The National Liberation Army (ELN) is the third-largest kidnapper in Colombia, after common criminals and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest terrorist group.
As of August, the ELN was responsible for 9% of the 179 kidnapping cases in the country this year, while the FARC was responsible for 12%, common criminals accounted for 76% and other criminal organizations 3%, according to Humberto Guatibonza, the National Police’s director of Colombia’s anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion Group (GAULA).
The ELN has justified its kidnappings through videos and on its website, saying it uses “retentions” to finance its criminal activities and make the terrorist group more powerful.
“We retain a wealthy individual and we charge them bail for being an exploiter. The government also demands bail payments, so why is only one party being admonished?” asked ELN First Commander Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista in an interview published in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador.
The ELN generally kidnaps the same amount of victims as the FARC, which historically has used money made from abductions – and extortions – to fund their criminal agenda. But the FARC has kept its promise to abate kidnappings since it started negotiations with the Colombian government to reach a peace agreement in Havana, Cuba, in November.
Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón said the government will enter peace talks with the ELN in “the coming days.”
Garzón said peace talks will be held outside Colombia and not in Havana, Cuba.
“The government has decided not to mix pears and apples,” he said, emphasizing discussions with the ELN and FARC are separate matters.
President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration “remains firm in the proposition of seeking peace for Colombia,” Garzón added.
Santos mandated that the ELN, which has about 1,500 guerrillas, cease kidnappings and release all hostages before his administration would enter the peace process.
“The ELN is interested in starting talks with the government. However, its position with regard to kidnapping complicates the situation because unlike the FARC, it has not shown any major unilateral gestures in order to make progress at the negotiating table,” said Luis Celis, an analyst of conflict and peace issues for the NGO Corporación Nuevo Arcoiris.
On Aug. 27, the ELN released Canadian citizen Jernoc Wobert, the vice president of exploration with Braeval Mining Corporation. He was kidnapped on Jan. 18 along with two Peruvians and three Colombians who worked for the mining company headquartered in Toronto, Canada.
The South Americans were released a month later. However, the ELN kept Wobert, demanding Braeval relinquish its mining rights in Colombia, which the company did in July.
“We welcome and appreciate the release of the Canadian citizen being held by the ELN,” Santos tweeted after Wobert’s release. “With this release, a step has been taken in the right direction.”
Celis said the ELN must prove it is willing to participate in the peace process.
“Putting a stop to the kidnappings and using a more forthcoming and less demanding discourse would be other fundamental conditions for engaging in talks with the ELN,” Celis added.
The numbers behind the kidnappings
Speaking through his press office, Guatibonza said it’s more difficult to carry out “successful” kidnappings than it was 10 years ago because victims are more likely to file a report and police rescue about 70% of victims.
The number of kidnappings in 2013 reached the lowest level in 30 years in Colombia, with 179 abductions during the first half of 2013, compared with 305 during the same period in 2012.
Minors are most affected by kidnappings, with 38 cases in 2013. Business owners also are targeted, as 26 have been abducted so far this year, according to GAULA.
Miriam Jimeno, the director of the Social Conflict and Violence research group at Universidad Nacional de Colombia, said kidnappings put the FARC and ELN in a negative light, enrage the public and are detrimental to the peace process.
“At this point in the negotiations, it is essential that the parties adhere to a language of human rights and democratic means,” she added. “Otherwise, it will be difficult for the ELN to find an interlocutor.”