With Pope Francis set to arrive in Colombia on Wednesday for a five-day visit, hopes are high that lasting peace can be achieved between the government and the country’s second oldest rebel group.
Francis, who repeatedly expressed his support towards the peace deal achieved last year with what was the country’s largest armed guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will be encouraging the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) to settle their differences after they signed a temporary cease-fire deal Monday.
But the task ultimately falls to the two sides to achieve an end to hostilities that have endured for over 50 years.
“Now the goal is to fulfill our words,” Pablo Beltran, a member of ELN’s leadership and its chief negotiator in the peace talks, told Anadolu Agency.
When FARC brokered a peace with the government late last year many Colombians called it an “incomplete peace” because the ELN was still armed and expanding in the country.
Beltran put the blame for the ELN’s exclusion from the FARC peace talks squarely on Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who he said pursued a “divide and conquer” policy with the talks.
Five previous attempts dating back to 1980 to end the violence between the rebel group and government have ended in failure.
Francis’ visit, two days after the ELN and Bogota brokered the historic ceasefire, is a recognition of the importance of the ongoing talks, Beltran said.
“We know that in addition to the accompaniment that the Episcopal Conference has given the process, there is a willingness that comes directly from the Vatican to support these negotiations,” he said. “It’s not just the Pope’s visit; there is a will to accompany the peace process over a long period of time.”
The Bishop of Rome and the Catholic Church have long supported efforts to end the violence in Colombia.
Formed in 1964, the ELN is estimated to have around 2,500 fighters among its ranks who are strategically placed throughout the country, including in economically vital oil producing areas.
This year the oil pipelines have suffered 47 attacks, said Ecopetrol, the largest oil producing company in the country. Many of them have been at the hands of ELN fighters.
The ceasefire will take effect October 1 and last until January 12. It is open to additional extensions as each deadline nears.
The agreement between the ELN and Colombian forces is unique insofar as it affords the belligerents full mobility, Beltran said, warning that the parameters present challenges for both sides to prevent potential clashes.
“In a conflict like the one we have in Colombia, where there are so many armed forces of different kinds, it’s very risky. But we have the willingness for the truce to be honored and for the peace negotiations to advance,” he said.
Going forward, “this process should help to look for some basic and urgent social transformations that will make the armed conflict no longer necessary,” he said.
“The other goal is to remove violence from politics. If we advance in those two big objectives, the process will have a great development,” Beltran added.