The recent kidnapping of several foreigners by Colombia’s leftist ELN guerrilla group may, paradoxically, be aimed at prodding the government into peace talks, analysts say.
The government is already carrying out peace negotiations in Havana with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Farc, but President Juan Manuel Santos has not been keen to extend the negotiations to the lesser-known ELN.
The ELN, which professes to be eager for peace talks and has even formed a negotiating team, has meanwhile embarked on a wave of kidnappings and attacks on infrastructure in recent weeks, in what could be a bid for attention.
“One of their objectives is to draw attention to the peace negotiations,” said Leon Valencia, a former ELN guerilla who now leads an NGO specialising in armed conflict.
“They want in. But resorting to kidnapping to link up to a negotiating table is a very misguided course of action,” he said.
There have been other missteps as well. Santos rebuked the ELN for publicizing behind-the-scenes contacts with the government last year, pouring cold water on the prospects for talks.
The government wants the ELN to first renounce kidnappings of civilians as a tactic, as the FARC has done, and agree on all agenda items, Valencia says.
“It appears that the government, based on information that has come out, has suspended contacts with the ELN since October, and I think they are responding with these types of actions,” he said.
ELN rebels have blown up sections of oil pipelines and on January 18 kidnapped six mining company employees, including a Canadian and two Peruvians. On Monday, they said they have been holding two Germans for weeks.
Jairo Libreros, a security expert, said the kidnapping of foreigners was a “political blunder.”
“They bet on a political kidnapping, hoping for an international payoff, and they miscalculated. They are not going to get one,” said Libreros, a professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia.
A German government source told the newspaper El Tiempo that Germany would not be interceding with Bogota to get it to open a dialogue with the ELN.
The ELN said the two Germans it is holding were captured in an area near the Venezuelan border and accused them of being spies, which Santos denied. The German embassy said they were tourists.
But Valencia, who was an ELN member for more than 20 years, said the group has been gaining strength by tapping lucrative sources of funding like illegal gold mining, extortion and petrol smuggling along the Venezuelan border.
“War is waged with money,” he said. “Now they have big camps, arms, uniforms and the capacity to conduct actions in some areas. It’s very worrying.”
The ELN, which is estimated to have some 2,500 fighters, has been active for 48 years, although it has often been overshadowed by the larger, slightly older Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).
According to Valencia, the two rebel groups currently enjoy excellent relations after years of clashes, but they still have ideological differences.
The ELN was inspired mainly by the Cuban revolution and the ideas of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. But it was also influenced by the Catholic Liberation Theology movement and guerilla-priests like Camilo Torres and the Spaniard Manuel Perez.
Its political agenda under current leader Nicolas Rodriguez, known as Gabino, “has to do with nationalism and the control of natural resources more than the land, which is a concern of the Farc,” said Valencia.
Libreros sees the ELN as a more pragmatic organisation than the Farc, which adheres to a Marxist-Leninist ideology, but says it is also more “isolated from real life,” which could complicate efforts to negotiate a peace.
The government’s four previous attempts to negotiate peace with the ELN ended without success.