Conflicts & War

ELN negotiator: ‘Enemies hiding under the table’ during Colombia peace talks

By Alfonso Fernandez

Mexico City, Mar 3 (EFE).- One week before the second round of peace talks here between leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s administration and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas draws to a close, the rebels’ chief negotiator, 69-year-old Pablo Beltran, spoke to Efe about the expectations for a bilateral cease-fire and the current level of trust between the two sides.

– Question: What does it mean to be negotiating as the last armed insurgency in Latin America?

– Answer: It’s a very big responsibility … We have a lot of eyes on us. There’s a famous national writer, William Ospina, who says it’s become customary in Colombia to make peace nothing more than demobilizing a guerrilla group, blaming them for everything that happened, and nothing changes. Not rewriting that same script is a major challenge.

– Q: And the fact that you’re negotiating with Colombia’s first leftist government? Does that make it easier or more difficult?

– A: Unprecedented, because it’s a mixed bag They’re a progressive government with which we have much in common in terms of the urgency and the priority of seeking peace. But at the same time, they represent a state in which many elements of the old regime still carry a lot of weight. It’s a mixed bag. And dealing with that type of delegation is more challenging.

– Q: What seems clear is the two sides’ different level of urgency. More patience on the ELN side, more urgency on the government side. How does that affect the talks?

– A: There’s a very simple phrase that sums up why we’re out of sync. You have to act both expeditiously and rigorously. Sometimes, the government is in a hurry like all governments are. It only has a four-year clock. But it’s also the case that in Colombia’s current transition the government is eager to show results, and the sectors that are, let’s say, less in favor of the changes, are eager to not let them advance.

– Q: Has there been an easing of tensions since President Petro’s famous tweet about a bilateral cease-fire agreement, which the ELN denied?

– A: Yes, we talked, and we told them that the ELN complies with what it agrees to and signs. What we haven’t discussed and agreed to, doesn’t apply to us … That first crisis served its purpose, and the level of trust is now higher.

– Q: Can a cease-fire be agreed upon at the talks in Mexico?

– A: There’s a big problem with the cease-fire. The tricky part is in saying what’s prohibited and what isn’t … Our goal in this round in Mexico is to at least arrive at the essence of what the cease-fire is.

– Q: This week, a Colombian police report was released warning of the possibility of ELN attacks.

– A: That was a dirty trick … They took an internal document and took some elements from it and added other unscrupulous things. And with that they made a hodgepodge that they’re selling. That’s customary with certain Colombian intelligence agencies. I told them at the negotiating table: that’s about creating a panic. Be careful with that.

– Q: And what’s the purpose? To sabotage the peace process?

– A: Of course. To create a bad climate at the negotiating table. In Colombia, a phrase was used in one of the first peace processes. It said there are always enemies hiding under the table.

– Q: Has ELN’s removal from the European Union’s list of terrorist groups been discussed now that Spain is also an “accompanying country” to the peace talks?

– A: We’ve already put that item forward … It’s very important that Spain will be taking over the presidency of the (Council of the) EU at mid-year, and we think that request will be in good hands. For us, it’s very important that we’re off that list.

– Q: What are the expectations for the end of the round in Mexico?

– A: We’re determined to make progress at the table despite the hidden enemies, but we’re also aware the government is under fire due to different situations. It’s a transitional government, you could say, and that has an impact on the negotiating table. If it stays resolved and maintains its political will, I think a good agreement can be reached with this government. EFE

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