In September 2017, two days before Pope Francis’s visit to Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the National Liberation Army (ELN), active for 53 years, had agreed to a bilateral ceasefire, effective from 1 October 2017 through 12 January 2018, as the first step of a potential peace process. The terms of the ceasefire require the ELN to end its offensive activities, including attacks on the Colombian military, kidnapping, extortion, and the targeted destruction of oil pipelines and other public infrastructure. The Pope visited during one of the most peaceful periods in the country’s history, as FARC, the country’s largest and most politically significant guerrilla group, had entered the implementation phase of a peace accord brokered over the last five years.
The Pope’s call for justice, forgiveness and reconciliation prior to his visit set the tone for an ELN-focused process aimed at both eliminating the armed activities of guerrilla insurgencies altogether, and bringing a decisive end to a protracted conflict that has resulted in more than 220,000 deaths and caused the internal displacement of over 5.7 million civilians during the past half-century. Although the ELN includes fewer than 1,500 active fighters – far fewer than FARC, which had between 7,000 and 10,000 – its considerable capacity for political violence has affected all sectors of the population. The ELN, focusing on commercial and industrial targets, has executed over 1,200 attacks and killed at least 1,000 people. The temporary ceasefire signals the willingness of the guerrillas to negotiate at a crucial and contentious juncture in Colombian politics. Simultaneous peace accords could challenge the capacity of Santos’s government and the broader Colombian state to make good on its promises of greater security and stability, and sustain the general population’s support for the peace process.