Colombia's second-biggest guerrilla group says exploratory talks with the government are very advanced and the “peace train” could start soon, but warns any deal to end half a century of war will have to rule out jail time for the rebels.
The 2,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN) has been engaged in closed-door negotiations with the government for 15 months to draw up terms that could lead to a formal peace process. The preliminary talks were kept under wraps for months, and first revealed last June.
The two sides have now agreed 80 percent of the agenda for actual peace talks, Nicolas Rodriguez, leader of the Marxist group, told Reuters.
“There's 20 percent left to agree, that's what's missing to establish a negotiating table,” he said in a video filmed at a hidden jungle camp in response to written questions from Reuters. “The peace train can start soon.”
Rodriguez's comments come as pressure mounts for President Juan Manuel Santos to conclude two-year-old peace talks with the far larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and to show progress with the ELN.
Although peace with the two groups is unlikely to put a complete end to violence in a country that is also ravaged by unrest related to its huge cocaine production, it would allow economic development in once-off-limits areas and shift more military resources to fighting growing criminal gangs.
Asked about the interview, the president's office declined to comment, given the talks are confidential.
Looking worn after decades fighting for the Marxist group across inhospitable terrain, Rodriguez, 65, appeared in the video seated and framed by flags on either side, one Colombia's and the other bearing the black, red and white ELN emblem. He held a rifle over his lap.
Rodriguez declined a face-to-face interview, citing security reasons, and responded to about half of the 26 questions.
Any discussions with Rodriguez's group are expected to take a similar format to the talks with the FARC that are under way in Cuba and end with rebel leaders able to participate in politics.
No to Jail
An ELN fighter since he was 14, Rodriguez has a $2.5 million bounty on his head and dozens of warrants against him for murder, kidnapping, rebellion and terrorism. He refused to consider serving jail time as part of an eventual agreement.
“No way, if we've avoided prison for over 50 years fighting a powerful military, it's absurd to think we would go to jail for seeking a political solution to the conflict.”
“That's absurd!” he said, dressed in olive-green fatigues and flanked by three heavily armed fighters.
Santos, in office since 2010, has staked his reputation on getting a peace deal with rebels and his re-election last year became a referendum on the talks, splitting the nation between supporters and those who charge that he has offered the FARC too many concessions.
Critics of the negotiations fear peace deals with the ELN and FARC may violate international treaties by effectively pardoning war crimes and that victims will turn to international courts for redress.
Santos has said the FARC's rejection of international laws that stipulate they pay for their crimes is the biggest hurdle to clinching a peace accord with that group. But the ELN's Rodriguez said that condition is unacceptable.
The ELN veteran said his forces would be willing to clear the country of millions of land mines that have been dotted across Colombia by the two rebel groups, killing and maiming dozens each year and stunting rural development.
More than 220,000 people have died in the conflict between the government, the ELN, the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries.
The ELN has battled a dozen governments since it was founded in 1964 and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. It has continued kidnapping and attacks on infrastructure even as the talks continue.
Inspired by Cuba's 1959 revolution and established by radical Catholic priests, the ELN was close to disappearing in the 1970s but steadily gained power again.
The ELN has sought peace before, holding talks in Cuba and Venezuela between 2002 and 2007. Experts say there was a lack of will on both sides to agree a final peace plan.