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Ceasefire Deal Between Colombia and Rebel Group ELN Ends 6 Decades of Bloodshed

By Mara Lafontaine · August 4, 2023

In brief…

  • A six-month ceasefire agreement commenced Thursday between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's largest guerrilla rebel group.
  • Colombian President Gustavo Petro and ELN leader Israel Ramirez attended a celebratory meeting in Bogotá.
  • The ceasefire is a major step towards ending nearly six decades of conflict in Colombia that has left some 450,000 dead.
  • ELN commanders, previously exiled in Cuba, have returned to Colombia.
  • Seven prior failed peace attempts add to skepticism around the current ceasefire.
  • The United Nations and local Catholic churches will monitor the agreement.
Colombia and the National Liberaton Army (ELN), the nation's largest rebel force, have reached a ceasefire agreement.  Braya234 / CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A six-month bilateral ceasefire agreement commenced Thursday between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s largest guerrilla rebel group. A celebratory meeting was held in Bogota, attended by Colombian President Gustavo Petro and the National Liberation Army leader Israel Ramirez. 

After nearly six decades of conflict in Colombia that has claimed roughly 450,000 lives, the ceasefire with the ELN, agreed upon in June in Havana, is cause for hope of ending the decades of violence.

The ELN commanders, under arrest warrants and previously exiled in Cuba, returned to Colombia to sign the deal following negotiations in Cuba. President Gustavo Petro, who has been in power for nearly a year, has fulfilled his promise of pursuing peace by increasing security and dismantling armed groups. The six-month ceasefire could be extended for another six months as negotiations continue.

“This revolution is on the side of life. Weapons are nothing but an instrument of death. Leave them. Let them rust. It seems to me that those who emerged in 1964 as rebels in other generations today should be here on the side of life, on the side of their people, on the side of transformations. It is time. So welcome to peace,” said President Petro. 

Inspired by Che Guevara, the Marxist-Leninist group ELN was founded by Fabio Vasquéz Castaño in 1964 to defend poor Colombians from the injustices of the state. In 1973, the ELN was nearly decimated by the Colombian military but was able to grow to over 4,000 members in 1999 financed through the drug trade, kidnappings, and illegal gold mining, according to the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Skepticism lingers, however, due to seven failed attempts to negotiate peace with the ELN in the past. The most recent of these failures was marked by the 2019 bombing of a government police academy. Several armed groups that are involved in the drug trade have opposed the ceasefire deal, declaring they will continue to attack the ELN, who in turn vowed to respond.

The United Nations and local Catholic Churches will monitor the ceasefire.