Tensions rise over border violence as Ecuador pulls out as mediator between Colombia and ELN

By Arjun Harindranath April 20, 2018

Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Distressing developments along the border have resulted in the government of Ecuador pulling out as mediator between Colombia and the ELN. The move came as a surprise to the Colombian government who had been coordinating efforts in capturing rebel leaders following the abduction and murder of three press workers last week.

President Juan Manuel Santos had been in Quito when the surprise announcement was made by President Lenin Moreno of Ecuador on television news channel NTN 24.

President Moreno said that “I have asked the chancellor to cease these talks and to suspend our role as guarantor of the peace process for the duration that the ELN refuses to commit to ending these terrorist acts.”

The talks between the Colombian government and the ELN had been ongoing since February 7 2017 and had been fraught with tension given frequent blockades and attacks by the ELN on oil infrastructure and police officers.

Colombia will now be seeking another neutral venue to continue negotiations with the ELN. The other options on the table include Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Norway and Cuba, the last being where the historic peace accord with the FARC was signed. As guarantors of the peace in this region, these countries will have to come together to decide on an appropriate venue for continued talks on the ELN.

Although the killings and abductions of recent weeks have had nothing to do with the ELN, the growing violence seems to have swayed President Moreno’s decision. Last week, the murder of three men, who had been employed by Ecuadorean daily El Comercio, shocked the world with the Committee to Protect Journalists calling for Colombian and Ecuadorean authorities to “ensure all those responsible to face justice.” More distressingly, two further people, Óscar Villacís Gómez and Katty Velasco Pinargote, have since been abducted by the guerilla group Frente Oliver Sinisterra in the small Colombian town of Puerto Rico. A video has surfaced showing them pleading for their lives in a similar fashion to the three men who had been executed. Despite the pleas made directly to the President of Ecuador, President Lenin Moreno was adamant that no deals would be cut with the group.”We will not accept their conditions,” he confirmed yesterday.

Who are Frente Oliver Sinisterra?

Named after former FARC rebel leader Oliver Sinisterra–who was from Nariño and died in 2015–the group are an offshoot of the FARC following the latter’s historic decision to make peace with the Colombian government. Following the FARC’s laying down of arms and entry into politics, Frente Oliver Sinisterra was formed and led by Walter Arizala (aka Guacho in the local media), and continued to profit  from narcotrafficking routes in Nariño. Guacho, who had been head of the rebel unit Frente 29 before it had been renamed, has a USD$100,000 bounty on his head as security forces intensify efforts to effect his capture. Earlier this week, coordinating security forces were able to capture Brayan, a high-level member of the organisation.

The rebel group had specifically begun targeting Ecuadorean nationals due to the country’s continued offensive against the rebels. Recently, Ecuador had amped up security measures against rebel activities on the frontier. The National Police of Ecuador have confirmed that 43 prisoners of the rebel group were in their custody.

It has been commonplace for the media to refer to ELN as the ‘last remaining rebel army.’ With talks in Ecuador now suspended and the worrying violent developments over the last 2 weeks, Colombia may now be witnessing the rise of another.