Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group says it wants to start negotiations with the government after 50 years of war, but said it's not planning to lay down its weapons or give up the fight just yet.
"We have a plan A, which is to back a political solution with our heart and soul," National Liberation Army [ELN] leader Pablo Beltran said in a widely anticipated radio address on Wednesday. "But we also have a plan B in case that doesn't work out. And we are ready for both outcomes."
Beltran's announcement comes after six months of exploratory talks between the ELN and the Colombian government. Still, no formal peace process exists between the two. Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC, started peace talks with the government in October of 2012 to discuss issues including rural development plans and ways to involve the guerrillas in local politics. In December, the FARC announced it has stopped military operations “indefinitely” to facilitate the ongoing talks.
Now the ELN appears ready to talk too. The group said it trusts the government’s efforts to initiate peace talks, but has repeatedly ignored the government's call for a ceasefire.
The ELN, with an estimated fighting force or around 2,000, has been significantly debilitated over the past 10 years. Still, the group continues to conduct military operations in Colombia’s eastern plains, where they have staged dozens of attacks on oil pipelines, and in the jungles of Colombia’s Pacific coast.
According to Colombian intelligence, a significant amount of the ELN’s financing comes from extortion payments levied upon oil companies that operate in eastern Colombia.
Founded in the early 1960’s by a coalition of leftist priests, middle class intellectuals and rural workers, the ELN claims to represent the interests of Colombian campesinos and union workers.
In a communique released on Wednesday, the group said it will continue to fight for political changes that will lead to “justice, democracy, equality and happiness.”
The ELN did not elaborate on what specific issues it is willing to negotiate in future peace talks.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.