- As the clock ran out on a 3-month ceasefire with the government on January 10, Colombia’s second largest oil pipeline was bombed by the last remaining Marxist insurgent group in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
- The ELN has targeted the 485-mile oil pipeline numerous times since the 1980s.
- Attacks on the pipeline have caused an estimated 1.5 million gallons of oil to be spilled, just since 2000.
BOGOTA, Colombia – A renewed conflict could once again be on the horizon after leftist rebels resumed bombing Colombia’s 485-mile oil pipeline early January 10, only a few hours after the 101-day ceasefire expired.
The unprecedented ceasefire was between the country’s last remaining Marxist insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the government. It followed the end of a 53-year conflict between the state and the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
There has long been trouble over the pipeline. The ELN has targeted the country’s second largest Caño-Limon oil pipeline since the late 1980s as means to finance its insurgency by extorting oil companies. It has also used the strategy of pressuring the government into nationalizing Colombian industry and distributing wealth more evenly.
Rebels have attacked it over 1,000 times and put it out of commission for a total of 10 years, according to a statement from the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol.
These attacks have caused an estimated 1.5 million gallons of oil to be spilled since 2000 alone.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos condemned Wednesday’s “terrorist attacks” and suspended peace talks with the group, which had been underway in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito for the last three years. Santos also recalled the chief peace negotiator, Gustavo Bell, to Colombia and told the armed forces to respond with “force” should there be another attack.
Following the government’s U-turn, the ELN’s chief negotiator, Pablo Beltran, reaffirmed the ELN’s desire to negotiate and implored Santos to consider another ceasefire.
While things remain uncertain, the UN Security Council, which has a peacekeeping mission in Colombia, has called for restraint. In a statement, the Council noted that they, “…hoped that the Government of Colombia and ELN would resume work to agree a renewal and strengthening of the ceasefire…” at a Security Council meeting on January 10. The UN has been monitoring the peace process since September 2017.
Many observers of the peace talks with the ELN hoped that there would be an extension of the ceasefire, and in the first week of January, public figures and civil society groups petitioned the government and rebels to uphold it.
Colombians who are still living in conflict zones have the most to lose from continued violence: the civil war has claimed the lives of over 200,000 and displaced 7 million. Experts believe that the breakdown of peace talks would entail an escalation of war.
But Bruce Bagely, an expert on the Colombian conflict and professor at the University of Miami, says he is cautiously optimistic.
“The ELN attack was meant to underscore the need to extend the ceasefire and to remind Santos that the ELN has not been defeated and that the Colombian government must take the negotiations seriously,” Bagely said in an interview. He referred to a perceived lack of will on behalf of the government thus far in peace talks.
The ELN began hostilities against the state in 1964, when a group of university students and radicalized priests inspired by the Cuban Revolution took up arms in order to establish a Marxist Leninist state. Today, it is believed there is between three to four thousand active fighters, though the government puts the number at less than 2,000.
Banner image: A rebel’s weapon and holster. The ELN mostly uses M16, AK47s and Ghalils, Noanamá, Chocó. Photo by Maximo Anderson/Mongabay.
Maximo Anderson is a freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Colombia. You can find him on Twitter at @MaximoLamar.
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