IN 2016 Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel peace prize for his peace deal with the FARC guerrillas. The group handed over its arms and entered democratic politics, and Colombia’s former president was credited with ending 50 years of armed conflict.
Such triumphalism was both justified and premature. Although the FARC were Colombia’s largest guerrilla force, they were not the only one. And now that the FARC have demobilised, the National Liberation Army (ELN), a still-formidable leftist insurgency, has stepped into the breach. The year after the treaty with the FARC was finalised, the ELN more than doubled its attacks on security forces. The group is on track for its most violent year since records began in 1986.
As the Colombian government’s main adversary has changed, so too has its leadership. On August 7th Iván Duque was sworn in as Mr Santos’s successor. The new president campaigned on criticising the agreement with the FARC as too lenient. Now he must confront the same dilemma that Mr Santos faced, weighing society’s demands for justice and punishment against the costs of continued war.
In his inauguration speech, Mr Duque said he would take 30 days to evaluate peace talks with the ELN. He has backed off a demand that the group’s members gather in designated zones before negotiations begin, but still insists that they release all hostages as a pre-condition for further discussions. The group has already freed some of its captives—including a group of six on September 12th—but is still believed to hold ten people. On September 8th Mr Duque said he would not resume talks.
With just 2,000 fighters, the ELN pales in comparison with the FARC, who were once 18,000 strong. With the FARC out of the way, Mr Duque can focus his counter-insurgency resources on a far weaker target. Yet the ELN might still prove harder to defeat militarily. Unlike the FARC, ELN members dress and live as civilians in towns and cities. None of its urban cells have contact with the others, preventing them from informing on distant comrades.
The only people with full knowledge of the ELN’s operations are the five members of its central command, which has been difficult to penetrate. Colombian authorities are not believed to know the whereabouts of Jaime Galvis (known as “Ariel”), who masterminds the ELN’s attacks in major cities, such as a bomb that killed five policemen in the coastal city of Barranquilla earlier this year. And the ELN’s strong encryption system has prevented the army from extracting information from seized computers, as it did with the FARC.
As unappealing as Mr Duque’s military options are, a negotiated peace might be even harder to achieve than a forced surrender. Nobody knows if or when the ELN will free its remaining hostages, some of whom were kidnapped long ago and could be dead. Even if they are released, Mr Duque has more red lines: he says he will only discuss disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, and refuses to consider political demands.
That is unacceptable to the ELN. Its leaders are far more ideological than the FARC’s were, and have never engaged seriously in peace talks. It has already de-emphasised armed struggle in favour of planting covert operatives in political parties, local governments, progressive social movements and universities. It is now thought to have at least as many unarmed members as fighters, and says it will not give up their identities in any peace process.
Like the FARC before it, the ELN also benefits from an external sponsor in the left-wing dictatorship led by Nicolás Maduro in neighbouring Venezuela. Its commanders are thought to have planned attacks in their home country for decades from the safety of training camps just across the border, and have established new drug-trafficking routes to export cocaine through Venezuela. Recent reports of American officials discussing coup plans with Venezuelan army officers have increased the ELN’s importance for Mr Maduro, says Kyle Johnson of the International Crisis Group, an NGO. The Venezuelan dictator reportedly believes he may need the guerrilla group to fight for his survival.
No one knows how much influence Mr Maduro exerts over the ELN. But if the group is in fact becoming his cat’s paw in Colombia, it is unlikely to strike a peace deal while he remains in power. Most Colombians who voted for Mr Duque wanted a harder line against domestic guerrilla groups. They may not have been expecting a proxy war as part of the bargain.