has to be a halt of every kind of violent action against the population. He was particularly clear about that. Now, we will see how that negotiation goes, but that is the instruction we have.

If you can’t reach a bilateral ceasefire, do we start to talk about a crisis? What will happen?

The crisis is already here; now we have to get out of it. What we need, specifically, is that what’s coming has to be different from what’s happening now. What if that doesn’t happen? We will have to make a reasonable assessment. There are no classic formulations when there is no context.

The Interior Minister, Alfonso Prada, has said that there’s a possibility of halting the dialogs. Is there a possibility of halting the dialogs?

The President has not mentioned that possibility. We have talked specifically about how the cycle is going to go at this time, and about the demands being made and about the precautions we have to take so that the process doesn’t get exhausted. So that is the point we are at; the Ministers make statements, but the President is directing the process.

Is it less difficult with the ELN because the President is a leftist?

No. What the President is, is a man committed to peace and who, in his political and personal life, has demonstrated consistency in that purpose. He comes from a peace process, he has carried out the agreements he made at the time, more than 30 years ago, and he is consistent. Now, he said this several days ago: don’t misinterpret the government’s generosity and willingness to make peace with cowardly acts. The President has already demonstrated that, he did that a few weeks ago in Bajo Cauca, that when he has to make drastic decisions on the matter of public order, he will make them unhesitatingly.

Is there any hope that this will turn out well?

Yes, we are feeling both calm and conviction. Peace processes are not easy, they have their times of crisis. We have to be poised, stay cool, and although it makes us feel terribly indignant about what happened in Catatumbo, we are also aware of our responsibility to nurture the peace process, because if Colombia enters into a new cycle of violence, the deaths will be counted in the thousands.

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