Last week the National Liberation Army released 6 hostages to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a rural area near the Venezuela border. The hostages included 2 Police officers aged 21-23, who had been held captive for more than three months, and 4 civilians according to reporting by the DW. This was the second ELN hostage release facilitated by the ICRC this month. The other release included two workers of an oil company operating in the Arauca province near the Venezuelan border.
In a statement Thursday, the head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Bucaramanga, Nicolas Lennsens, said, “it is essential for the ICRC to continue to fulfill its humanitarian and neutral role in alleviating the suffering caused by the humanitarian consequences of the conflict and armed violence.” Lennsens also reiterated the ICRC’s commitment to comply with care and prevention measures and protocols, associated with the COVID-19 health crisis when implementing hostage release. Health officials from the ICRC confirmed the hostages were healthy and cleared to them to return to their homes.
Humanitarian and peace making efforts have come under increased tensions in Colombia as COVID-19 prevention measures have forced a large amount of aid workers to stay home. The crisis has also opened up an avenue for President Iván Duque to pull the public’s focus away from his government’s poor implementation of the final stages of the 2016 FARC peace agreement, which was supposed to go beyond disarmament to work on improving infrastructure and economic inequalities at the root of grievances raised by rural rebellions and narco traffickers in Colombia.
Since his presidential campaign in 2018, Duque has expressed opposition to the 2016 FARC peace agreement signed by his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos, stating the agreement was far to lenient of ex-combatants and offered up too many concessions to violent paramilitary groups, who like ELN had resorted to extortion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking to finance their insurgency.
The ELN entered its own set of peace talks with the Colombian government in December 2016, but talks were suspended by the government after the NLA bombed a police academy in the capital, Bogotá, killing more than 20 people in April of 2019. The group is believed to be holding at least 10 more hostages, according to the Colombian government.
Kidnapping and extradition of hostages is a practice the NLA has been using to raise money and gain leverage in its battle for influence and self-determination since the 1960s; however, the players involved in such acts have become much more diffused and disorganized according to the IISS. In their May 2020 report, the IISS explains that the gorilla warfare model used by rebel groups like the NLA, and the recently disarmed FARC operate much differently than they had in the 90s in early 2000s.
The IISS explains that, political motivated actors are increasingly less at the centre of the narco trafficking and extortion rings, with criminal gangs and financially motivated individuals stepping in to fill the void left by former FARC combatants in the region. The result is a much more diffused continuum between opportunist crimes and politically motivated acts of rebels centered out of Colombia’s rural border regions.
In other words it is becoming more difficult for groups like the NLA to enforce a consistent approach to peacemaking, because loosely tied ex-combatants and gang leaders within their trafficking and extortion networks act in line with their own interests, rather than in alliance with the larger political objectives of the organization, as was the case in the 90s and early 2000s. The incoherence in strategy makes enforcement of promises made by NLA leaders in the 2016 peace talk much more difficult.
Another concern expressed by the Kroch Institute is that increased unemployment in Colombia, as a result of the pandemic, will cause a surge in recruitment for groups like the NLA, reasserting the urgency that territorial reform promises, that focus on alleviating inequality, made in the FARC peace agreement will continue to be implemented. The Kroch Institute’s comprehensive assessment of armed conflicts around the world concludes that peacemaking strategies that focus on improving quality of life. and reintegration of ex-combatants have shown to be the most effective means to peace building.
The recent set of hostage releases by the NLA is a sign that the armed group of around 2,000 soldiers is interested in resuming peace talks; however, President Duque says he will not consider resuming peace talks with the ELN until all other hostages are released and the marxist-inspired paramilitary group commits to stop all kidnappings.